Many do not consider forearm training as a high priority item. Huge upper arms, a barrel chest, and thick quads are what most are after in any given gym – but what about the details? Sweating the small stuff is what completes a physique from head to toe. Hamstrings, calves, rear deltoids, and forearms are among those details that, when developed properly, can make all the difference toward a well-balanced and proportioned body. It’s these details that can win or lose a bodybuilding contest or just make you the admiration of others. Think of it, what are massive upper arms without a pair of well-built forearms to go with them? Not only will they compliment your look, you will also develop strength and function to facilitate other lifts and subsequently help you pack on mass in other areas such as back, shoulders, and biceps.
Now, forearms do get some stimulation from other lifts such as curls, rows, and pull-ups/pulldowns, but in order for one to fully reach their forearm potential (especially if it happens to be a weak point) they must add in some specialized training to their program. This is not to say that a movement or two should just be thrown into the end of an arm day haphazardly performed with minimal intensity. Forearm training deserves every bit of focus and discipline as a set of squats or bench presses. A well thought-out plan of action including proper volume, intensity, and the use of a variety of angles is the best way to ensure maximum development is achieved.
The forearm is surprisingly a complex group of small muscle groups with several functions. The Brachialis and Brachioradialis both contribute to elbow flexion and aid the forearm while curling, which are worked during many curl motions. The Pronator Teres aids the forearm in pronation as well as elbow flexion. The flexors (Palmaris Longus, Flexor Carpi Radialis, and Flexor Carpi Ulnaris) curl the palm in while the extensors (Extensor Carpi Ulnaris and Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis) flex the palm out. A comprehensive resistance program should include movements for all areas of the forearm in order for complete development.
Now that you know a little about anatomy and function, let’s delve into what makes outstanding forearms. The movements and routines presented are designed to get the most out of each trip to the gym. Remember to always use good form and not to use too much weight to compromise your safety.
Wrist curls: The basic wrist curl (working more of the flexors) can be performed either with a barbell, cable, or a pair of dumbbells. The advantage of utilizing dumbbells is when a trainer has limited rotation of the forearms and finds it difficult to use a straight bar. Simply grab the weight at about shoulder width and either lay your forearms across a bench or on your thighs where our hands can extend down toward the floor. Begin by stretching out your forearms and letting the weight lower toward the floor while keeping a firm grip on the bar. Reverse the motion and return to the top for a strong contraction. This will be a short range of motion so try to avoid bouncing or jerking the weight during the movement as injury may occur.
Quick hit: For those who find that placing your forearms over a bench or your knees is a bit too uncomfortable, try behind-the-back wrist curls. Stand while holding a barbell with an overhand grip behind your thighs. With your forearms against your glutes for support, using only your hands, curl the barbell up for a contraction. Performing the movement this way can sometimes alleviate the pain some may have in the stretch position of a traditional wrist curl.
Reverse wrist curls: Much like the wrist curl, the reverse wrist curl is performed in a similar fashion only with your palms facing down working your extensors. Hold a barbell, cable handle or a set of dumbbells over a bench or your thighs with your palms facing the floor, let the weight stretch your extensors then reverse the motion for a contraction to the top. Remember to control the movement and avoid swinging the weight.
Quick hit: For an intense rep try holding each contraction for a few seconds at the top. You will not have to use much weight at all, but the burn will be worth it!
Hammer curls: Normally reserved for a biceps workout, hammer curls are a great addition to a complete forearm program. Working the Brachialis and Brachioradialis along with the Biceps, hammer curls will also help develop peak in the Biceps. Simply hold a pair of dumbbells by your sides with your thumbs facing forward. Without supinating the forearm, curl the weight up toward your shoulder – this should look like a hammering motion. Return to your side and repeat.
Quick hit: Another way to perform (and some find it more effective) is cross-body hammer curls. Perform the movement as described above, but instead of curling by your side you will curl the dumbbell across your upper body toward your opposite shoulder. Alternate each arm.
Reverse curls: Another great alternative to hammer curls are reverse barbell curls. Perform a barbell curl as you would during a biceps workout, but reverse your grip on the bar at about shoulder width. Be sure to keep strict form and choose a moderate weight.
Quick hit: For the ultimate in isolated forearm training try performing reverse curls on a preacher bench. This will not only prevent any cheating of the movement, it will also ensure isolation of the muscles being trained. Again, choose a moderate weight as these can be very difficult to perform with a significant amount of weight.
Grip Work: There are many ways to improve your grip for strength and mass in the forearms. Exercise grips, the absence of using straps on certain back movements, and gripping weight plates are just a few techniques to utilize for better forearm development. One effective and convenient technique to utilize is to firmly grip the bar at the end of all wrist curl sets. For example, after each set of wrist curls curl up the weight in the contracted position and squeeze the bar for five to ten seconds. This will be difficult after your normal set, but will improve grip strength and add intensity to your forearm program!
Beginner Forearm Program
Wrist curls: 3 x 10-15
Reverse wrist curls: 3 x 10-15
Intermediate Forearm Program
Reverse curls: 3 x 10-15
Behind-the-back wrist curls: 3 x 10-15
Hammer curls (optional): 3 x 10-15
Advanced Forearm Superset Program
Superset: Wrist curls 3 x 10-15/Reverse wrist curls 3 x 10-15
Superset: Preacher bench reverse curls 3 x 10-15/Cross-body hammer curls 3 x 10-15
* Squeeze bar for five to ten seconds after each set
Wrist-Friendly Forearm Program
Dumbbell wrist curls: 3 x 10-15
Reverse dumbbell wrist curls: 3 x 10-15
Hammer curls: 3 x 10-15
Written by Brad Borland, M.A., CSCS workoutlab.net