Look at your lower arms. Go ahead, take a peek. Now guess what? If your forearms are puny, your upper arms probably are too. In fact, you're seriously limiting your strength, size, and symmetry with those toothpicks. Do you really want those little things sticking out of your new T-Nation T-shirt? Do you like having the grip strength of a girl scout? No? Good, then this is the specialization program for you! Let's start out by taking a closer look at a few issues most trainees never think about.
Are you yankin' my chain?
Think back to the first time you performed a drop set of shrugs. Your grip probably seized up long before your traps felt any action. This was the flexor digitorum superficialis failing early in the chain.
The upper body pulling chain begins and ends with grip strength. More exactly, the nerve impulse first ignites the finger flexors which in turn radiate to the wrist flexors, elbow flexors, and end upstream in the shoulder girdle. Simple observation will tell you that the distal chain (finger and wrist flexors) will likely fail first, hence the popularity of straps and grip devices.
Exercises that reap benefit from forearm strength include chin-ups, shrugs, deadlifts, curls, and rows, just to name a few. In short, improve your grip and you'll improve your whole body!
How important really is lower arm strength?
To answer that question, let's look at a real life example where that structure is inhibited. I work with a client who has a hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy called CMT. This disease takes aim on the lower arms and causes progressive deterioration and weakness in the fine motor units of the fingers, then spreads up the chain. In other words, the distal link of the pulling chain is taken out.
The result? After a 10% loss in strength, the upper arms shrank an entire inch! In other words, the lower arm paralysis affected the rest of the chain. The lesson is, if you don't train your forearms you could be limiting your upper arm potential.
Let me guess, you're going to say not to use straps, right?
Yep. When you use straps, did you ever happen to notice which side the straps preferentially reinforce? Is it the thumb side or the pinkie side? Straps limit your strength and development by artificially aiding the muscles that adduct the wrist (pinkie side). Ultimately, this can even create a painful muscle imbalance such as a "grasp and lift" injury.
And think about it, if a thin cloth strap can temporarily improve your grip strength by 50, 70, or 100 pounds, what can the hypertrophied fiber of cross sectional mass do for you? So, forget the straps and "build your own" with the program below.
Need another reason to train the grip?
Beginners need grip strength to develop the lats and traps. Advanced trainees need it to re-balance size, symmetry and function (a competitive edge). The smaller your wrist circumference, the more grip strength specialization you'll need.
Studies on bodybuilders indicate that your lower arm must be at least 75% of your upper arm circumference (the average girth is 12.5" amongst contest winners). Additionally, studies have proven that strength is highly correlated to the cross sectional area (CSA) of the muscle and the lower arm flexors have greater mass potential than the extensors. This is opposite that of the upper arm where the extensors (triceps) have greater potential.
How 'bout a little anatomy lesson?
We've touched on some anatomy of the lower arm, but let's give a more complete overview. If you begin to nod off, just skip down to the training program.
Flexor digitorum superficialis: The primary role of this muscle is finger flexion and the secondary role is wrist flexion. This muscle is important to athletes who use fine motor skills such as gripping, stick handling, and ball throwing.
There's evidence to suggest that bodybuilders can best train the wrist flexors by skipping the finger flexors altogether. This can be done by using thick grips. The thinking is that the fast fatigue rate and location at the distal end of the chain may shut down the whole chain. I'm not sold on this concept, as these intrinsic muscles were the first to go in my CMT client and resulted in visible atrophy. As such, I train both with narrow and fat grip dumbbells and barbells.
Flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris: Flexes and adducts the wrist and boosts elbow flexion by approximately 8%. These muscles have the greatest strength potential for intermediate to advanced bodybuilders and strength athletes.
Flexor carpi radialis: This is the muscle that's worked with the standard wrist curl. It flexes the wrist and boosts elbow flexion approximately 5%.
Brachioradialis: I call this muscle and the one below the "Popeye muscles." The thick muscle belly of the brachioradialis lays in the lower arm, but it's an upper arm elbow flexor as it only crosses the elbow joint. I include it in forearm training due to its size potential and assistance in pronation and supination. Plus, it's figgin' cool looking when you add some meat to it!
Pronators teres and quadratus: These pronate the forearm and assist in elbow flexion.
The "Toothpicks to Timber" Workout
Perform the following routine twice per week if you're a beginner and once per week if you're advanced. Why? Experience tells me that advanced trainees will tend to overload the extensors and pronators. This is due partly to much greater loads handled on other pulling exercises, namely chins, pull-ups, and reverse curls. What advanced trainees need is simple re-balancing, so they should perform this routine once per week for four to six weeks. For these guys, it's best performed on back or arm day after their regular training.
For less experienced trainees, the grip is a major sticking point and must be prioritized. They should use this routine twice per week for four to six weeks, prior to their normal back and arm days.
WARNING – No personal liability regarding resultant reckless grooming after performing this routine, such as brushing the teeth or combing the hair, is assumed by Don Alessi or associates. It may be a good idea to perform any fine motor skill prior to performing this superset.
A) Incline wrist adduction, unbalanced grip – You'll get a few "skunk eyes" and "brow scratches" at the gym when you perform this one! Don't worry, you'll get your revenge when you're cracking walnuts between two fingers for your pre-workout snack!
Grasp a straight bar with an uneven grip and set the incline bench to maximum elevation. Position yourself prone, kneeling in a kickback position. Flex and fixate the elbows to 90°. Now, laterally flex (adduct) the pinkie toward the wrist. Flex opposite to stretch and complete the range of motion (ROM).
Reps: 12, 10, 8, 6, 6, 15
Rest: 30 seconds
B1) Preacher wrist curl, inverted angle grip – Grasp an EZ-curl bar with a narrow grip so that the bend in the bar is facing you. Now simply perform a wrist curl on the 45° slant of a preacher bench.
Reps: 12, 10, 15
Rest: 30 seconds
B2) Preacher wrist curl, standard grip – Grab an EZ-curl bar, palms supinated in traditional biceps curl position. Next, flex the wrist (positive), then extend the wrist to return to start position (negative).
Reps: 12, 10, 15,
Rest: 90 seconds
Note: Those B1-B2 numbers just mean to superset those two exercises.
I call these next two the "Popeye Superset".
C1) Reverse curls, paused, 1 1/2 rep – This works the brachioradialis muscle (BR). Grasp an EZ-curl bar with a pronated shoulder-width grip (outer bend of bar). Next, while keeping them tucked into the sides, flex the elbows to contract the BR. Elbow range of motion is 180° at extension (unloaded) to 30° at flexion (loaded).
To complete the rep, partially lower the weight under control to 90°, pause, then re-flex the elbow to 30° at flexion and hold three counts. This completes 1 rep. This extra isometric tension at the sticking point will bust through any strength plateau!
Reps: 8, 6, 6, 4, 4, 15
Tempo: 333 (3 second pause on half-isometric hold as described above)
Rest: 30 seconds
C2) Spider hammer curl, plus pronation/supination – Grasp a dumbbell with an uneven, hammer grip so that the pinkie and ring finger are over the fat end and the thumb, pointer and index are over the shaft. Use the 90° "spider" bench or an incline bench if no spider is available.
Begin by moving the elbows from 180° extension to 30° flexion. Next, instead of lowering back down to extension, we're gonna "put the screws to you." Pause and slowly pronate the wrists, then return to semi-supinated before lowering to complete elbow extension.
Reps: 8, 6, 6, 4, 4, 15
Tempo: 333 (3 seconds is used to pronate and supinate during contracted position as described above)
Rest: 90 seconds
Unusual? Yes. Effective? You better believe it! Say goodbye to those toothpicks!