Forearms and legs; it’s a cruel irony that arguably two of the most under-worked body parts at the gym also happen to be the key to unlocking the heaviest weights. But while people are wising up to the eternal maxim — “never skip leg day” — our weak forearms are still proving a liability.
“The forearms stabilise the wrists and manage your grip,” explains trainer and fitness consultant, James Pisano. “So if you can’t hold the weight or sustain the range of motion then progression will be slow.”
Grip strength is the important thing to pick up on here, with it often related to upper body strength. The stronger your grip, the better you’ll be at carrying, holding, and yep, lifting, heavier things be it bench press, deadlift, or barbell row.
Now lifting and forearm strength is a two-way street, with your forearms, and especially your grip, usually developing in line with your training routine. But this is only really the case when using free weights. So those of you who are working mainly on machines will need to train those forearms separately, while athletes who rely heavily on pulling muscles — CrossFit competitors, BJJ practitioners — will add a considerable amount of functional strength with dedicated forearm training. And occasionally, even free weight lifters will need to focus on their forearms.
Here Pisano gives us some top tips for working them out then, before we break down five of the best forearm exercises to specifically target those lower limbs.
How To Work Out Your Forearms
So, if your forearms are so hard to work, how do you go about growing them?
“Treat your forearms like any other group by setting your goal and focusing on reps and sets targeting that region,” says Pisano.
“If you want strong forearms, then ‘hangs and holds’ are superb for both conditioning and developing them, while practising calisthenics, in general, is great for increasing your grip strength. However, if it’s size you’re looking for then they need hypertrophy training just like other groups. Warm them up, Load them up and get the reps in.”
A little hack to get started: look for large handles and bars on your free weights. “There are some specific brands that make tools just for this but the bigger the bar the harder it is to grip.”
5 Of The Best Forearm Exercises
Pull Bar Hangs
Technique: “One of the most effective forearm training exercises for me are the ‘Pull-up bar hangs’,” says Pisano. “Simply hang on to a pull-up bar for as long as possible. As you get better at hanging, start using additional weight like vests, or changing the grip from the bar to wrapping a towel around with some hanging down off the bar.”
Top Tip: “I suggest when you practice your hangs do so safely and start with an assisted version like using a resistance band with your pull-ups. Then build up your endurance from there.”
Technique: Sit on a bench with a dumbbell in your hand. Extend your arm toward the floor and brace the back of it against the inside of your left thigh. Allow your hand to open and the dumbbell to roll to your fingertips. Now close your hand and perform a wrist curl.
Top Tip: Squeeze the weight as hard as possible when you complete your wrist curl. Those grip gains are in that squeeze.
Technique: This CrossFit fave is a full-body worker that creates muscular tension throughout your forearms. To complete, stand tall with weights, either barbell, plates or dumbbells, held by your sides. Keep your shoulders tight and your back straight, before taking short, quick steps as you walk a set distance with the weights in tow.
Top Tip: Some gyms will have special farmer’s walk barbells (basically like an Olympic barbell but with grab handles), so keep an eye out for these. They’ll help you to keep your balance as you lift heavier loads.
Behind-the-Back Cable Curl
Technique: Attach a D-handle to the low pulley of a cable machine. Take the handle in your right hand, and step forward. There should be tension on the cable while your arm should be drawn slightly behind your body.
Put your left leg in front, squeeze your shoulder blades together to lock your arm in place, and then curl the handle up toward your shoulder. Make sure not to allow your elbow to point forward. Hold the contraction before slowly lowering the weight back down.
Top Tip: This forearm exercise is a great finisher as you’ll be lifting a lighter weight allowing you to crank up the reps and eke out every single last one of those gains.
Hammer Dumbbell Curl
Technique: The hammer curl is a big arms move full-stop, and by proxy one of the best forearm exercises around. To complete, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.
Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands with your palms facing towards your body. This is as opposed to a standard curl which starts with palms facing forwards. Slowly curl the dumbbell up to your shoulders while keeping your elbows close to your body. Hold for a second at the top of the lift, before lowering the weights under control.
Top Tip: If you’re struggling for control don’t be worried about choosing a lighter weight, and think about sitting down with your back against a 90-degree bench. This will prevent you from rocking your body and using momentum to help with the curl.