I lift hard and I can crush you. That’s the message big forearms send the world. Here’s how our pros and experts train them.
What’s your very best tip for building forearms?
Lifting heavy and minimizing strap use will force your forearms to grow without direct work. However, let’s say your forearms are severely lacking and you want to target them with specific exercises. Then include supersets which facilitate continuous tension. Wrist curls for the flexor muscles are a good option.
For whatever reason, curling behind your back feels like a better position for targeting these muscles. Cables tend to facilitate the continuous tension so begin with behind-the-back wrist curls with a straight bar for 10-12 reps.
Immediately cut the weight in half, turn around, and with a pronated grip (palms down) do reverse curls. The reverse curls will hit the biceps but also the brachioradialis. Keep rest breaks at a minimum and perform this superset for 4 rounds.
To maximize development, you need to train forearms in all their available movement patterns. This means going beyond a few sets of wrists curls and extensions at the end of your workout.
With a sledgehammer, you can train pronation, supination, ulnar deviation, radial deviation and a host of circumduction patterns. Think about people with the best forearms: mechanics, rock climbers, and strongman competitors. What do they have in common? They use their forearms in a number of complex patterns with high frequency and a long time under tension.
Aim for 3 to 4 sets of 10-20 reps, pausing slightly at the top on each rep. And make sure you perform the exercise from both directions.
Always strive to get stronger or do more reps over time. You can make the exercise more difficult by simply moving your hand further away from the sledgehammer head. I’d mark out inches on the handle so you can accurately track your progress.
If you’re up for a challenge, try some front face levers too:
The forearms can handle a lot of volume, and respond well to variety. So you could structure your week as follows:
- Day 1 – Wrist flexion and extension (using dumbbells and barbells)
- Day 2 – Radial and ulnar deviation
- Day 3 – Supination and pronation
Once you’ve got a big pump after your final set of the day, stretch your forearms for 60 seconds per arm.
The wrist roller, which you can make with a dowel rod and some rope, is a great tool for building forearms because you can roll it both directions – hitting your forearms in different ways.
You can also easily manipulate the weight to adjust for gradual progressive overload. That’s tough to do when you just stick to using a fat grip barbell or fat grips around dumbbells.
That said, since using a fat grip is another effective way to build up your forearms (because of the increased grip demand) you can combine the two and use a two-inch dowel for your wrist roller.
It’s a tough to count reps when using the wrist roller since the movements are small and you’ve got to account for each hand. So instead measure your fat-grip wrist roller sets by time. I usually do 2-3 sets of 40-60 seconds with 3-4 minutes rest between each set. Switch directions several times on each set.
Instead of holding your arms straight out in front of your shoulders, which gasses out your shoulders before anything else, stand on top of a bench or plyo box while holding the roller down in front of your hips. From there, you keep switching the directions from rolling the rope up and unrolling it back down (in a slow and controlled manner).
What this does is keep the roller moving while never allowing the weight to rest on the ground until the set time is complete.
We can list all of the forearm-specific exercises in the world, but this truth remains: you’ll never see a guy with a big back who doesn’t have proportionately well-developed forearms. So if you want big forearms, you’ve gotta pull more than once per week. It’s that simple.
Cumulative volume is the name of the game when it comes to developing muscles like the forearms, especially since their nature is geared towards more endurance-oriented activities. Even with well-performed back exercises, the forearm muscles are still going to be synergists.
Follow this guide to get your back training volume up:
- Chin-ups once per week
- Pull-ups once per week
- Row variation three times per week
- Loaded carry once per week
If you check all four boxes every week, expect plenty of gains.
And one more thing. Muscles like the calves and forearms are distal extremities. Lagging gains can also be an issue of poor circulation and/or dull neural stimulation. Getting sessions with a licensed massage therapist or A.R.T. provider can help improve both those things, along with improving grip strength as a bonus. Don’t shy away from it.
I bet that many of us will recommend limiting the use of straps when lifting. I have mixed feelings about that. Sure, not using straps will increase the demands on grip strength and will also provide some stimulus for the forearms (grip is at least as much about hands as it is forearms).
But what if your goal is overall muscle growth? What if NOT using straps takes 50 pounds or more off of your deadlift sets?
I also find that when people are arm dominant, using straps on pulling exercises allows them to better target their back. So, if your MAIN goal is building up the forearms, limiting the use of straps is a good idea, but understand that they aren’t evil either!
I like to use a thick bar for curls and reverse curls as well as Fat Gripz for hammer curls. I don’t use them for back or pulling exercises because they will severely limit how much weight you can use, decreasing the stimulus on the main muscles you’re trying to make bigger.
I also believe in constant tension when training the forearms. Maximizing lactic acid accumulation is the best way to make the forearms bigger. As such I like the good old wrist roller. That’s been my go-to exercise for bigger forearms. Since there’s basically no eccentric and no muscle damage going on, you can easily do them on a daily basis even multiple times per day.
I don’t hate what some consider “sissy” forearm exercises, like wrist curls and wrist extensions, but most people do them wrong. The range of motion is super short so you must use constant tension and slow the movement if you want them to work. We want each set to last at least 40 seconds, or more precisely you want maximum lactic acid accumulation.
Finally, I’ve always been reluctant to use occlusion training (using a band or wrap to reduce blood flow to the working muscle) but I believe that it could be a great tool for forearm size. But I’d have to experiment with it first to be able to recommend it.
A strong grip equals big forearms. So the first thing to do is minimize the use of straps. At least two out of three of your pulling and arm workouts should be done without them.
On top of that, add some specific grip work:
- Use thick grip attachments or thicker bars for both pulling and curling exercises (hammer curls, reverse curls, rows, and supinated rows are ideal). Do them with a variety of angles. You’ll be surprised how much more difficult all exercises are when the bar thickness increases.
- Squeeze as hard as you can when you lift.
- Try to use a lot of static holds. For instance, for rack deadlifts hold the bar for 30 seconds at the top.
- Try a “rolling thunder” type of device (pictured above) both statically and for reps. Use one arm at a time and increase weight weekly.
Use these five exercise categories for building your forearms and grip strength:
- Heavy compound movements that emphasize support-grip strength. This includes overhand grip deadlifts, snatch-grip deadlifts, Reeves deadlifts, weighted pull-ups, heavy rows, single-arm dead hang holds, heavy shrugs, and farmers walks. These should involve significant time under tension and would obviously be performed without straps.
- Crushing and pinching movements. This includes fat grip exercises, plate pinching drills, towel pull-ups, ledge/mountain climber pull-ups, rope climbing, rope pulling, and hex dumbbell pinching exercises. These build significant functional strength and hypertrophy throughout the entire musculature of the forearms, not to mention Herculean grip strength.
- Bottoms-up exercises. Few exercises obliterate the forearms, hands, and finger muscles to the extent that these do. You’ll be required to activate every muscle in the hands and forearms to stabilize an unstable kettlebell or plate. Bottoms-up exercises also teach grip stability and motor control in the fingers, wrists, and hands which pays dividends when it comes to long-term development of the forearms. Here’s an example:
Direct forearm isolation training. This includes wrist curl variations, wrist roller drills, and leverage based forearm drills with a sledgehammer or mace. While these drills typically involve little else but the actual forearm and grip muscles, few exercises will directly target the wrist flexor and extensor muscles to the same degree.In terms of training economy, these probably aren’t ideal if you’re only able to make it to the gym once or twice per week. But if maximal forearm development is the goal you’ll want to include both extension and flexion based forearm isolation movements in your training.
Bicep work that targets the brachioradialis muscle of the forearms. This includes exercises such as hammer curls, reverse-grip curls, Zottman curls, and bottoms-up hammer curls.
When it comes to visual appearance, the brachioradialis is one of the most noticeable areas of the forearms particularly in a relaxed position. If you want Popeye-like forearms these are a must.
If you want to really make your forearms beg for mercy, nothing will make yours scream like 100-plus rep barbell curls (no weight on the bar or very light bar). And if you really want those forearms, push more towards the 200 rep range… and do it nonstop.
If you try to do rep PRs like this, and push them to up over 200, your forearms are going to hate you, but they’ll grow like mad as well.
When I first learned to Olympic lift in the fall of 1975, my hands were calloused, my traps hurt and my thighs grew. I put on forty pounds of bodyweight in four months and my life changed forever.
Two and a half hours a day of snatching, cleaning, and pulling lead to another issue: I had troubles falling asleep because my forearms hurt so bad. From those weird little tendons in the wrist up to the big belly near the elbows, I ached.
My coach kept promising that when we got heavier (more weight on the bar), we could move to straps. These magic strips of fabric would link me directly to the bar and I wouldn’t have to grip so hard. I could pull bigger weights and, hopefully, I could sleep better. But I never used them.
The reason is simple: when I picked up the discus again, I threw much farther. Yes, I was bigger, faster, and stronger, but I also discovered something else: my grip on the discus was nothing like I had ever experienced. Moving from 1.6 kilo discus to the Olympic two kilo discus should have made me throw less, but I threw farther. All my throwing friends dropped off in performance, yet I improved.
It took me years to understand the relationship between grip strength and performance. Others might talk about wrist curls and reverse wrist curls, but just picking up really heavy loads does miracles for the forearms. Big deadlifts, loaded pull-ups, and farmer walks are miracle workers for the forearms. I don’t think there is another route to forearm greatness.