When you find yourself struggling to hold a weight you know you can lift (at least with your legs), there's a solution: Strengthening your forearms. That's because building strong forearms increases your grip strength, too.
"When you're doing exercises that demand high levels of grip strength (such as deadlifts, barbell rows, chin-ups and pull-ups), you'll struggle to get the full benefits of the exercise if your forearms can't cut the mustard," says Mike Matthews, author of Bigger Leaner Stronger and founder of Legion.
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"You'll have to end your sets when your forearms are tired but before your other upper-body muscles are fully trained, which partially defeats the purpose of the exercise. By improving your grip strength, you'll ensure your forearms aren't a weak link."
Strengthening the muscles of the forearm also helps with activities of daily living such as lifting bags and other objects. And improving the strength of the forearm may also help decrease the chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
"Having strong forearms also increases the stability of your wrist joint and may reduce your risk of elbow injury," Matthews adds.
Your forearm runs from the elbow to the wrist, consists of two bones (radius and ulna) and has two muscular components — flexors and extensors. The flexors bend the fingers and wrist while the extensors move the wrist backward and straighten the fingers. The forearm muscles move the wrist, elbow, forearm and fingers.
If you're just starting out or exercising for general fitness, using free weights generally gives your forearm extensors enough of a workout. But if you're a bodybuilder or powerlifter or want to be able to lift more weight, you should consider incorporating specific forearm exercises with resistance.
The Best Forearm Exercises for Weightlifting
1. Dead Hang
- Grab a pull-up handle or bar with your palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and facing away from you.
- Relax your back and shoulder muscles so that your body weight pulls your arms straight.
- Hold for as long as you can (30 seconds is a good initial target).
- Rest for 2 minutes, then repeat twice more (for a total of 3 sets).
"This is an excellent exercise for isolating the forearm muscles without putting too much wear and tear on your joints," Matthews says. "It’s also a good test of forearm strength: If you can’t maintain your grip for at least 30 seconds, then it’s a sign you may profit from some forearm-specific exercises."
2. Forearm Curl
- Grip a dumbbell in your right hand, lean over and place your forearm against the top of a bench so that your wrist extends over the edge and the back of your hand faces the ceiling.
- Push your elbow into the bench so that your forearm doesn’t shift out of position as you do the exercise.
- Without moving your forearm or upper body, raise your hand toward the ceiling as far as you comfortably can.
- Lower the weight back down to the starting position.
- Do 10 to 15 reps, then switch sides. Do 2 more sets with each hand for a total of 3 sets per hand.
"This exercise directly trains the forearm muscles without fatiguing your other upper-body muscles (and thus interfering with your normal training program)," Matthews says. "It also requires minimal equipment and is comfortable for most people."
3. Plate Hold
- Stand up straight, then bend over and pinch a weight plate between your thumb and fingers on your right hand.
- Hold it for as long as you can (aim for at least 30 seconds), then switch sides.
- Do 2 more sets with each hand for a total of 3 sets per hand.
"As with dead hangs and forearm curls, this exercise is an effective way to isolate your forearm muscles," Matthews says. "It also strengthens your forearms in a similar position to what you’d use when doing most deadlift variations."
4. Dumbbell Row
- Hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Bend over and put your left hand and left knee on a bench, chair, windowsill, etc., that’s about knee-height off the ground.
- Keep your right foot planted on the floor and let your right arm (the one holding the dumbbell) extend toward the floor. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back straight and shoulders back, pull the dumbbell upward until it touches your torso.
- Return the dumbbell to the starting position.
- Do 10 to 15 reps, repeat with your left arm, then rest for 1 minute.
- Do 2 more sets with both arms for a total of 3 sets per arm.
"The dumbbell row is one of the best ways to strengthen your forearm muscles, as well as your biceps, shoulders, upper back and lats," Matthews says. "To get the most out of the exercise, don’t put the weight down between reps (which makes it easier and less effective for strengthening your forearms)."
5. Romanian Deadlift
- Stand up straight holding a loaded barbell (or two dumbbells) with a shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing toward your body).
- Flatten your back and lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line while keeping your legs mostly straight, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend.
- Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round — just below the knees for most people and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible.
- Reverse the movement and return to standing.
- Do 6 to 8 reps, rest 2 minutes, then repeat for 2 more sets (for a total of 3 sets).
"The Romanian deadlift (RDL) trains all of the same muscles as the conventional deadlift, but it’s more challenging for your forearms because you don’t set the weight down between each rep," Matthews says.
6. Hammer Curl
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inward and your arms hanging at the side.
- Curl your arms up by bending the elbows and bring the forearms toward the shoulders.
- Hold the top position for 2 seconds, then lower the weights back to the starting position.
Reverse curls also work your forearms. To perform these, your palms should face your body to start and stay facing out as you raise the weights to your shoulders.
4 Forearm Stretches to Try
Strong, healthy forearms don't just require resistance, they need some stretching, too, just like any other muscle group. ExRx.net recommends four forearm stretches you can do without any equipment:
1. Prayer Hands
- Place your palms together in front of your body and point your fingers toward your neck.
- Lower your hands away from your body until your wrists separate.
2. Seated Lean
- Sit on the floor with your palms on the floor, face down and fingers pointing back.
- Lean back with your arms straight and hold the stretch.
3. Single-Side Forearm Stretch
- With your palms facing down, hold the underside of your fingers with your opposite hand.
- Straighten your elbow and hold.
- Repeat with the opposite arm.
4. Kneeling Wrist Flexor Stretch
- Kneel on the floor or mat and situate your palms on the floor with your fingers pointed toward your knees.
- Shift your body back, while your elbows are straightened.
- Hold this position.