Here’s what you need to know…

  1. The strict curl is making a comeback in powerlifting circles.
  2. A strong curl is a sign of a well-rounded lifter.
  3. Training the curl twice a week is an effective approach and typically results in a 10-pound gain on your curling max.

A number of powerlifting federations have recently added the strict curl back into their competitions. It’s not counted as part of the powerlifting total, but it can be contested as a single lift. Check out one of my lifters setting an age group federation record for her weight class:

Some lifters really like the curl, others hate it. I happen to like the curl for the following reasons:

  • When performed against a wall, it’s the easiest and least subjective of the competitive lifts to judge.
  • It tests one of the most important and popular muscles, all but left out by the Big 3 (squat, bench press, and deadlift).
  • It gives injured athletes something to compete in.
  • I’m pretty good at it. And we tend to like the things we’re good at.

Granted, the curl isn’t as cool or as practical as any of the Big 3, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contest it. Any test of strength is good as long as it’s reasonably safe and easy to measure. Besides, any so-called “strongman” should sport a respectable curl.

The Rules of the Strict Curl

  1. Your upper back and butt must stay in contact with the wall on the way up and on the way down. Taking a wider stance slightly decreases the chance of your butt moving off.
  2. The heels have to be 12 inches from the wall or less.
  3. Your head, upper arms, and wrists can move as much as you want.

Programming the Curl

Below is a very successful program I followed to prep for my most recent competition.

You’ll curl twice a week. These can be standalone workouts or performed as part of other workouts. However, I wouldn’t perform them in an excessively fatigued state if the goal is maximal strength. In other words, don’t do them after an hour of blasting your back.

Day 1

A. Strict Curl – Cluster Set

  • Warm-up: 2-4 sets. Then 1 set of 10 reps, resting 15-30 seconds after each rep. About 75% of your 1 rep max is a good starting point for this exercise.
  • Increase the weight by 2.5 pounds each week.

B. Preacher Curl

  • Warm-up: 3 sets of 5 reps. Then do 1 set of 5 reps, followed by 1 backdown set (where you lower the weight) of 5 reps. In first week, work up to a weight that’s moderately hard and progress from there. The backdown set is usually a weight between the second and third warm-up sets. See the completed cycle below for a fleshed-out example.
  • Increase the weight by 2.5-10 lbs pounds each week. I prefer to use a narrow grip here even though I max out with a wider grip.

C. Wrist Roller

  • Week 1: 4 sets: 2 times up and down flexion style, 2 times up and down extension, 1 time up and down flexion style, 1 time up and down extension style.

    Extension means to work the forearms extensors by rolling your wrist backward. Flexion means work the forearms flexors by rolling your wrist forward (this is tougher).

  • Week 2: 4 sets: 3 times up and down flexion style, 3 times up and down extension, 2 times up and down flexion style, 2 times up and down extension style.
  • Week 3: Repeat week 1 but increase weight 2.5 to 5 pounds each week.

Day 2

A. Strict Curl – Drop Set

  • Warm-up: 2-4 sets. Then do 3 drop sets. Each drop set consists of 4 single reps. Reduce the weight 5-10 pounds each drop. The drop set should be about 10 pounds heavier than your cluster set from Day 1.
  • In our previous example, if the person was doing a cluster set with 105 they’ll start their drop set with 115 and then take off 10 pounds per set.

B) Partial Curl

Position the pins in the power rack so the bar rests just above the halfway point of the ROM (forearms above parallel to the ground).

  • Warm-up: 3 sets of 3 reps. Then do 1 set of 3 reps, followed by 1 backdown set of 3 reps.
  • Once you start, don’t let the weight touch the support. Keep the load slightly above your top drop-set weight. Think of it as the equivalent to the board press for bench.

Notes

  • Because the total weight on a curl is much less than in the other lifts, adding 5 pounds or even 2.5 pounds is a big difference. It’s all about percentages. Going up 5-10 pounds on your max is the equivalent of going up 10-30 pounds on your bench press.
  • You’ll need to get some 1.25-pound Olympic plates or PlateMates.
  • Weigh your curl bar using a reliable scale. Don’t just assume that some dude who said it was 25 pounds is correct. Most bars are either 16.5 pounds (7.5 kilos) or 22 pounds (10 kilos), but they can vary considerably.
  • If you’re not used to curling against the wall, take 20% off the weight you normally curl when standing.

Below are sample weights and reps for someone with a strict curl of 140 pounds and hoping to get to 150 pounds by the end of the 8-week program.

Weights in normal font are warm-ups; grey colored are the work set; italics are backdown sets.

Day 1

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8
Strict Curl, Cluster 65×5
85×3
105×10
65×5
90×3
107.5×10
65×5
90×3
110×10
65×5
90×3
112.5×10
65×5
90×3
115×10
65×5
95×3
117.5×10
65×5
95×3
120×10
65×5
95×3
122.5×10
Preacher Curl 45×5
60×5
75×5
90×5
65×5
50×5
65×5
80×5
95×5
70×5
55×5
70×5
85×5
100×5
75×5
60×5
75×5
90×5
105×5
80×5
62.5×5
77.5×5
92.5×5
107.5×5
82.5×5
65×5
80×5
95×5
110×5
85×5
67.5×5
82.5×5
97.5×5
112.5×5
87.5×5
70×5
85×5
100×5
115×5
90×5
Wrist Roller 25×2
25×2
25×1
25×2
25×3
25×2
25×2
25×2
27.5×2
27.5×2
27.5×1
27.5×2
27.5×3
27.5×2
27.5×2
27.5×2
30×2
30×2
30×1
30×2
30×3
30×2
30×2
30×2
32.5×2
32.5×2
32.5×1
32.5×2
32.5×3
32.5×2
32.5×2
32.5×2

Day 2

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8
Strict Curl, Drop Set – 3 sets 115×1
105×1
95×1
85×1
120×1
110×1
100×1
90×1
125×1
115×1
105×1
95×1
130×1
120×1
110×1
100×1
132.5×1
122.5×1
112.5×1
102.5×1
135×1
125×1
115×1
105×1
137.5×1
127.5×1
117.5×1
107.5×1
140×1
130×1
120×1
110×1
Partial Curl 80×3
95×3
110×3
120×3
100×3
85×3
100×3
115×3
125×3
105×3
90×3
105×3
120×3
130×3
110×3
95×3
110×3
125×3
135×3
115×3
97.5×3
112.5×3
127.5×3
137.5×3
117.5×3
100×3
115×3
130×3
140×3
120×3
102.5×3
117.5×3
132.5×3
142.5×3
122.5×3
105×3
120×3
135×3
145×3
125×3