When you are engaging in grip intensive exercises, such as carry variations, deadlifts, chin-ups, or bent-over rows, you are likely to feel your forearms burning. This is typically the first muscle group to experience fatigue, which means that grip strength is one of the weak points for lifters. When doing a 500-pound deadlift, your grip is almost always the first thing to give out.
While it’s true that you can wear lifting straps to help with the issue, ideally you need to be focusing on strengthening your forearms. In this article, we’re going to explain more about your forearms and the muscles that make up your forearms, as well as the benefits of forearm exercises. Then, we will outline 10 of the best forearm exercises and offer some tips for building your forearm training program. We hope that this can help you with your efforts to get in shape.
All About Forearms
Strong forearms are critical for ensuring a good grip, not just for grip-intensive exercises, such as row variations and deadlifts- but for your daily activities as well. You use your grip strength in a variety of activities, including holding your drink, opening doors, opening jars, bringing groceries in from the car, picking up heavy things from the ground, chugging a protein shake and so much more.
If your grip and your forearms are not strong, you will have difficulty with these daily tasks and, when training, your grip will fail before you have fatigued your targeted muscle. Let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of your forearms.
Your forearms have lots of small muscles with various types of muscle fibers. For the most part, they are slow-twitch dominant, which means it’s hard to increase size and strength. In order to obtain strong, muscular forearms, you must understand the form and function of your forearms. Below, we will explore the major muscles of the forearms.
Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis
The extensor carpi radialis brevis is located on the back of your forearm on the thumb side. It starts on the posterior lateral humerus and goes into the third finger. This muscle is a strong wrist extensor and is involved in the hyperextension of your wrist.
Extensor Carpi Radialis Longus
The extensor carpi radialis longus is the long muscle on the back of your forearm. It extends and radially flexes your wrist. It goes from the lateral epicondyle of your humerus to the base of your second finger.
Extensor Carpi Ulnaris
The extensor carpi ulnaris is located on the back of your forearm on the pinky side. It starts on the lateral humerus and goes to the pinkie. It is responsible for wrist extension and hyperextension.
Flexor Carpi Radialis
The flexor carpi radialis is a superficial muscle on the palm and thumb side of your wrist. It is responsible for flexing the wrist. It starts on the medial humerus and goes to the second and third fingers on the palm side.
Flexor Carpi Ulnaris
The flexor carpi ulnaris is a superficial muscle located on the ulna side. It begins in two places: the back of the ulna and the medial humerus and goes to the base of your fifth finger. It flexes your wrist to the pinkie side.
Flexor Digitorum Superficialis
The flexor digitorum superficialis is the largest of the superficial anterior forearm muscles and begins in three places: medial humerus, ulnar bone head, and radial bone head. This muscle then splits into four tendons, going to each of your four fingers. It is responsible for wrist and finger flexion.
The brachioradialis is a long, narrow muscle that begins on the lateral humerus and goes to the radial side of your wrist. This muscle is responsible for turning your arm so that your palm faces outward, also known as supination.
The pronator teres is the muscle that crosses your elbow and forearm. It begins in two places: ulna bone and medial humerus. It goes to the middle lateral surface of your radius and is responsible for pronation of your forearm and flexion of your elbow.
Benefits of Forearm Exercises
The truth is, almost everyone would love to have forearms like Popeye. However, there’s much more to forearm exercises than making you look good. After all, increasing forearm strength also increases grip strength- which has significant benefits for overall health and performance including the following:
Improves Quality of Life
According to research, grip strength is related to all causes of mortality. That is, every 5 kilogram decrease in grip strength results in a 17% increase in mortality. Additionally, reduced grip strength (if untrained) results in an increased risk of developing a muscular disability in older adults. Finally, poor grip strength is also associated with mortality among men and weight gain among women.
When it comes to grip-intensive exercises, such as deadlifts, chin-ups, or rows, lack of grip strength can be a limiting factor. However, by improving your grip strength, you increase your ability to do more reps with the same weight- or more.
10 Best Forearm Exercises
Now that we’ve learned more about the various muscles in your forearm and the benefits of exercising those muscles, we’ll explain the 10 best forearm exercises, including the benefits associated with each one and a quick explanation of how to do it.
Barbell Reverse Biceps Curl
The barbell reverse biceps curl will effectively build size and strength on the part of your forearm that is often neglected by simply changing your grip on the traditional barbell curl. Reverse curls train the brachioradialis, brachialis, and pronator teres. This will make your biceps appear bigger when flexing. It’s important to train the forearm extensors because strength imbalances between extensors and flexors could result in sore elbows and injury.
Barbell Reverse Biceps Curl Benefits
- Improves extensor strength
- Augments size/strength of forearm and biceps
- Improves grip strength from a different angle
How to do it
Start with weight that is about 10 pounds less than what you typically use for barbell curls and stand with feet hip width apart. Hold your arms by your sides, knuckles facing toward you. Curl the barbell up, slightly over 90 degrees. Make sure that you keep your elbows tucked to your side. Slowly let the weight back down to the starting position.
The towel pull-up is ideal for when a traditional pull-up is almost too easy. The towel increases the difficulty of this exercise because it’s more difficult to grip a towel than it is a bar. Your forearms are targeted in this exercise because you use a neutral grip and it’s hard to hold on to and pull up on the towel. This increases forearm size and strength, while also strengthening your biceps and back.
Towel Pull-Up Benefits
- Improves size/strength of forearms
- Neutral grip easy on shoulders
- Trains grip strength like most pulling movements and also crush grip strength because of holding the towel
How to do it
For this exercise, you can use one large towel or two small ones. One towel will train your forearms, while two towels focus on your lats. Using a firm grip, grab the towel mid-way up and pull yourself up, making sure to keep your chest up and shoulders down until your grip starts to fail.
The wrist roller is an ideal forearm exercise because it builds endurance, size, and strength all at the same time. This exercise trains your extensors and flexors, and the pump/burn are phenomenal with light resistance. The wrist roller is perfect for developing forearms. The only issue is, if your gym doesn’t have the appropriate equipment, you are not able to do this.
Wrist Roller Benefits
- Strengthens extensors and flexors
- Grip of wrist roller machine improves grip strength
How to do it
If you’ve never done this before, start with a 5- to 10-pound weight plate. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold the wrist roller with your knuckles toward you and do a front raise, bringing the roller to shoulder height. Then, roll the weight up, switching hands until you have fully wound the weight. Slowly reverse the movement.
Bottoms Up Kettlebell Carry
The bottoms up kettlebell carry challenges your forearm and grip strength. After all, while holding a kettlebell bottoms up might be simple- it’s certainly not easy. The kettlebell is upside down so that the heavy portion is above the handle and the horn is in your palm, forcing you to engage additional muscle fibers to control the unstable load. This carry can improve your posture, grip strength, forearm strength, and lateral stability while also strengthening your shoulder.
Bottoms Up Kettlebell Carry Benefits
- Uses less load due to the increased muscular tension required to hold the kettlebell upside down. Less load means you can focus on form
- The unstable load improves grip and forearm strength
- Improves posture/gait and strengthens lateral stability
How to do it
Stand up straight with a kettlebell in one hand. Curl it to chin height in front of your shoulder. Make sure the bottom of the kettlebell is pointing to the ceiling and the horn is in your palm. Keep elbow bent at 90 degrees and wrist in neutral position. Keep your grip tight and walk for a specified distance. Lower weight and switch hands- then start over.
The plate pinch is an exercise designed to train your pinch grip, while most of the others use a crush grip. For the most part, your fingers are strong. In fact, some people are able to climb mountains, supporting their entire body weight with a few fingertips. This exercise is ideal for wrestlers and football players to improve their grip strength.
Plate Pinch Benefits
- Improves strength in fingers/thumb
- Builds strength/endurance in forearm muscles
- Directly carries over to sports like climbing, football, and wrestling
How to do it
You have a couple of options with this exercise. You can use a 25- or 45-pound bumper plate and hold for a specified period of time. Or you can hold 2 or more 10-pound plates with the smooth side out for a specified period of time. Be sure to maintain a good posture with shoulders down and chest up. To increase the difficulty, try walking while pinching the plates.
Fat Grip Biceps Curl
The fat grip biceps curl increases the diameter of the dumbbells, which makes them more difficult to grip. This forces your biceps and forearms to work harder. This exercise actually does two things: strengthens your forearm through flexion and increases your crush grip strength. Depending on your goals, you can use different grips: reverse grip, supinated grip, or hammer curl grip.
Fat Grip Biceps Curl Benefits
- Challenges grip with wider than usual equipment, which strengthens your forearm
- Makes it easier to lift with a regular grip
- Improves grip strength, which carries over to other lifts requiring grip strength
How to do it
Wrap towels or fat grips around your dumbbells. Then, grip the handles with your preferred grip based on your goals. Curl the weight up to your shoulders until you feel your bicep squeeze. Pause for a few seconds and return to start position.
The hammer curl is another biceps curl. The reason this one made the list is because the neutral grip is easier on your shoulders and elbows than other variations. Plus, the neutral grip involves your forearm muscles, as well as the often neglected brachioradialis. Since the neutral grip is a stronger position, you may be able to lift more weight with this variation than with others.
Hammer Curl Benefits
- Trains the brachioradialis, which is often neglected
- Neutral grip is stronger and easier on elbows and shoulder
- May be able to curl more weight for more muscle and strength
How to do it
Start with the dumbbells by your side with wrists neutral. Keep shoulders down and chest up. Keeping your wrists neutral, curl until the dumbbells are near your anterior deltoid. Pause for a few seconds and slowly lower to start position.
Behind-the-Back Barbell Wrist Curl
The behind-the-back barbell wrist curl focuses on improving finger strength and increasing forearm flexor strength. Both are critical for grip strength. One of the advantages of this variation is adding the load in increments. You’ll start with a light load and high reps. However, as you get stronger, don’t be afraid to add weight.
Behind-the-Back Barbell Wrist Curl Benefits
- Isolates forearm flexors with higher load than other wrist curls
- Able to add load in increments
- Improves finger/grip strength
How to do it
Set up the barbell on the power rack at approximately knee level and face away from it. If you do not have a rack or a partner, you can balance the barbell on a bench. Bend and grab the barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart. Stand straight up, engaging your glutes. Allow the barbell to roll down to your fingertips and curl it back up, flexing your forearms. Pause for a moment in that position before going back to the starting position.
Trap Bar Deadlift to Carry
The trap bar deadlift to carry exercise is a combination exercise. The deadlift improves your ability to produce force/power and strengthens your posterior chain. The carry trains your grip strength, shoulder stability, and core strength.
Trap Bar Deadlift to Carry Benefits
- You are limited to how much weight you can lift with dumbbells- but this isn’t the case with the trap bar. You have more loading potential, which furthers your conditioning and grip gains
- Improves posture and strengthens shoulder stability
- Builds mental and physical toughness
How to do it
Start by using a deadlift form to pick up the bar and do 3 to 5 reps. On your last rep, start walking at a slow, deliberate pace. This keeps your muscles under tension for longer. Make sure to maintain good posture by keeping your shoulders down and chest up. When your grip starts giving out, stop and slowly lower the weight.
Three-Way Chin-Up Hold
The three-way chin-up hold improves your grip strength in three positions. Additionally, it helps improve strength and performance when doing regular chin-ups. The hold in each position tests grip strength as well as forearm strength and increases time under tension to increase hypertrophy benefits. This is a true test of will and will not just build physical toughness, but mental toughness as well.
Three-Way Chin-Up Hold Benefits
- Builds bigger, stronger forearms, back, and biceps in three positions
- Improves chin-up performance, especially if you have shoulder or elbow discomfort
- Builds functional grip strength, which will carry over to climbing
How to do it
If you can’t jump high enough, you can use a box to elevate yourself so you can grab the bar in the top lockout position. Hold for 10 seconds. Slowly lower to just above 90-degrees on your elbow position and hold for 10 seconds. Lower until elbows are slightly flexed and hold for 10 seconds. Lower yourself to a dead hang and finish.
Suggestions for Forearm Exercise Program
As mentioned, your forearm muscle fibers are slow-twitch dominant. This means they are difficult to grow. Therefore, higher reps are advisable. When you’re getting started, try the following and adjust as necessary:
- Workout 2 to 4 times each week
- Do 8 to 20 reps or hold for 30 to 60 seconds
- Do 3 to 4 sets
Many times, forearm exercises rely on grip strength, so you should use them at the end of your workout when you’ve completed your compound exercises. You may be tempted to train until failure and that’s fine occasionally. However, it’s important to note that your grip is likely to suffer the following day.
In order to have a good, strong grip, you need strong forearms. While many of us would love to look like Popeye, there’s more to strong forearms than good looks. In this article, we’ve introduced you to the various muscles in your forearms, along with 10 exercises to get you started on increasing your forearm size and strength- as well as increasing your grip.
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