Major forearm muscles diagram

Do Forearm Curls Work?

Forearm strength and bigger forearms

Everyone wants big, powerful forearms. They’re not “showy” like biceps or pecs, but they’re important. If you see a man with big upper arms but skinny wrists and forearms, you’re probably right to assume that he doesn’t have very much functional strength.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and many people are held back by weak forearms and a correspondingly weak grip.

In this article, we’ll discuss some forearm workouts and grip strengthening exercises. Hopefully you’ll come away with an understanding of the issues surrounding forearm training and a strategy for increasing your forearm strength and developing a powerful grip.

Grip strength and forearm size

Most bodybuilders find that it is impossible to add significant size to the forearms without bulking up the entire body.

Lou Ferrigno has massive forearms, but does he have a hulk-like grip?

Lou Ferrigno has massive forearms, but does he have a hulk-like grip?

Surprisingly, grip strength doesn’t necessarily correlate well with the size of your forearms.

Guys with big forearms are usually big all over, the result of years of working out with full-body compound movements coupled with a good bulking diet. But to get extra forearm size, they generally do wrist curls (and reverse wrist curls) that target the wrist and forearm flexors, in addition to hammer curls or reverse curls for the brachioradialis.

Over time, these exercises add some size and strength to the forearms. However, they don’t appreciably increase grip strength.

Since a powerful grip is one of the key factors in increasing your performance on compound pulling exercises like pull ups, chin ups, deadlifts, and power cleans, it stands to reason that a sensible forearm routine should focus not on curling moves, but on grip-building exercises. After all, do you want real strength, or just the appearance of strength?

Do you need supplemental forearm exercise?

If you are a novice who is starting a bulking routine, it’s a waste of time, energy, and recovery capacity to perform targeted forearm exercises. Grip strength is important, and anything that fatigues your grip will hamper your ability to make progress in the compound pulling exercises.

Popeyes large forearms were developed by high-rep rope pulling aboard ship.

Popeye's large forearms were developed by high-rep rope pulling aboard ship.

However, that’s not meant to imply that all forearm workouts are bad. Forearms differ from the upper arms in that they are composed of significantly more slow-twitch muscle. As such, they do not respond as readily as biceps and triceps to heavy, low-rep movements. Wrist curls with a straight barbell are well-suited to high-rep sets. Perform them seated, with the forearms resting on your knees, or standing with the barbell behind your back. These long, low-intensity sets will strengthen the tendons and connective tissue, and develop muscular endurance – the perfect combination for a part of your body that should be able to function all throughout the day rather than in short bursts of maximum power.

Bodybuilders often complain about elbow tendonitis or other, related injuries. If you build a solid foundation of forearm strength with high-rep sets of forearm exercises, and couple that with a concerted effort at training a powerful grip, you will avoid the connective-tissue damage that plagues people who gain strength too quickly. High-rep sets of wrist curls (and their variations) are one of the few isolation movements that I recommend.

Grip strength exercises are another matter entirely. Gripping muscles tend more towards the fast-twitch end of the spectrum. They are best trained with heavy weights and low reps, and they respond very well to heavy deadlifts and functional isometric exercises such as pinch-grip training or farmer’s walks with a thick-handled dumbbell or kettlebell.

Don’t fixate on your forearms, focus on the rest of your physique

The problem with your forearms is: you see them all day long. It’s easy to get fixated on your skinny wrists and forsake the rest of your muscular development. The body is not a collection of unrelated parts that you can strengthen in isolation. It is best developed as a single unit, using compound exercises that engage as many muscles as possible.

If you focus on training movements instead of individual muscles, you will reduce the risk of developing the weak spots that lead to injury.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tyciol April 16, 2011 at 1:07 am

Confusing article, seems to flip-flop between condemning forearm work and then supporting it.

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Hugo September 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm

He isn’t condemning forearm work in general, but rather stating that specific types of forearm training as less effective than others unless you are a body builder.

Things to take from this article if you are concerned with FUNCTIONAL MUSCLE (Not body-building):
-He makes a distinction between forearm size and grip strength, stating that one does’t correspond directly to the other.
-Forearm strength will come from upper-body work almost naturally, unless you are making very quick strength gains via ISOMETRICS which won’t allow your forearms to keep up.
-use endurance forearm exercises like farmer walks w/ fat grip.
-if you DO decide to do isometric exercises targeting forearms only, use higher reps as opposed to higher weights because they are muscles like your calves, that respond to high rep (slow).

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PC April 18, 2011 at 1:49 am

I agree with Tyciol, it is quite confusing.

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DARKKNIGHT August 30, 2011 at 3:08 pm

IF YOU DON’T HAVE NICE FOREARMS YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO LIFT HEAVY WEIGHTS BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE GOOD GRIP ON THE BAR OR DUMBELLS ETC.. I BUILD MY FOREARMS ALONG WITH MY BICEPS EXCERSISE AND REMEMBER TO DO REVERVSE GRIP FOREARM ROUTINE TOO. BEFORE YOU KNOW IT YOUR FORTEARMS WILL BE HUGE.

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mitchell November 12, 2011 at 11:50 am

I bought the set heavy duty grippers 100-350 just wondering the best way to use them, have pretty good forearms, just trying to get back into bodybuilding (state champ of Mississippi 1987) trying something new to get excited about know what I mean?

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Thomas November 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Hi Mitchell: I’m the wrong one to try to give advice about gripper training. Forearm — grip — training is a niche that is served by a few high-quality websites. How about starting here: http://www.rosstraining.com/articles/trainingthehands.html.

I’m not a fan of grippers for beginners, but I think they’re fine for folks with training experience. Maybe it’s just a personal bias, but I prefer fat-bar work to grippers for novices. With your level of experience and accomplishment, you are sure to succeed no matter the method you choose. Good luck!

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Tyciol January 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm

This mentions doing the wrist curls. Are the reverse wrist curls to hit the extensors?

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