Your wrist and forearm muscles may be small, but they're mighty — and mighty important when it comes maintaining strong wrists and good grip strength. If you've been working on a strong upper body, bulking out those forearms may be the last detail in showing off your muscular development.
Forearm Workout Options
If you're looking to bulk up your forearms, then most of your focus should go into wrist flexion and extension exercises, with some strategic elbow flexion in the mix.
Although you can use barbells for some of the following exercises, dumbbells are usually a better place to start for two reasons: First, they allow you more flexibility in exactly how you position your wrists — which can help head off wrist sprains, strains and general irritation from the start. Wrist exercises should be challenging, but not to the point that they leave you injured.
Second, not everybody has the strength to heft barbells with these relatively small muscles — but you can start with small dumbbells, and work your way up to heavier weights as you build strength and mass.
1. Dumbbell Wrist Extensions
This move is also known as dumbbell reverse wrist curls, and it works your wrist extensors — the muscles in the back of your forearm that are responsible for extending your wrist.
- Sit in a chair or weight bench, with a dumbbell in each hand. Hinge forward from the hips (as opposed to slumping forward) so that you can rest your forearms on your thighs.
- Position your hands palms-down, and move them forward so that your wrists are just forward of your knees.
- Extend your wrists. In other words, keep your forearms planted on your knees as you bend your wrists "backward," lifting the weights up. This will be a small motion — if you're doing a big, exaggerated motion, something's off.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position. This completes one repetition.
2. Dumbbell Wrist Curls
Think biceps curls, but with your wrists. Take care to use a light weight at first — wrist curls are a more difficult exercise than you might expect.
- As in dumbbell wrist extensions, sit on a chair or weight bench and rest your forearms on your thighs. But this time, position your hands with your palms up.
- As before, scooch your hands forward so that your wrists are just past your knees.
- Carefully let the dumbbells roll out of your palms and down into your fingers (but not out of your hands).
- Grip the dumbbells, pulling it back into your palms, and then flex your wrists, pointing your knuckles as close to skyward as you can comfortably manage. This completes one repetition.
3. Dumbbell Hammer Curls
You can do this exercise while standing or seated, as long as your arms can move freely back and forth at your sides. Hammer curls primarily work the brachioradialis, a forearm muscle that also serves as a strong elbow flexor.
- Sit or stand with a dumbbell in each hand. Position your hands with palms facing in toward your body.
- Flex your arms at the elbow, lifting the weights up to chest level. Depending on your intentions, you can either keep your elbows pinned at your sides, or let them swing forward a bit as you lift the weights.
- Smoothly lower the weights back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
You can expect to lift a little less during hammer curls than you normally lift during biceps curls.
4. Dumbbell Reverse Curls
Reverse curls also focus most of the effort on your brachioradialis. As with hammer curls, you can expect to lift less weight during reverse curls than you're capable of lifting during biceps curls.
- Stand with dumbbells in each hand, arms by your sides and palms facing back.
- Keep your elbows close to your sides as you bend your arms at the elbows, lifting the weights up to about chest height. Keep your palms in the same orientation throughout the exercise.
- Smoothly lower the weights to complete the repetition.
Plan Your Strategy
What's the most efficient way to put those forearm exercises to work? As a general rule, the answer is that the more work you do, the bigger your muscles will get. That can mean lifting more weight, or it can mean adding more repetitions.
The typical approach for bodybuilders is usually to lift heavy weights at relatively low repetitions. Of course, you're never going to be hefting as much weight during your forearm workout as you do during bench presses. That's because size does matter when it comes to brute lifting strength, and your forearm muscles are pretty small when compared to your chest muscles. However, you can still do relatively heavy lifts in which your forearm muscles play a role. The hammer curl, in particular, is great for that.
Your other option is to rack up more time under tension or, to put it another way, more repetitions. This is borne out by a small but interesting study published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In the study, researchers split 18 volunteers into two groups, with one group doing low-load, high-repetition training (25 to 35 reps to reach failure) and the other group doing relatively high-load, low-repetition training (eight to 12 reps to reach failure).
After eight weeks of thrice-weekly strength training sessions, researchers found that both groups had shown significant gains in muscular hypertrophy. This is confirmed by a systematic review published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, which identified a strong dose-response relationship between the weekly volume of strength-training sets and muscle size. Each additional set added to a weekly workout plan produced a measurable increase in muscle size.
Your Forearm Workout Plan
What does that mean in real-world terms? If you're new to strength training, start with the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines: To get and stay healthy, you should do at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each major muscle group, twice a week. Because your forearm muscles are relatively small and help out on so many other exercises, they don't usually appear on the list of "major muscle groups" — but you can make an executive decision to add them.
Once you've adapted to that level of exertion, you can start adding in more sets at each workout, or add in a third workout per week — or both. You can also up the intensity by adding more forearm exercises to your general workout routine.
Just remember the two key principles of working into a new weight training program: Up the intensity gradually, so your body has time to adapt, and give your muscles at least a full day of rest before you work them again. So you could work your forearms on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; or Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday; or even Monday, Thursday and Saturday. But you shouldn't work them on Monday and Tuesday, or on Wednesday and Thursday, and so on.
If you're not new to weightlifting, you can jump in partway through that progression, at whatever you're currently able to perform. Remember to include those rest days between workouts — and no matter where you are in the progression, listen to your body. Inflammation, injury, or any symptoms of overtraining in your forearms can spell serious problems that set you back instead of helping you develop the forearm mass you're looking for.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men"
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Reverse Wrist Curl"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Wrist Curl"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Hammer Curl"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Reverse Curl"