“Why are there no bicep curls?”. This is a question I often hear, probably because I don’t have any of my clients doing bicep curls. Shouldn’t we be working on arms? My answer is that they are doing functional training, and for most people, bicep curls are not functional. If you are a Bavarian waitress, then yes. And if I had one as a client, I would include bicep curls in their program, particularly in the month leading up to Oktoberfest.

bicep curls are functional for her
If this is your job, then bicep curls are functional

For almost everyone else, they are not functional, and so we do not do them. We rarely work muscles in isolation in functional training programs, because we rarely use muscles in isolation in life. Strong arms are important, but equally important is having strong legs, a strong core, and the ability to transfer force from the legs, through the core, to the arms. This is the core of functional training (dare I publish this pun?).

How do we get strong arms while also improving this force transfer? There are many options, including pull ups, pushups, chops, lifts, cable pulls, cable pushes, DB Rows, inverted rows, face pulls, getups, kettlebell Pressouts.

Functional training is an often misunderstood concept. I have heard people say that functional training is training with a Bosu and stability balls. Not exactly. Functional training is literally training for function. It means that we train movements instead of muscles. What are functional movements? As you go about your day, take note of how you move. If you are an athlete, also take note of how you move on the field, the ice, the court, or the pool. Functional training is not exactly mimicking those movements, but it is providing your body with a base of mobility, stability, strength, power, speed and endurance that supports you for those movements. Functional training will involve an element of training movements similar to those in your activity, but they will also involve basic exercises to support the movement, as well as some exercises that are the opposite of those in your activity. All three are equally important.

To get an of what this means, consider a sport like tennis. The obvious movement in tennis is the swing, which is usually performed with one arm (forehand and serve at least). But the power in a tennis swing comes from the legs and core, not just the arm. It is the athletes ability to ‘stiffen’ the core so that power can be transferred and amplified from the legs, through the core, through the arm, and to the racket. If the core is not strong, then the energy from the legs will not reach the racket, and the resultant swing will be very limited.

What about the other arm? A right-handed tennis player does not use the left arm very much, so would functional training mean we disregard it? Definitely not! We may focus even more on the left arm to avoid muscular imbalances. Allowing the left side to remain untrained while the right side gets strong will almost certainly lead to back and neck problems for a tennis player. Remember that function is not just about our sport – it is about our sport and our life. This is the situation noted above – we train movements that are opposite to those in your activity to ensure that you do not develop imbalances that turn into painful movement in life. Cable chops and lifts, side planks, one arm cable pushes and pulls are all great exercises to help train a tennis player.

The second thing we notice with tennis players is that they have quick and explosive steps on the court. I would tend to argue that leg strength is more important than arm strength in tennis. The swing is irrelevant if you cannot get to the ball. At the basic level, tennis players need to have strong legs so that they can move quickly in any direction, and then stop and change directions quickly. The basic strength will involve some form of squat, which is really the basic stance in tennis, and some form of deadlift to ensure that the glutes, hamstrings and back are strong (to avoid strains). There will also be a focus on single leg strength because the legs work individually in tennis, and on lateral strength because tennis requires movement in all directions.

Functional strength for tennis
Is tennis really about strong arms?

Power training for tennis players will start with a focus on landing. Tennis involves explosive movement, but our ability to decelerate has a bigger impact on performance than our acceleratioon. This is a concept I learned from Mark Verstegen of Athletes’ Performance, and I believe it is an important concept in functional training. In addition to improved performance, it has a significant impact on reducing injury risk, as an athlete who can control their power is less likely to sustain ankle and knee strains and sprains. We start power training with hops where the player must stick the landing before doing another one, and movement drills focus initially on being able to stop quickly and in control.

January is here, which means many of us are thinking about starting to workout. Give some consideration to a functional approach instead of a body part approach, and leave the bicep curls for the Bavarian waitresses.



  1. You really think picking up a baby is an isolated bicep exercise? Try again. Depending on the positioning, it’s much more like a cable lift or a deadlift. And please refrain from name calling in future or I will delete your comment. I’m always happy to have a civil discussion with people whether or not they agree with my perspective, but I don’t tolerate rudeness.

  2. Thanks Marc, and thanks for the link. I’ll check out Dean’s article. He tends to have great stuff!

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