Photo credit: Desmond Lee

Forearms are the bastard stepchild of arm training. Normally when you see an arm training article, it's really a biceps and triceps article, with a set of hammer curls thrown in if you're lucky.

I'm not sure why though. Forearms are sometimes all people see of your physique when you're out in public. From a performance standpoint, the grip and forearms transfer power from the body to a sporting implement or directly to an opponent. They literally attach the baseball player to the bat, the powerlifter to the bar, and the mixed martial artist to his opponent.

In many sports, a freaky grip can give you a decided edge. Since biceps and triceps have been hammered to death – both literally and figuratively – let's turn our attention to the forearms. Whether you're training for looks, function, or a combination of the two, read on. It's time to add in some serious grip and forearm training to your routine.

Grip Strength Defined

Gripmaster John Brookfield has written a great deal about the different types of grip strength. He gives several examples, which can be narrowed down into four categories:

1 – Crushing Grip

hand gripper

Squeezing a hand gripper, or someone's hand when you shake it, exemplifies this type of grip strength.

2 – Pinch Grip

pinch grip

The best example of the pinch grip is holding two weight plates together, flat side out, and pinching them tightly so you can lift them off the floor. This demands superior thumb strength.

3 – Supportive Grip

Supportive Grip

This form of grip strength is best demonstrated by holding onto a heavy barbell, dumbbell, or farmer's walk implement.

4 – Wrist Strength

Wrist Strength

Exercises like wrist curls and lever bar lifts, in which the wrist is maneuvered through different ranges of motion, characterize what can be termed wrist strength.

Since much of this has been discussed before, I'd just like to point out that the different types of grip strength are fairly separate and distinct. I think this is the most misunderstood point with regards to training the hands.

For example, you may excel at closing a heavy gripper, but perform poorly on exercises like farmer's walks where high amounts of supportive grip are required. In addition, I've observed that the correlation between hanging onto a thick bar and a normal diameter bar is very low, despite them both being supportive grips. As the barbell diameter increases, the hand is forced open, which shifts emphasis to the thumb.

The take-home message in all grip training situations is that you'll need to train specifically for what you're trying to improve.

Some Helpful Training Tips

Now that we've established what the different types of grip strength are, here are a few other tips that'll help to accelerate your progress:

  • Vary Your Elbow Angle: I've noticed that grip strength varies depending on the degree of elbow flexion, and it's usually highest at approximately 90 degrees. Because of this variability, I suggest you train using various degrees of elbow flexion. For this reason, I've included some exercises below in which the elbow is actively flexing and extending while gripping some sort of implement.
  • Train One Arm at a Time: Lifters typically have one hand with a significantly weaker grip. If you're a strength athlete, you're only as strong as your weakest link, so it makes sense to focus as much effort as possible on bringing that up. Many of the exercises I've listed below are performed one arm at a time for this reason.
  • Variety is the Spice of Life: In my experience, the hands adapt to a given stimulus faster than other body parts. Changing the exercises (or even the handle shape or size of the same exercise) every 2-4 weeks will ensure consistent progress. More importantly, using various grips and exercises will help you to avoid repetitive strain injury. I've had clients who, for one reason or another, found benching with a normal bar uncomfortable on the wrists. When I switched them to a thicker bar (1.5" to 2" diameter), the pain was alleviated.
  • Alternate Reps Frequently: Coinciding with my observation that the grip adapts to exercise selection very quickly, rep ranges are no different. I suggest alternating rep ranges (or time under tension for static exercises) weekly, as outlined below.
  • Get Active Release Technique (ART): Like several of my fellow strongman competitors, I've gotten excellent results from ART. The benefits extend beyond its usefulness in treating injuries though. ART may also yield positive results in grip strength as well, so find a good provider in your area.
  • Keep Your Hands Healthy: Giving more attention to the lower arms will definitely give you a powerful pair of hands, but not taking proper care of them may leave you unable to train. There are several things you can do to ensure your hands stay healthy:
  1. Ice: If your hands are taking a routine beating, ice can be a tremendously beneficial (and cheap) recovery method. Throwing your hands in a bucket of ice water after training only takes a second and can pay off greatly in the long run.
  2. Care For Your Calluses: Tearing calluses not only sucks in the short-term, it also makes holding on to a heavy bar pretty tough for a week or two. If you're building up big calluses, taking a few seconds to buff them with a piece of pumice stone will reduce your risk of losing a chunk of skin. This is especially important if you're doing a lot of heavy supportive work, like single arm rack pulls or modified farmer's holds.
  3. Active Recovery: This is another great way to make sure the hands stay healthy through movement. Grabbing a bucket full of fine sand, using Chinese dexterity balls, or squeezing those little stress balls you can buy at the supermarket counter all qualify as forms of active recovery. Done one to two days after a tough forearm workout, this is another simple yet invaluable option.

Getting Creative

While there are numerous companies that sell specialized grip tools, there are plenty of free or very inexpensive ways to improvise your own grip equipment. With a quick trip to your local hardware store and a little imagination, you can make some serious grip strengthening devices for next to nothing. The remaining exercises can be done with items typically found in a commercial gym.

How to make your own:

Wrist Roller

Wrist Roller

A wrist roller is probably the easiest piece of grip and forearm training equipment to make. First, find a piece of PVC pipe. It comes in different diameters, so you may even want to get more than one size. Alternatively, you also can use a squared piece of wood (like a chair leg) which will offer a different feel.

Drill a hole in the center and thread a piece of strong rope through it. Knot the end a few times once you get it though and you're good to go. I've added a small clip to the other end of the rope on mine so it can be easily attached to a loading pin. If you don't have a loading pin you can just attach the rope directly to the plates.

Lever Bar

Lever Bar

A lever bar is another piece of equipment that's fairly easy to make. All you really need is a piece of 1.5" diameter pipe (that's the inside diameter) and some sort of rubber stopper. Attach the stopper approximately four inches from one of the ends. This is the end where you'll load the plate(s).

Remember, the longer you make the lever bar, the harder it'll be to maneuver. I'd recommend a length of 15-20 inches. The one pictured is 24 inches, and it takes only a small amount of weight (5-10 pounds) to make it very challenging.

I've also bulked up the other end by securing a piece of slightly larger pipe over it. It essentially becomes one lever bar with two different grip diameters.

Thick Handle Dumbbell

Thick Handle Dumbbell

This is easily the most versatile grip tool you can make. Aside from pure grip exercises like dumbbell deadlifts, you can use it for rows, presses, curls, and pretty much every other upper body exercise where you'd use a normal dumbbell.

To make a thick handled dumbbell you'll use the same 1.5" diameter pipe that you did for the lever bar. You'll need a piece that's between 16 and 18 inches long. You'll also need a 5-6" piece of slightly larger pipe for the handle. This not only bulks up the grip, but it also keeps the plates from crushing your hands, which is nice.

I simply wrapped duct tape around the inner pipe so the handle fits tightly over it. You'll probably need a hammer to get the inner pipe through the handle. This will ensure that it's a tight fit. As you can see, I've also added a flange to each side, secured with a pipe wrench. This isn't 100% necessary, but it gives the hands an added degree of protection from the plates.

I've also added tape to the sleeves so that I can attach spring collars. If you have screw-on collars, you don't have to do this.

The Exercises

As I mentioned earlier, grip strength can be divided into at least four sub-categories. Since we're looking for both forearm hypertrophy as well as some additional general grip strength, we'll simplify it a little by dividing exercises into ones that predominantly tax the wrist/forearm and ones that are primarily grip strength based. It's an admittedly simplified classification, but it makes it a little easer to set up a program.

Wrist/Forearm Dominant Exercises:

Lever Bar

Use the lever bar for pronation/supination, radial/ulnar deviation, figure 8's, etc. The wrist can carry out numerous functions, so try different ranges of motion.

Thick Dumbbell Zottman Curl

When done with a thick handled dumbbell, Zottman curls become particularly effective wrist and forearm developers. You may find that when using a thick dumbbell, you can't pronate quite as far as with a normal dumbbell. This isn't a problem though, so just go as far as you can.

Wrist Roller

You've probably seen this done (or have done it yourself) with the arms extended directly ahead. This is pointless though, as the shoulders will fatigue long before the forearms will. Letting the arms hang straight down will allow you to achieve much greater overload on the forearms. Make sure you practice rolling the weight up in both directions (flexion and extension).

Thick Dumbbell Wrist Curl

Performed with a thick handled dumbbell, the single arm wrist curl becomes much more effective. You can rest the dumbbell on the knee or on the end of a bench.

Reverse Curl

Reverse curls will help add meat to the wrist extensors. Make sure you're keeping the wrists straight the entire time.

Towel Chins

A very simple way to train your grip, towel chins are also extremely effective. Just throw one or two towels over a bar and do chin-ups as you normally would. If you can't do chins, you can just do timed hangs until your grip gives out.

Grip Dominant Exercises:

Sand Bag Catches

Make a small sandbag that you can grasp with one hand. You can fill it with sand, lead shot, or a combination of both. Practice dropping it and catching it in mid air, either alternating hands or re-catching it with the same hand.

Modified Farmer's Hold

The addition of bands allows you to really overload the supportive grip, but also steadies the bar somewhat so you don't have to worry so much about the bars tilting in your hands. They can be attached to the rack as shown, or attached to dumbbells. This is an excellent way to give the hands the strength needed to hold on to a big deadlift or farmer's walk.

EZ-Bar Hub Lift

Hubs lifts are great for training the fingers as well as the thumb, which is often the weak point in situations where you're gripping something other than a barbell.

Stand on a bench or high step, grab the end of the bar with a pinching motion, squeeze tightly and lift. You can do timed holds or deadlift it for reps, adding weight to the other end of the bar to increase resistance.

Thick Dumbbell Deadlift

This is like the famous Thomas Inch dumbbell deadlift, but since the dumbbell is loadable, it's a great alternative for those that aren't quite at that level yet. Like a normal deadlift, just grip it and rip it. You can do either timed holds or reps.

Plate Pinch Grip

Plate Pinch Grip

Just put two (or three) plates together with the flat sides out. You'll have to squeeze very tightly or the plates will never leave the floor. If you can't do two 25's, try two or three 10's and work your way up. Once again, you can perform timed holds or reps.

Bar Sleeve Shrugs

If you don't have an axle, the sleeve of the barbell can be your poor man's thick bar. Just place two bars on the safety pins so you have to do a partial deadlift to get them up. The side you're gripping should be slightly lower by about six inches. Be sure to load both ends with plates and collars. From there, perform shrugs just as you would with a set of dumbbells. You can also do timed holds in this position.

The Program

Keep in mind this is just a sample program. Feel free to alter it to suit your own needs. The program is divided into two workouts a week, and can be done after your upper body training or on another day where you can fit it in. Either way, it shouldn't take very long; this isn't a 20-set forearm blitz program.

Day 1 will consist of exercises that emphasize the wrist and forearm. Day 2 will focus more on grip dominant exercises. For each day, choose two exercises and perform them according to the parameters I've provided. It'll depend on what equipment you have, but again, it's all pretty easy to get at a hardware store.

You may find your grip is shot after just one exercise. That's fine, just work within your capabilities.

Workout 1

  Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
A1 EZ-Bar Reverse Curl 3x6-8 3x10-12 3x6-8
A2 Thick DB Wrist Curl 3x8-10 3x12-15 3x8-10
    Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
A1 Towel Chin-Up 3x4-6 3x8-10 3x4-6
A2 Lever Bar 3x10 ea. 3x6 ea. 3x10 ea.
    Week 7 Week 8 Week 9
A1 Zottman Curl 3x4-6 3x8-10 3x4-6
A2 Wrist Roller 3x1 3x2 3x1

Workout 2

  Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
A Farmer's Hold 2x30-40 sec. 3x15-20 sec. 2x30-40 sec.
B EZ-Bar Hub Lift 3x20-30 sec. 3x5-10 sec. 3x20-30 sec.
    Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
A Thick DB Deadlift 3x8-10 3x3-5 3x8-10
B Pinch Grip Hold 3x20-30 sec. 3x5-10 sec. 3x20-30 sec.
    Week 7 Week 8 Week 9
A Barbell Sleeve Shrug 3x12-15 3x6-8 3x12-15
B Alternating Sand Bag Catch 2x20 2x20 2x20

So there you have it: your yellow brick road to bigger and stronger forearms. It's not as flashy as bombing biceps or trashing your triceps, but hopefully by this point you've realized the importance of training the entire arm, both for aesthetic as well as functional reasons.