T Nation

Working Inward from the Extremities?


I have been training off and on for the past 8 years with varying degrees of success. I am definitely an ectomorph; very small wrists and forearms. Calves and legs aren’t much to speak of either. My most common injury problem happens in the elbows…most likely due to a weak grip.

In any case, instead of my usual routine of Bench, Row, Overhead Press, Pull-ups followed by Skullcrushers and Bicep Curls…I’d like to try training my Forearms / Grip first and then working my way inward doing the curls and crusher, then finally the major movements.

Is this a completely stupid idea?

I would do something similar for leg day: Calves first, then leg extensions, hamstring curls, followed by squats and deadlift.

Anyone ever try anything like this?

My goal with all this is to build my forearms / Calves. I feel that if I save these for last, I end up not doing the necessary exercises.

Thanks for the feedback.

Anyway. I am 6ft tall. 170lbs. 54 years old.

Edit: Just realized that I had recently asked about doing biceps first…Got some good replies suggesting that that was not a good idea. Anyway, I stuck with my normal routine. I think my biceps did improve in the end.

Yes. Next question? Oh, wait, I’ll play nice.

As long as this is in your dictionary, you will be tiny.

I doubt it. Crazier things have happened, but this doesn’t seem likely.

So look, there are reasons that compund exercises come first and assistance second. You’re trying to invent a square wheel. Exercise physics are pretty basic. Muscles work in contraction only, and the muscle you want to work is going to have to contract for that to happen. Circular logic I know.
If you work the weak point first, they won’t do anything during the compound exercises - other muscles will take over and do the work. So you work the compound, and then do something to pound on the weak point in isolation. Sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone. For instance, Plate Curls will work biceps, forearms and grip all at the same time. Think about what you are trying to work, and do the thing that uses it. Until it it tired and having trouble doing more. You can go to failure if you’re a fan of that - personally I am not. Make sure you recover before you try and kill the muscles again. Not complicated.

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I get elbow tendonitis flare-ups, too. The one sure way I alleviate it is direct forearm training for a month or two as part of my upper body warm-up. The order I follow is forearms - warm up - compound exercises - biceps/triceps/delts isolation.

Specifically, I do single-arm reverse wrist curls and regular wrist curls with a dumbbell, resting my forearm on a bench, only working one arm at a time, and pyramiding weight up each set, alternating reverse and regular wrist curls. It might look something like:

Reverse wrist curls, right arm, 10lbs x 15
Same, left arm
Regular wrist curls, right arm, 15lbs x 15
Same, left arm

For three sets of each exercise per arm, increasing the weights 2.5 to 5 pounds, doing 12-15 reps for reverse and 15-20 reps for regular wrist curls. After completing this, I do a normal upper body warm-up, then move on to the compound exercises.

My theory for why this alleviates my elbow tendonitis is that my upper arm muscles get stronger than my forearms, so directly stengthening my forearms causes those muscle to exert the proper counter-pull on the tendons and ligaments in the elbows.

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Not everyone does this, and pre-exhaust is in direct conflict with this. This feels like another strength-vs-size argument, but the fact is that plenty of people who train for size deliberately prioritize the small things before doing the big things, and it’s effective. If the guy is 54 and has small arms, then not only will training arms first cause them to grow, but it will take less weight on compound movements to elicit growth afterwards, which is a safe and effective way of growing or maintaining muscle, especially in your 50s.

So, I would say, it’s not as simple as “yes, that’s dumb.”

I would agree about the ectomorph stuff, as that’s bunk, but he also seems to associate “ectomorph” with small calves and wrists and generally being a bit thinner, which is just how some people are. Where identifying as anything causes a problem is when you use it as a self-imposed barrier.


If your goal is to build your forearms and calves, then by all means prioritize them: Work them first, and work them hardest.

You lost me here. What does ‘working your way inward’ get you?

Well, something is always going to be ‘saved for last.’ And if (as it seems) the issue is that your energy/motivation flags at the end of your workouts, whatever’s last is what will get neglected. Plan accordingly.


Great. I will try this. You seem to understand the tendonitis issue. It always gets me. At some point the elbows are just aching and it takes months of backing off before they don’t any more.

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Ok…taking from what Triedn True said and what you have also replied…I’m just going to hit the forearms first then proceed with my normal push/pull upper body session. No need to go from the forearms to the biceps to the shoulder etc…Good that you pointed that out. Thanks.


Perhaps when I get carried away following the “logic” too fully, it would be stupid, as Eyedentist alluded to.

Yes, weak grip is going to lead to elbow pain. Trust me on this one. I have enough experience and done enough research to confirm this. Just so you know.

Regarding the Ectomorph thing. I just mentioned it there to give you all an idea about my small frame. I’m not letting it stop me from trying to get huge. But I have the body of a runner and I am trying to make it as powerful as I can. So I am battling directly against its tendency to want to be light and lean…I have a high percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers…So when I lift, I try to be explosive on the concentric part of the movement, slow and controlled on the eccentric.

So I am battling the ectomorph thing, hopefully not letting it limit me.

Stealing this phrase

Great, good luck! Another exercise I’ve found helpful (although it eventually tears up my fingernail cuticles) is putting a thicker rubber band around my fingernails and opening/closing my straightened fingers against the resistance. Think of flicking all five fingers out at once with a rubber band for resistance around the fingernails, then slowly bringing the fingertips back together. A farrier friend of mine (professional horseshoer) showed me that one, and it solved months of debilitating elbow pain. I bought a mixed bag of rubber bands from Walgreens and started with thinner bands, working up to thicker ones, doing sets of 25-50 reps. It lights the forearm extensors on fire!

Yep! Years of lifting have taught me to take care of my joints or suffer pain and lost training time. The reason I sometimes work my forearms individually is to ensure I don’t have a big strength discrepancy between my right and left forearms.

Relatedly, have you noticed if certain exercises especially irritate your elbows? For me, pullups and overhead presses inevitably do if I don’t directly train my forearms. I’ve also found certain grip angles are more or less irritating for rows, pullups/pulldowns, and curls.

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Never heard of this thing with the elastic bands…Definitely worth looking into. Great info.

As far as irritating the elbows…when I pull with an overhand grip, it hurts the outside of the elbows (Pullups, Rows)…when I pull with underhad grip it is the inside of my elbow that gets problems (curls)…I think the skull crushers somehow also hurt the inside of my elbows.

I have found that farmer’s walks and just hanging from the bar have solved the outside elbow problems. The inside ( where that pointy little bone is) is what is hurting these days.

In any case, it would be nice to strong and massive forearms.

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This is not Size vs Strength. I am sure that there are people that do it, but I I have serious doubts that it is effective. Adding volume can be effective, no matter how it is done, but i have a few problems with the notion of pre-exhaust. If I were approaching this from the perspective of strength, you work the compound and then do assistance for the weak portion of the lift. As in, you know that your weak muscle is hamstrings so you do RDL’s after squats - and you don’t concern yourself with whether or not the hammies are big. His problem is that specific muscles are too small. If you pre-exhaust before a compound lift, you are going to risk form and almost certainly cause other muscles to compensate for the fatigued ones during the lift. Thus, you are actually shooting yourself in the foot objective wise, as the heavier work is actually being shifted away from the weak part and you may in fact be limiting exposure to the thing most likely to trigger growth which is the heavier work. If his goal is purely hypertrophy, he might even be better served with avoidance of compoind lifts altogether and a focus on iso work and machines that don’t aggravate his tendonitis. Focusing on his form in specific ways during the lift might also affect his returns, maybe he’s doing things that remove his weak points from the heavier work load already and this is part of the problem. I am this guy’s height, and 48. I graduated highschool weighing 160 lbs, working out in the basement and struggling to put on size. I was doing it wrong. I was listening to guys at school and reading Muscle and Fiction and doing all of that crap. He needs to learn to focus on his muscles and pay attention to making sure that the one he wants to work is the one actually doing the work, and put some weight on the bar.

Now we’re going past strength vs size and questioning if pre exhaust is actually even a thing.
I would ask @The_Mighty_Stu @robstein and @brickhead as they happen to be the resident pro bodybuilders on this site, if they feel that it doesn’t make sense, and @eyedentist, who is a (former) physique competitor, also seemed to believe in his post that it can be effective.

And I would do hamstring curls before doing the RDLs. But once again, you’re talking strength.

Again, I’d disagree. You can do bicep curls before pull-ups, tricep Extensions before dips, ham curls before RDLs, leg extensions before squats, and it all results in the target muscle feeling like it’s going to blow up.

My issue was more with your black-and-white assessment of “this is wrong and dumb”. Right now I’m doing 3 day a week training with a heavy compound lift followed by assistance work, so I’m not saying your way doesn’t work, I just think you tend to look at things through a strength-only perspective. More than one way to skin a cat. This guy’s goals suggest that some form of pre exhaust could work, if we’re talking hypertrophy.

I should add that the specific notion of “working inwards” that the OP posted doesn’t seem to make much sense, but prioritizing and working things first that you want to get bigger isn’t ineffective, IMO.


Why not set aside a day and work on said weaknesses?


This is another solution - add a day of stuff like that. Definitely a good solution if you like the way you’re currently training.

If you say so. I have had elbow pain and tendonitis, I don’t have grip issues (I’m working on the Captain’s of Crush 3 1/2 gripper atm). I can definitely provide direct advice on forearms based on experience. Doing extensor work with elastics can provide relief, but you are not really building anything. It’s purely rehab. The best thing to use is the fat elastics that they used to cover the hinges on new doors with for shipping. You could walk into any home center and snag one off a door on the door aisle. I think they have unfortunatley switched to plastic covers though.
Wrist Plate curls, reverse and normal help as well. There are basic things that build forearms, but a lot of them will inflame tendonitis. The best thing, funtionally, is to do some work with thick bars. Holding onto thick bars will produce grip benefits better than anything else, and they build the forearms in a way that doesn’t piss off elbow tendons. Reverse curls can be beneficial, depending on the individual, and they work your brachyalis which holds some aesthetic benefits for the arms. If you want calves, do calf work, and do it heavy. At least heavy enough to trigger growth instead of just a pump.

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Sure, but pull-ups are not meant to be biceps work, they are really for the back, so in this case you are pre-fatiguing the muscles that you DON"T want to be taking most of the work load.

Either order, doesn’t make a difference. It’s just more volume from the prespective of triceps. It’s not like squats where emphasis can shift to quads in place of hamstrings or adductors over hamstrings. Nothing else is going to fiish the movement of the triceps can’t.

RDL’s are effectively isoation work. So, it is merely more volume to the same muscle. If you did something else to the extent that you cannot execute the RDL’s correctly, then you made them a waste of time and not an effective exercise.

If we are going to use “Pump” as a measure, then we are deluding ourselves. I get that plenty of guys chase a pump. I avoid it as much as possible. It is inhibitory to me lifting. I do not get the thrill and never have, but I also quit caring about BBing 30 years ago. A pump is just blood flow to the area, essentially a self-induced allergic reaction. It doesn’t mean you really worked it enough, or that you are effecting growth. It just means you look more “Swole” at the moment. That makes sense as an objective before walking on stage (And I have been backstage watching the guys cranking reps with tiny weights to trigger this before walking out to pose), but not as a measure of workout quality. I know that I can get a pump without doing anything to trigger growth or progress.
While I am totally in agreement that I tend to have a slanted perspective, I am arguing against his line of thought. The reason he isn’t getting results is not because he’s doing the exercises in the wrong order, and chasing that kind of thing is like getting a Diet Coke qith your super-sized calorie bomb combo and thinking you are on track with your diet. And I want to make sure that you don’t think I’m being antagonistic, I’m enjoying a discussion with you that lets me see other points of view to expand my understanding and viewpoint, I’m not just arguing to argue.


If weak grip is causing issues and you want bigger forearms, have you tried bouldering? Fun way to do lots of grip work.


I’ve been to the local indoor climbing walls before. You are very right. My forearms were toast after each visit. Problem is; I only have time for one fitness hobby and that time is given to lifting weights. But I should have a look at this anyway.

A few thoughts:

-pretty exhausted does work, and any decent bodybuilder over the last 70 years will tell you that. Even simple intelligent sequencing of multiple movements based on the same concepts is supported by the science.

-Compound movements will have different primary and secondary stressed muscle groups depending on which portion of the range of motion you are focused on. When I perform chins to specifically target my back, I focus on the bottom 2/3 of the movements because the top third de-stresses the Lats and shifts to biceps. As such, plenty of more knowledgeable BBers routinely make use of abbreviated ROM pull-ups as a finisher if not second movement in a pre-exhaust combo for such a reason.