When you’re training grip intensive exercises like chin-ups, deadlifts, rowing, or carry variations, you will often feel your forearms burning. It’s usually the first muscle group to fatigue before the targeted muscle group to due those movements all requiring a firm grip. Forearm strength should not be an afterthought. Yet it is common weak point for a lot of lifters, including yours truly.
The forearms are involved in many upper and lower body lifts, so it pays to spend some time strengthening them. Stronger forearms can support more weight and more reps on compound exercises, but it’s going to take some time and effort to build strength and muscle. Let’s discuss the reasons why that is.
Reason 1: Slow Twitch Dominant Forearm Muscles
The forearms have many small muscles with varying fiber types, but most forearm muscles are slow twitch dominant. Slow twitch muscle fibers are difficult to grow because they rely on a rich supply of oxygenated blood called myoglobin.
Myoglobin, a blood protein, contains iron and stores oxygen necessary for muscles to carry out cellular respiration — the process by which cells break up sugars into usable energy. Because of this, they generate less power and strength than fast-twitch fibers, but are slower to fatigue, and sustain activity for longer. Being slow twitch dominant is a positive when it comes to farmer’s walks or carrying the groceries in from the car.
Reason 2: Muscle Origins and Insertions
The origin of a muscle is the attachment site which doesn’t move during contraction. The insertion is the attachment site which moves during muscle contraction. The insertion is usually distal, and the origin is proximal, relative to the insertion.
A longer insertion (tendon) and shorter muscle belly makes the muscle harder to grow. Shorter insertion and longer muscle belly makes it easier. A fact probably very well known to bodybuilders is insertion points affect how big your muscles look. Part of growing great forearms depends on what your mum and dad gave you.
However, even if you land on the more difficult side of genetics or are made of slow twitch dominant muscle fibers, don’t let that stop you from growing and strengthening your forearms. Insert these forearm exercises into your accessory routine to watch your forearms grow without spinach.
Due to slow twitch dominance likely leading to a stubbornness to grow, training forearms frequently in a higher rep range is advisable. Try the following to start out and adjust as needed:
- 2-4 times per week
- 8-20 reps or 30-60 seconds
- 3-4 sets
As a lot of exercises rely on grip strength, so it’s best to use these exercises 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.
Barbell Reverse Biceps Curls
Reverse curls train the smaller forearm extensors (brachioradialis, pronator teres) and brachialis — a muscle underneath the biceps which will help make your biceps look bigger when you flex.
A strength imbalance between the forearm extensors and flexors may lead to sore elbows, so it pays to train the forearm extensors from an injury prevention standpoint.
- Stand with feet hip width apart, holding with your arms by your sides with your knuckles facing towards you.
- Keeping the elbows tucked, slowly curl the barbell up slightly above 90 degrees.
- Reverse the move slowly to starting position.
- Repeat steps 1-3 for desired reps.
- Start with a weight that’s approximately 10lb lighter than your regular barbell curl.
There is no doubt this is a forearm killer. It trains both forearm flexors and extensors (deltoids and rotator cuffs isometrically) and the pump and burn is incredible while using little weight.
The wrist roller is one of the best exercises for developing forearm size, strength, and it’s probably one of the most neglected exercises in the gym.
- Stand with feet hip width apart holding the wrist roller with knuckles facing towards you.
- Slowly perform a front raise to bring the roller to shoulder height.
- Roll the weight up, alternating hands until the weight is fully wound.
- Reverse the movement slowly.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for desired reps or until failure.
- Start with a 5-10 pound plate if you’ve never done this exercise before.
Behind The Back-Barbell Wrist Curl
This exercise targets your forearm flexors and improves your finger strength. Both are important for grip strength and improving the ability to open pickle jars. A major advantage of this variation, as opposed to other effective options, is the ability to add load in increments.
Of course, start on the lighter side with higher reps, but don’t be afraid to add weight to further strengthen your forearms.
- Set up a barbell on a 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 an option.
- 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.
- Repeat steps 1-3 for desired reps or until failure.
It takes time, patience, and dedication to grow a stubborn muscle group like forearms. Start with light weights when performing each exercise and work your way up. Using a mix of good programming and frequency will have your forearms popping like Popeye.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image via Shutterstock/Dragon Images.