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Bigger Forearms, Stronger Grip: 7 Exercises You Need to Be Doing

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forearms1As I’ve progressed in my training over the years, almost every part of my body has grown bigger: shoulders, chest, traps, biceps…you get the point. 

Except for my forearms. 

Several years into training, they were barely larger than when I first started out, and this, of course, could not stand. In my quest to build the ultimate, well-proportioned physique, I vowed to unlock the secrets of forearm training, whatever it took. 

And I succeeded (after a lot of research and self-experimentation). Let’s start at the beginning. 

The Human Forearm Does More Than I Ever Realized

Your forearms contain at least twenty different muscles, which get used in pretty much every motion you could possibly perform with your arms.

First off, you’ve got your digit flexors and extensors.

These, along with your hand muscles, cause your fingers to clench and unclench. Strengthen them, and you’ll have a stronger grip, which helps immensely with deadlifts and chin-ups. 

Similarly, there are some flexors and extensors that control wrist motions. Then we’ve got the brachioradialis, which, along with the biceps, is used to flex your elbow. Like the bicep, it gets worked when you perform pulling and curling motions and is located up near the elbow on the inside of the forearm.

There are the pronators and supinators, which perform twisting motions; these are spread all over the forearm. And finally, there’s the anconeus, a tiny little muscle near the elbow that works with the triceps to extend your elbow. You can more or less ignore this one. 

Got all that?

To build big forearms, and more importantly, to build the entire forearm (top, bottom, front, back, and sides), you need to perform a bunch of different motions. You need to grip stuff, curl stuff, pull on stuff (…yup. I said it.), flex your wrists, and rotate your forearms.

The only arm movement pattern that isn’t very important to forearm development is pushing since it only uses the little anconeus muscle.

With all those different movements the forearm is responsible for, it takes a wide variety of exercises to build full, well-rounded forearms.

Now, it doesn’t really make sense to design a whole workout dedicated solely to your forearms, so instead, work these suggestions into your existing workouts in order to put more of a focus on your forearms.

Here’s What You Need to Do

Thick Bar Reverse Drag Curls

Reverse curls are a great exercise for both the gripping and curling aspects of forearm strength. The problem with regular reverse curls is that you get a brief rest at the top of the motion, as your forearm is pointed vertically up, allowing the weight to rest on it.

Reverse drag curls solve this problem by raising the elbows (a bit) as you lift the weight so that at the top your forearm is still angled about 20-30 degrees down from being pointed straight up.

Essentially, what you’re doing is a cross between a reverse curl and an upright row.

Using a thick bar with this exercise makes it more fatiguing for your digit flexors (the ones that control grip strength). Thick bars are pretty rare, but you can thicken any barbell or set of dumbbells by using Fat Gripz.

Where to put this in your workouts: Use the thick bar reverse curl in place of regular barbell curls. You can also do reverse drag curl static holds in place of barbell curl static holds. 

Arnold Press

The Arnold press is a variant of the dumbbell shoulder press in which the arms are rotated during the motion, so that the forearm goes from a supinated position at the bottom, to a pronated position at the top. In addition to the shoulder, it works the supinator and pronator muscles.

This is slightly more difficult than a standard dumbbell shoulder press, so you’ll need to use a slightly lower weight. Here’s a video of the Arnold punch, which is simply the iso-lateral version of this exercise.

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Where to put this into your workouts: You can substitute the Arnold press in place of the military press, dumbbell shoulder press, machine shoulder press, and anything else where you press upward. You can also do an Arnold push press in place of the push press, or an Arnold punch in place of any other iso-lateral upward pressing motion. 

Rotating Dumbbell End Grabs

Dumbbell End Grabs are a weird exercise where you hold dumbbells by their ends instead of the middle. That’s it. You don’t move the weight around; you just hold it until your grip starts to fail.This is the single best exercise I’ve ever found for improving grip strength for the deadlift

This is the single best exercise I’ve ever found for improving grip strength for the deadlift.

Rotating dumbbell end grabs are my own iteration on this exercise. Instead of simply holding the dumbbell still, you rotate it left to right, which works the pronator and supinator muscles. You can do these with both hands at a time, or you can do alternating dumbbell grabs by passing one dumbbell from one hand to the other after a pre-determined number of rotations.

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Is it weird that I get a thrill out of using dumbbells for something other than their intended purpose? 

Where to put this into your workouts: Because they can fatigue your grip strength so much that it becomes a limiting factor for other lifts, I like to do these at the very end of my workouts. These shouldn’t replace other exercises that you’re doing.

Pull-up To Dead Hang

This one’s simple: do a set of pull-ups, then at the end of the set, keep holding the bar and hang from it for as long as you can, until your grip gives out.

Note that this isn’t an active dead hang, where you raise yourself just slightly; active dead hangs bring your shoulders and upper back into play, which we don’t want. Just hang all the way down, so that the focus is firmly on grip strength.

Where to put this into your workouts: Just add a dead hang at the end of every set of pull-ups. You can do this with chin-ups too, but you’ll want to let go and re-grab the bar in the pronated position. Hang to failure, or at least within 2-3 seconds of failure.

Dumbell Zottman Curls 

This is a neat little exercise that combines the best features of bicep curls and reverse curls. You simply lift the dumbbells as in a regular bicep curl, then at the top of the motion, rotate the dumbbells so your palm is facing down and lower them as in a reverse curl. 

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This exercise is great because it allows you to hit almost every muscle in your forearm; you’re curling, rotating the weight, and the lowering portion of the exercise even works your grip strength a bit. As with the drag curl, you can further emphasize the gripping component by using Fat Gripz.

Where to put this into your workouts: Replace dumbbell curls (regular, reverse or hammer curls) with Zottman curls. Do not replace them barbell curls with these; those should be replaced with reverse drag curls. 

Wrist Curls

Wrist curls are like curls, except your arm stays still and you just curl your wrist. Just like the name says. They work both your digit flexors (grip strength) and wrist flexors (wrist movement), for a well-rounded exercise that hits just about every muscle on the lower half of your forearm.

Where to put this into your workouts: You can put these in anywhere you’re doing barbell or dumbbell curls. Don’t replace normal curls with wrist curls, since wrist curls don’t particularly work your arms (instead, combine the two).

How you do that depends on the weight you’re curling, because you won’t be able to curl as much weight with your wrists as you can with your arms. If you’re doing light weight (12+ reps) curls, you can do a wrist curl at the bottom of each arm curl, or do several wrist curls at the end of the set.

If you’re curling a heavier weight, you probably won’t be able to do wrist curls with that same weight. In that case, you can add a set of lighter-weight wrist curls immediately after each set of arm curls.

DIY Forearm Workout Device

I first heard about this from the friend who introduced me to kung-fu. As the story goes, the guy who brought it to America had huge forearms because, growing up in China, he was always fetching buckets of water from an old-fashioned hand-cranked well. This device replicates that motion, without the danger of drinking unsterilized water from a dirty hole in the ground.

What you do is get a wooden dowel (or a metal one like this guy uses) and drill a hole through the middle. Then take a rope that’s about 5-6 feet long, stick it through the whole, and tie a knot in one end so it can’t slip back through the hole. Tie weights to the other end.

Then, hold the dowel by both ends and rotate it, raising the weights as if they were a bucket of well water. Raise the weight all the way up, then gradually lower it back to the floor. That’s one rep.

Where to put this into your workouts: This one’s a little different. This device will get you some weird looks at the gym, and since it’s yours anyway, I recommend just using it at home, completely separate from your workouts.

Keep this device at home (along with 2-3 small barbell plates or wrist weights) and get into the habit of doing 5-6 sets a day, spread throughout the day. The high frequency makes this a great way to hit some slow-twitch fibers, which can be fully recovered in only a few hours.

Onward to Bigger Gunz

In your quest for bigger guns, it’s easy to neglect the forearm and assume that as the upper arm grows in mass, so too will the forearm. As I’ve learned, that is a huge mistake.

Now, you don’t need to use all seven of the exercises listed here, but you do need to work every movement pattern that the forearm is involved in. For optimal forearm development, you need to be doing each of the following at least once a week:

  • Arm curling motions
  • Wrist curling motions
  • Forearm rotation
  • Pulling motions
  • Static gripping exercises

We all want big biceps and triceps, myself included, but a well-rounded pair of arms is a stronger, sexier pair of arms. Your arms aren’t complete without focussing on your forearms, so incorporate these exercises into your next workout. Your significant other will thank you for it later. 

About the Author

John Fawkes is a fitness coach who helps smart, motivated people develop the discipline to get into amazing shape. He focuses on some of the most under-discussed topics in fitness- such as sex, accountability systems, mental performance, and the social influences that can help or hinder our fitness efforts. John provides a free five-day fitness turnaround course, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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