Can't Add Size to Your Biceps?

Try Working the Forearms!

Direct grip and forearm training can be just what you need when arm gains have stalled out. Here’s why, plus a full training program to get you started.

When a bodybuilder complains that he or she can’t add mass or strength to his elbow flexors, I often suggest they add some direct grip and forearm work. Offhand, it doesn’t seem to make sense. But when you add direct forearm and grip work to your workout regimen, your curling poundages go up. How come? We need to go back to the anatomy textbooks to answer that one. If you were to investigate the anatomy of the biceps and lower arm, you’d find that there are a few forearm muscles, such as the flexor carpi radialis, that contribute to elbow flexion. Consequently, if you build them up, it’ll lead to enhanced biceps and brachialis development.

Elite bodybuilders of the '60s, like Chuck Sipes and Larry Scott – known for handling Herculean weights in curling exercises – were strong proponents of this training principle.

Why Focus on Forearms?

If you perform regular grip work, it’ll permit you to use greater loads in key back exercises, such as pull-ups and the various forms of rowing movements. As you know by now, using heavier weights means a greater overload on the muscular structure, and a greater overload on the muscular structure means greater hypertrophy. And lastly, nothing gives you a psychological edge in a business meeting like a bone-crushing handshake.

The regular performance of direct grip work will help pack size on the forearms to make them look like Indian Clubs or, for you cultural xenophobes, a bowling-pin look. This will enhance the overall symmetry of the arm. Now, you may be convinced that you’re going to have a hell of a time building up your forearms, but contrary to popular bodybuilding mythology, the forearms can grow! Packing a full inch on the forearms within 12 weeks of specialized work is well within the realm of reality for one who’s committed to the task.

Now, you may be concerned about how you’re going to fit in all of this forearm and grip work without neglecting your arms. Well, for the duration of this program, I want you to cut down drastically on your biceps and triceps work. You’ll only need to do two exercises (two sets each) for both the triceps and the elbow flexors. Don’t panic, though. You won’t lose any size, and you may, in fact, gain some size from the aforementioned forearm/elbow flexor tie-in.

20 Workouts to Noticeable Gains

The following is a 20-workout, forearm-building routine which normally results in forearm circumference gains of one-half an inch to three-quarters of an inch. This program is designed around the assumption that you’re training arms once every five days, and I recommend that you train your forearms right after you train the arms.

Workouts 1-6

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Palms Down Dumbbell Wrist Curl 3 15-20
A2 Palms Down Low-Pulley Wrist Curl 3 15-20 2 min.
B1 Palms Up Dumbbell Wrist Curl 3 15-20
B2 Palms Up Low-Pulley Wrist Curl 3 15-20 2 min.

Workouts 7-12

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 EZ-Bar Palms Down Wrist Curl * 3 10-12
A2 Palms Up Barbell Wrist Curl 3 10-12
A3 Standing EZ-Bar Reverse Curl 3 10-12
A4 Palms Up Wrist Roller * * 3 1 min. 3 min.

* As opposed to barbells, using the EZ-bar or dumbbells for palms-down wrist curls greatly reduces strain on the wrists and allows for better isolation of the forearm extensors.

* * Because of the variance in rope length from gym to gym, I prefer to give a time-under-tension goal instead of a rep bracket.

Workouts 13-18

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Decline Barbell Palms up Wrist Curl * 4 12-15 30 sec.
A2 Incline EZ-Bar Palms Down Wrist Curl 4 12-15 30 sec.
B1 One-Arm Radial Flexion * * 3 12-15 30 sec.
B2 One-Arm Ulnar Flexion * * 3 12-15 30 sec.

* For incline and decline forearm work, just prop up the appropriate end of a flat bench by placing it over an object 4-6 inches in height.

* * Use a low pulley and special handle. For forearm work, I prefer to use Tri-Bar handles as they’re more comfortable for the wrists and hands.

Workouts 19-20

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Incline Barbell Palms up Wrist Curl 4 8-10 1 min.
A2 Decline EZ-Bar Palms Down Wrist Curl 4 8-10 1 min.
B1 Forearm Pronation * 3 10-12 45 sec.
B2 Forearm Supination * * 3 10-12 45 sec.

* Use an adjustable pulley and triceps rope. Forearm pronation exercises recruit the pronator teres and pronator quadratus. Including them in your routine will improve your curling strength in those exercises using a pronated grip, so all forms of reverse curls will normally go up after engaging in a just few sessions of pronation exercises.

* * Use adjustable pulley and triceps rope. Forearm supination exercises recruit the short-head of the biceps brachii and the supinator. If, when you get tired, you have a tendency to falter and inadvertently switch to a semi-supinated grip when doing supinated-grip dumbbell curls, you’ll benefit from doing these exercises. They’ll improve your curling strength in those exercises that use a supinated grip, particularly when you work with dumbbells.

A Word on Training the Grip

Wrist curls and wrist roller exercises are great for the forearms, but they don’t specifically train the muscles used in gripping. The muscles you need to concentrate on are located in the hand, and they don’t run across the wrists.

Some people believe gripping muscles can be effectively trained by simply squeezing a tennis ball. Three problems are associated with tennis ball squeezing:

  1. There’s only one resistance option.
  2. The more you squeeze the ball, the more it weakens, therefore giving you less resistance (even though you’re getting stronger).
  3. You can’t gradually increase the resistance and, thus, there’s no way to improve beyond a certain point.

Until “tennis ball technology” improves, the most practical and effective way to strengthen your grip is by using one of the various gripping machines available out there. These represent the modern alternative to the fixed-resistance grippers sold in most sporting stores. They offer the advantage of being more comfortable and adjustable than the spring-loaded grippers that obviously don’t accommodate everyone’s hand size and strength levels.

When using a gripping machine (the better devices on the market are made by Cybex, Atlantis, and Hammer), it’s important to remember to just involve the finger muscles. Unfortunately, because of the orientation of the handles, one usually has the tendency to use the traps or the scapulae retractors to complete the range of motion.

Another feature that I like about the gripping machines is that they’re very safe to use. Although you may think this to be a minor point, I’d like to share a true story with you to illustrate the importance of safety. A high-intensity, one-set-to-failure guy at our gym took the advice of one of his gurus and started walking around the gym holding dumbbells that had handles heavily coated with Vaseline. This, apparently, was the ultimate way to build gripping strength. He shortly discovered that it was a very good way to break two toes, too, since he dropped one of the dumbbells on his foot. It got worse, though. After dropping that dumbbell, he lost his balance and dropped the other one, which ended up hitting some Captain Anadrol disciple on the head while he was doing crunches on the floor. That mistake earned the greasy-handed idiot one of the most impressive backhands I’ve ever seen.

When training with gripping machines, I recommend time-under-tension rather than reps. In other words, squeeze the handle for a predetermined time, like 60 seconds. I also recommend using a periodized approach, such as that explained in the following programs. As you’ll see, Program 1 is an accumulation phase that stresses the system through a high volume of training, while Program 2 is an intensification phase that stresses the muscles through a period of high-intensity training.

The 6-Week Program

Program 1 (Weeks 1-3): Accumulation Phase

Perform the exercises following a tri-set sequence, completing a total of three tri-sets. Take no rest between each exercise, and rest for 90 seconds between each complete set.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Decline Supinated Wrist Curl 3 60-70 sec.
A2 Decline Pronated Wrist Curl 3 60-70 sec.
A3 Gripping Machine 3 60-70 sec. 90 sec.

Program 2 (Weeks 4-6): Intensification Phase

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 One-Arm Supinated Dumbbell Wrist Curl 4 30-40 sec.
A2 One-Arm Pronated Dumbbell Wrist Curl 4 30-40 sec. 90 sec.
B1 Gripping Machine * 4 4
B2 Gripping Machine 4 60 sec. 90 sec.

* 4 reps holding the squeeze for a 6-second count each time.

Now, I don’t recommend that you train forearms and grip at the same time, unless you’re taking an amount of Anadrol that is equivalent to your social security number, multiplied by this weeks’ winning Lotto number, and multiplied again by the average age that a Brazilian girl reaches menarche. It’s just too brutal, and it would constitute overtraining. Work either forearms or grip, but not both.

Give this workout a try. If I ever get a chance to meet you and shake your hand, I expect us to get in a gripping contest, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the John Wayne character shook hands with the Irish bully in the movie “The Quiet Man.”