When you’re training grip intensive exercises like chin-ups, deadlifts, bent-over rows, or carry variations, you will often feel your forearms burning. It’s usually the first muscle group to fatigue, and so grip strength is often a weak point for many lifters. When ripping a 500-pound deadlift off of the ground, it’s almost always your grip, not your lats, that give out first.
Of course, you can throw a bandage on the issue and wear lifting straps (which are a great tool), but you should also focus on building forearm strength. Below, we outline the best forearm exercises, dive deep into the benefits of forearm training, and explain how your forearm muscles function.
Best Forearm Exercises
- Barbell Reverse Biceps Curl
- Wrist Roller
- Behind-The-Back Barbell Wrist Curl
- Plate Pinch
- Towel Pull-Up
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
The simple act of changing your grip on the barbell curl will help you build size and strength on the neglected part of the forearm. Reverse curls train the smaller forearm extensors (brachioradialis, pronator teres) and brachialis — a muscle underneath the biceps that will help make your biceps look bigger when you flex. Strength imbalances between the forearm extensors and flexors may lead to sore elbows, so it pays to train the forearm extensors from an injury prevention standpoint too.
Benefits of the Barbell Reverse Biceps Curl
- Improves forearm extensor strength.
- Bolsters the size and strength of both your forearm and biceps muscles.
- Builds grip strength from a different angle.
How to Do the Barbell Reverse Biceps Curl
Start with a weight that’s approximately 10 pounds lighter than what you would use for regular barbell curls. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding with your arms by your sides with your knuckles facing towards you. Keeping the elbows tucked to your side, slowly curl the barbell up slightly above 90 degrees. Reverse the move slowly to the starting position and repeat.
This is a great forearm exercise because it builds size, strength, and endurance simultaneously. The wrist roller trains both forearm flexors and extensors (deltoids and rotator cuffs isometrically), and the pump and burn are incredible while using only light resistance. The wrist roller is one of the best exercises for developing forearms, and it is a vital piece of equipment in any gym. The downside is, if your gym doesn’t have one, then you’re out of luck.
Benefits of the Wrist Roller
- Strengthens both your forearm extensors and flexors.
- The thick grip of the wrist roller helps to improve grip strength.
How to Use the Wrist Roller
Start with a five-to-10-pound weight plate if you’ve never done this before. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding the wrist roller with knuckles facing towards you, and slowly perform a front raise to bring the roller to shoulder height. Roll the weight up, alternating hands until the weight is fully wound, and then slowly reverse the movement.
The behind the back wrist curl targets your forearm flexors and improves your finger strength. Both are important for grip strength and improving your ability to grip it and rip it. A major advantage of this variation, as opposed to other options, is adding load in increments. Start on the lighter side with higher reps, but don’t be afraid to add weight to strengthen your forearms further.
Benefits of the Behind-The-Back Barbell Wrist Curl
- Isolates the forearms flexors with a load higher than other wrist curl variations.
- The ability to add incremental load.
- Improves finger and grip strength.
How to Do the Behind The-Back-Barbell Wrist Curl
Set up a barbell on a power rack around knee level and stand facing away from it. If you don’t have a rack or partner, balancing the barbell on a bench is optional. Bend down and grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip, stand up straight, and engage your glutes. Let the barbell roll down to your fingertips, then curl the barbell back up and flex your forearms. Pause for a second in that flexed position before returning to the starting position.
Your fingers are incredibly strong — strong enough for some people to climb mountains while supporting their entire weight with a few fingertips. While a lot of grip exercises use a crush grip, the plate pinch trains the pinch grip, getting the fingers, thumbs, and forearms strong. This is a great exercise for football players and wrestlers to improve their sport-specific grip strength.
Benefits Of The Plate Pinch
- Improves finger and thumb strength.
- Builds endurance and strength in your forearm muscles.
- Direct carryover to sport-specific grip strength for football players, climbers, and wrestlers.
How to Do the Plate Pinch
There’s a couple of ways you can do this. Use a 25 or 45-pound bumper plate and hold for time. Or hold two or more 10-pound plates, smooth side out, and hold for time. Make sure you have your chest up shoulders down to maintain good posture. For added difficulty, walk while pinching the plates.
When regular pull-ups become easier, the simple act of adding a towel will make this exercise tougher because it’s harder to grip a towel than a bar. This version focuses on the forearms because of the neutral grip and the difficulty of holding and pulling up on the towel, which builds forearm strength and size while strengthening your back and biceps.
Benefits of the Towel Pull-Up
- Improves the size and strength of your forearms.
- The neutral grip is easier on your shoulders.
- Trains your gripping strength like with most pulling movements and crushing grip strength due to the act of squeezing the towel.
How to Do the Towel Pull-Up
You can use a single towel or two towels to do this. The single towel trains your forearms more, while the two-towel pull-up focuses more on your lats. Hold the towel midway up, using a firm grip and perform pull-ups keeping your shoulders down and chest up until you feel your grip failing.
Forearm Programming Suggestions
Due to the muscle fibers of the forearm muscles being slow-twitch dominant, leading to a stubbornness to grow, training forearms often in a higher rep range is advisable. Try the following to start and adjust as needed:
- Two to four times per week.
- Eight to 20 reps or 30-60 seconds.
- Three to Four sets.
Many exercises rely on grip strength, so it’s best to use them at the end of your training when you’re finished with compound exercises. It’s okay to train them to failure occasionally but be aware that your grip strength may suffer the next day.
About the Forearms
Strong forearms are the key to having a good grip, not only for grip-intensive exercises like the deadlift and row variations but for our daily activities too. You use your grip strength to open pickle jars, doors, hold drinks, and carry the groceries in from the car. Plus, they’re handy for picking up heavy stuff from the floor.
If you lack grip and forearm strength, you’ll have a harder time doing these daily tasks, and your grip will fail while training before your targeted muscle is fully fatigued.
Anatomy of the Forearms
The forearms have many small muscles with varying fiber types, but most forearm muscles are slow-twitch dominant, meaning they are difficult to add size and strength. Understanding the forearms’ form and function is important in obtaining strong and muscular forearms. Here’s a breakdown of the major forearm muscles.
Extensor Capri Radialis Brevis
This muscle is on the thumb side on the back of the forearm, which originates on the posterior lateral humerus and inserts on the third finger. It’s a strong wrist extensor and is involved in wrist hyperextension.
Extensor Capri Radialis Longus
This long muscle on the back of the forearm extends and radially flexes the wrist. It originates on the lateral epicondyle of the humerus and inserts on the base of your second finger.
Extensor Carpi Ulnaris
A muscle on the ulnar (little pinkie) side on the back of the forearm, which originates on the lateral humerus and inserts on the little pinkie. Its functions are wrist extension and wrist hyperextension.
Flexor Carpi Radialis
A superficial muscle on the thumb and the palm side of the wrist. It flexes the wrist and originates on the medial humerus, and inserts on the second and third fingers on the palm side.
Flexor Carpi Ulnaris
This superficial muscle on the ulna (little pinkie) side originates from two places, the medial humerus and the back of the ulna bone. It inserts on the base of the fifth finger and flexes the wrist to the little pinkie side.
Flexor Digitorum Superficialis
This is the largest muscle of the superficial anterior forearm muscles and originates in three places — the medial humerus and the ulnar and radial bone heads. Then, this muscle tendon splits into four tendons inserting on each of the four fingers. Its functions are finger and wrist flexion.
A long narrow muscle that originates on the lateral humerus on inserts on the radial side of the wrist. This muscle is a strong elbow flexor and forearm supinator.
This muscle crosses the elbow and forearm and originates in two places, the medial humerus, and the ulna bone. It inserts on the middle lateral surface of the radius and is a strong forearm pronator, and is involved in elbow flexion.
The Benefits of Training Your Forearms
We all want forearms like Popeye, but there are other important benefits from directly training the forearms besides vanity. Because improving forearm strength improves grip strength, and this has significant health and performance benefits, Including,
Improves Your Quality of Life
Grip strength was not only inversely associated with all-cause mortality—every 5-kilogram decrement in grip strength was associated with a 17 percent risk increase in mortality. (1) A reduction in grip strength (if not trained) is associated with an eightfold risk of developing muscular disability among older adults. Poor grip strength has also been associated with adverse weight gain among women and mortality among men. (2)
Grip strength can be a limiting factor with grip-intensive exercises such as rows, chin-ups, and deadlift variations. Improving grip strength means you can do more reps with the same weight or more weight period. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link.
More Forearm Training Tips
Now you know the best exercises to improve the strength and size of your forearms, you can also check out these other helpful forearm training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- Leong, D.P., et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. The Lancet 386, 266-273 (2015)
- Mark D Peterson. et al Low Normalized Grip Strength is a Biomarker for Cardiometabolic Disease and Physical Disabilities Among U.S. and Chinese Adults. Multicenter Study J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci2017 Oct 12;72(11):1525-1531. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glx031.
Featured image: Shutterstock/Dragon Images