Forearms are one of those extremities that only extremists remember to target. The average lifter assumes that including some barbell rowing, strapless deadlifting, and weighted chin-ups in their workout routines will be enough to build bigger forearms, and although there’s some truth to that, the aesthetic results are often underwhelming, especially for those with naturally thinner wrists.
Our grip muscles are in our forearms, yes, but they’re fairly small, and making them stronger won’t make our forearms much bigger. And overhand rowing will bulk up our brachioradialis muscles, which are in our forearms. Those are beefier muscles, and they can definitely make our forearms look bigger, but they’re unlikely to be a limiting factor when we’re rowing, especially if we’re focusing on pulling with our upper back muscles, and especially if we’re using lifting straps. And so again, our forearms might not grow all that much bigger.
Plus, even if we strengthen our grips and build bigger brachioradialis muscles, we’re still neglecting the vast majority of the muscles in our forearms—the forearm flexors and extensors. And so our forearms will often stay fairly thin until we start training them directly with forearm isolation lifts.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of building bigger forearms, we should put forearm training into perspective. Almost every lift that we do in the gym, especially if we’re using using dumbbells or barbells, is limited by how much weight we can hold in our hands. Even with a simple lift like the biceps curl, we need to have the grip strength to hold the dumbbell in our hands and the forearm strength to keep our wrists from bending.
As a beginner, almost every lift will put some small amount of stress on your forearms muscles, which will be enough to stimulate a modest amount of muscle growth. Furthermore, since every lift requires forearm strength, if we do too much forearm training too soon, we can wind up with forearms that are too fatigued to allow us to do the rest of our lifts. As a result, beginners don’t need to jump right into forearm training, and oftentimes, it can do more harm than good. Better to wait a few months.
With that said, a good beginner routine will have a mix of compound and isolation lifts that stimulate almost all of the muscles in our bodies, forearms included:
- If you’re doing biceps curls, your forearm flexors will get a bit of stimulation.
- If you’re doing lateral raises, your wrist extensors will get a bit of stimulation.
- If you’re doing rows or hammer curls, your elbow flexors will get quite a lot of stimulation.
- If you’re doing rows or Romanian deadlifts, your grip muscles will get quite a lot of stimulation.
We’ll go into more detail about how to maximize the development of all of those muscles, but if you’re a beginner, rest assured that if you’re following a good muscle-building program, they’re at least getting some stimulation. Your forearms may eventually start to lag behind, but that’s a problem you can address after gaining your first 10–20 pounds. That’s why we only include forearm training our intermediate bulking program.
Beginners don’t need to do forearm isolation lifts, especially since it might interfere with the rest of their training. Better to save it for the intermediate or advanced stage, and perhaps only during certain phases of training.
How to Train the Forearm Muscles
Most of us assume that if we do our big compound lifts, our forearms will grow bigger in proportion to the rest of our muscles. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Like our necks, without any direct training, many of our forearm muscles won’t be brought close to failure to stimulate much muscle growth.
To bulk up our forearms, we need to train four different functions:
- Grip strength, such as with strapless deadlifts, and also with virtually every other heavy lift in our routines. To keep our hands nimble and dextrous, most of our grip muscles are located in our forearms. They aren’t very big, though, and won’t make our forearms much thicker.
- Elbow flexion, such as with barbell rows, pull-ups, and reverse curls. These muscles—our brachioradialis muscles—are quite big and have a large potential for growth. Most lifters with big forearms have big elbow flexors.
- Wrist flexion, such as with seated and standing wrist curls. The elbow flexors in our wrist are perhaps the biggest forearm muscles, and they have a huge carryover to our forearm aesthetics. Most guys who train for strength don’t train these directly, and so they often lag behind. It’s only bodybuilders, some athletes, and some people with manual labour jobs who tend to have thick wrist flexors.
- Wrist extension, such as with seated and standing wrist extensions. Almost nobody trains their wrist extensors, just like how most people don’t train the muscles on the fronts of their shins. These muscles are small, but they can indeed grow. For people with naturally thinner wrists or longer forearms, training the wrist extensors can help.
Those first two movements are trained with our compound lifts, so no worries there. And for guys with naturally thicker bones, naturally bigger forearms, or who work manual labour jobs, that may even be enough. But for people with naturally thinner bones, naturally longer forearms, or for those who truly want to push their shirt sleeves to their limits, we can also train our wrist flexors and extensors, which can make our forearms quite a bit thicker, stronger, and more muscular.
Our grip strength and elbow flexion can be trained with compound lifts, such as the barbell row, meaning that we don’t need to isolate those muscles unless we notice them lagging behind. Wrist flexion and extension aren’t trained (fully) by compound lifts, though, giving us an opportunity to build bigger forearms with isolation lifts.
The Best Forearm Exercises
Grip Strength, Free Weights
If we fail to develop a strong grip, we won’t be able to hold much weight in our hands, and so we don’t be able to do very much in the gym. With our Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell programs, we help skinny beginners bulk up for the first time, and it’s incredibly common for people to have trouble holding onto barbells and dumbbells during their heavier compound lifts, such as rows and Romanian deadlifts. I remember having trouble with that, too. Grip strength is a bottleneck for a lot of beginners.
What’s neat about grip strength is that it’s strongly correlated with all kinds of positive things. People with stronger grips are more muscular (obviously), they look more attractive (study), and they even tend to live longer (study)! Now, no big surprises, there. Grip strength is a great proxy for general strength, and stronger people tend to be healthier, more attractive, and live longer.
The good news is that our grips naturally grow stronger as we get better at lifting weights. The muscles that are our limiting factors on our lifts are the ones that will see the most robust adaptations, and so during the periods of our training when our grip strength is holding us back, it also has the most impetus to adapt. By the time we’re intermediate lifters, simply by doing compound lifts, our grip will be strong enough for almost any circumstance.
The one lift that tends to wreck our grips, though, even as seasoned lifters, is the deadlift (or variations such as the above-the-knee rack pull or barbell shrug). This specific type of strength—the strength needed to keep our hands closed around a barbell—is called support strength, which is different from the type of strength that we use while squeezing things (crushing strength). As a result, those grip squeezer things don’t tend to work very well. Better to stick with dumbbells and barbells.
There are a few things we can do to improve our support strength:
- Follow a program that uses a variety of barbell lifts. Barbell rows, Romanian deadlifts, chin-ups, farmer carries, and curls will all help to strengthen your grip. If you have enough of these in your program, you probably won’t ever need dedicated grip training. But if your grip has fallen behind, it may pay to emphasize it for a bit.
- Static holds. Once you’ve finished your heavy lifting for the day, load up a barbell and hold onto it for 15–30 seconds. Do 2–4 sets of these. Whenever you’re able to hold the bar for a good 30 seconds on the final set, add a bit more weight to the bar next workout. Use the same grip that you prefer while deadlifting (mixed or hook grip).
- One-armed static holds. If you want to mix in some core training with your grip training, you can train your grip one hand at a time. This is great for your obliques. You can do this with a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or a barbell that has centre knurling.
- Weighted hangs. If your back is fatigued from your heavy lifting, you might prefer to hang from a chin-up bar instead. It won’t be quite as specific, but it will allow you to train your grip without loading your spinal erectors, traps, or abs. Again, do these at the very end of your workouts. And again, hold the bar for 15–30 seconds, adding weight when you can hold the bar for 30 seconds.
The trick is to grip a bar that has a similar diameter to the barbell that you’re deadlifting with. You can indeed emphasize your grip by using handles with a thicker diameter, but the strength that you gain won’t transfer over to the deadlift quite as well.
Lifting straps. You could, of course, avoid all of this hassle by using lifting straps, which is the approach taken by many bodybuilders (and even strongmen). When you use lifting straps, you won’t be training your grip strength or forearms as much, but you’ll be able to work your target muscles harder—your traps, spinal erectors, lats, hips, and so on. Of the various types of lifting straps, Mike Israetel, PhD, is a fan of Versa Grips (affiliate link). Compared to regular lifting straps, I fully agree. They’re quite a bit more convenient.
Improving your grip strength probably won’t have a noticeable impact on your forearm size or aesthetics, but it’s an important part of becoming a strong person overall. Grip strength is trained by compound lifts, and sometimes it can be a limiting factor. If it’s holding you back, doing holds with a barbell, dumbbell, or on a chin-up bar is the best way to make your grip stronger. Or you could use a mixed grip, hook grip, chalk, or straps.
Brachioradialis, Reverse Curls
The next part of building bigger forearms is training the brachioradialis muscles. People who train for strength generally do just fine here by including plenty of strapless barbell rowing in their routines, but depending on which muscles are their limiting factors, they may still benefit from including some isolation lifts every now and then.
If we take a look at our elbow flexors, we see that our biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles can all help to flex our arms. If you look at how they attach to our forearms, though, you’ll notice something interesting. The muscles in our upper arms—the biceps and brachialis—both have a good line of pull when our hands are facing upwards (as in the biceps curl and underhand chin-up), whereas our brachioradialis muscles twists around to the back, giving us a better line of pull if we use an overhand grip. As a result, the best way to isolate our brachioradialis muscles is to do reverse curls, like so:
The reverse curl is best done with a curl-bar (aka EZ-Bar). Most gyms will have a few of these, often with fixed weights. Even if you use a home gym, these are a good barbell to invest in. They’re great for rows, curls, triceps extensions, and pullovers. But if you don’t have a curl-bar, you can always use dumbbells instead.
If the reverse curl makes your elbows or forearms hurt, no problem, that’s a common issue—try hammer curls instead. Hammer curls use a mix of your brachialis and brachioradialis muscles, but they still do a good job of preventing our biceps from dominating the lift.
You don’t always need to include these lifts in your workout routine. Compound lifts will be more than enough to maintain their size. You may not even need to include them in your forearm workout routine. Compound lifts are often enough to bulk these muscles up. But if you ever want to gain some extra size in your brachioradialis, reverse curls and hammer curls are the best way to do it.
Our brachioradialis muscles are trained by compound lifts, such as overhand pull-ups and barbell rows, but if you want to isolate them, you can do reverse curls and/or hammer curls.
Wrist Flexors, Wrist Curls
With most of these other lifts, there are caveats—”you might not need these” or “the growth potential isn’t that impressive” and so on. That’s not the case here. Wrist curls are the loving heart of forearm training. If you only do one forearm exercise, do these. They isolate the wrist flexors, and building bigger wrist flexors is the easiest way to build bigger forearms overall. These muscles aren’t trained well with compound lifts, meaning that they’re often underdeveloped and so will explode into growth once you start training them. These muscles are big, too, and are capable of adding inches to your forearm circumference.
There are a couple popular ways of doing wrist curls. The first way is to do them standing, which works our wrist flexors at shorter muscle lengths and allows for a stronger peak contraction. However, as we’ve covered before, our muscles grow best when we challenge them in a stretched position (meta-analysis). So we don’t really want to be emphasizing the peak contraction, we want to be finding an exercise that challenges our wrist flexors at longer muscle lengths. That’s where the seated wrist curl comes in.
With the seated wrist curl, we’re giving our forearm muscles a nice stretch at the bottom of the lift, working them through a much deeper range of motion. This should, in theory, make them the better exercise for bulking up our forearms. The only downside is that some people find that they can be hard on the wrists. If that’s the case for you, no problem, you can always do your wrist curls from a standing position instead.
Now, the next part of working our forearm muscles through a deep range of motion is in the fingers. This is where most beginners go wrong, and you’ll even see a lot of people making this mistake in tutorial videos. Notice how in this illustration here, we’re opening our hands at the bottom of the range of motion. We’re rolling the barbell down into the crook of our fingers. This gives our forearm muscles an even deeper stretch, allowing us to stimulate extra muscle growth. And even though it looks a bit awkward, you’ll notice that it makes the lift feel much better, as it allows you to feel a nice, deep stretch at the bottom of the lift.
If you want bigger forearms, the wrist curl is the single best isolation exercise. Our wrist flexors are big, they have a good potential for growth, and wrist curls are a very effective way of bulking them up. The best type of wrist curl is the seated wrist curl, but if they hurt your wrists, try doing them standing instead.
Wrist Extensors, Wrist Extensions
Have you ever seen anyone doing calf curls? Not calf raises, which are popular enough with bodybuilders, but calf curls? Probably not. That’s because the muscles that run along the fronts of our shins aren’t very big and don’t have a big impact on our general strength. The same is true with our wrist extensors. These are smaller muscles that only factor into a couple of more minor lifts. If you’re doing reverse curls or lateral raises, your wrist extensors will hold your wrists straight. Beyond that, they aren’t really trained.
Should we train our wrist extensors? That really depends. These are the muscles that run along the back sides of our forearms, up at the back of our wrists. If you have naturally thinner wrists or longer forearms, building these muscles even just a bit bigger will make your forearms look quite a bit stronger. They won’t necessarily make the bony protuberance at your wrist thicker, but they’ll certainly make that general area more muscular.
If you decide to train your wrist extensors, you can train them by doing wrist extensions. You can do these with a barbell, an EZ-Bar, kettlebells, or dumbbells. Whatever you use, you’ll probably find the weight somewhat hard to hold, since your thumb will need to bear the load, and your thumb probably isn’t all that strong. As a result, you might need to use lighter weights and do higher reps, aiming for like 20–30 reps instead of 12–20 reps.
Wrist extensions train the smaller, longer muscles that run up along the back sides of our forearms. Most people don’t train them, but you can, and they will grow. They won’t grow enormous, but they will grow noticeably, making your forearms look thicker and more muscular, especially further up, nearer to your wrists.
Sample Forearm Workout
Forearm training is fairly simple, and since our forearm muscles are relatively small, we can blast through our sets fairly quickly and without generating much fatigue. Building bigger forearms, then, can be as simple as doing three 15-minute workouts per week. You could do them on your rest days, or you could tack them onto the ends of your workouts.
Here’s a sample forearm workout:
- Reverse Curls: 2–3 sets of 10–15 reps.
- Seated Wrist Curls: 2–4 sets of 12–20 reps
- Seated Wrist Extensions: 2–3 sets of 15–30 reps
Take every set within a rep or so of muscle failure. It will burn like all hell, especially since you’re lifting in higher rep ranges, so grit your teeth. When you get your target reps on your final set, add a bit of weight. Remember, your forearms will grow in proportion to your strength, so keep fighting to get stronger at these lifts.
If you want to make these forearm workouts even shorter, feel free to use drop sets instead of straight sets. For example, do a set of wrist curls with 95 pounds, strip off 30 pounds, and then, without resting, do a second set with 65 pounds. Then strip off another 20 pounds, and do a third set with 45 pounds. You might stimulate slightly less growth, but it should still be enough to make great progress.
After doing these forearm workouts for a couple of months, feel free to ease back on your forearm training. Your compound lifts should be enough to maintain your forearm size, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you always need to be doing forearm training. Barbell rows (or overhand pull-ups) should be enough to maintain your elbow flexors, biceps curls should be enough to maintain your wrist flexors, and lateral raises should be enough to maintain your wrist extensors.
Compound lifts are often enough to train our grip strength and brachioradialis muscles, and that’s certainly part of building bigger forearms, but even so, our wrist flexors and wrist extensors will often lag behind. To build bigger forearms, then, it can help to include some reverse curls, wrist curls, and wrist extensions.
For newer lifters, grip and forearm strength are often limiting factors already, and it’s easy for lifts to beat up our hands. As a result, direct forearm training can interfere with the rest of a beginner’s workout routine, and so it’s usually best to save forearm isolation lifts until later. For intermediate lifters, it’s usually fine to add some forearm training to the ends of our workouts or to do separate forearm workouts on rest days.
When training our forearms, doing moderate-to-high reps tends to work well, aiming for 12–30 reps per set, and 2–4 sets per exercise. Our cardiovascular performance or overall fatigue won’t ever be an issue, so feel free to use shorter rest times or drop sets to speed up your forearm workouts.
As always, if you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. We also have our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program for skinny beginners. If you liked this article, you’ll love our full programs.