Joseph M. HorriganAn old favorite for bigger, better biceps
The bench press and the curl are the two most popular lifts in any gym, whether it’s a professional gym, a home gym or a college or high school weight room. There are many versions of curls: barbell curls with a straight bar or cambered bar, standing or seated dumbbell curls, preacher curls, incline curls, concentration curls, reverse curls, hammer curls and—one that’s rarely discussed—spider curls.
The spider curl earned most of its limited popularity from bodybuilding legend Sergio Oliva. For those readers who are not familiar with Oliva, he was the three-time Mr. Olympia when a newcomer named Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived on the professional scene. Oliva and Schwarzenegger had bodies that were very different, but both were worthy winners. Oliva was known for his incredible mass, full muscle bellies and small pelvis and waist.
One of Oliva’s favorite exercises was the spider curl. He made it as well known as Larry Scott made the preacher curl, which became known as the Scott curl. The spider curl is somewhat similar to the preacher curl but has a completely different feel. A bench is used for the spider curl, but instead of being angled anywhere from 45 to 60 degrees, the padded back is vertical. You lean over the spider curl bench and place the back of your upper arm against the vertical pad. Then you lower the barbell or dumbbell carefully. If you lower the weight too quickly, you risk significant hyperextension in your elbow.
Trainees who perform the spider curl describe feeling the effect “in the middle of the biceps muscle.” We know that it’s not possible to separate portions of a cylindrical muscle. The entire muscle contracts during any curl. That description is most likely the feeling of the biceps performing all the work because the spider curl bench doesn’t let other muscles assist (except for other elbow flexors such as the brachialis and the brachioradialis).
Similarly, trainees often state that the preacher curl targets the “lower biceps” and point to the obvious pump in the lower arm. The preacher curl actually slightly reduces the recruitment of the biceps and targets the muscle under the biceps, the brachialis, on the lower part of the upper arm. As the brachialis pumps, it pushes the lower biceps upward, creating the illusion of isolating the lower biceps.
When trainees perform standing barbell curls, it’s easy to see how other muscles assist the movement and how momentum can contribute. The spider curl eliminates those contributing factors.
The spider curl also presents relatively few injury risks—the main one being elbow hyperextension at the bottom of the curl if the weight is dropped too quickly. When that happens, the ligaments—which attach bone to bone—on the front of the elbow are subject to overstretch or even partial tear. The other risk, although minor in comparison, is that the bony prominence at the back of the elbow can become irritated and develop bursitis, which would cause swelling. The key to avoiding bursitis is to make sure there’s sufficient padding on the spider curl bench. It’s important to note that both of those injuries are rare and shouldn’t discourage you from performing the spider curl.
The spider curl has been somewhat forgotten. Give it a try, and watch your biceps become bigger and better.
Editor’s note: Visit www.SoftTissue
Center.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in