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August 09, 2022
When training in the gym, forearms are typically left out. This is because trainees think forearms get enough work when helping other muscle groups with heavy lifting. Exercises like deadlifts, pullups, and curls can work the forearms well, but this muscle group is activated in an isolated contraction for the most part when they are trained in this way.
Forearms can develop quicker and more balanced if specific training is done for them. One of the best ways to train your forearms is with dumbbells. There are plenty of exercises to choose from, as well as options for going light or heavy.
Plus, you’ll likely find that adding dumbbell exercises to forearm workouts will help you beat your deadlift PR. After all, you’re only as strong as what your forearms can help lift.
In this article, we’ll cover:
When it comes to strength training programs, it's common to use the frequently-used name of a group of muscles and lump the collection of muscles together for training purposes.
For example, when performing a biceps workout, we think it is the only muscle responsible for flexion. However, the upper arm also features the coracobrachialis muscle that supports arm flexion as well. So it's easy to label this grouping of muscles as simply the biceps because they have one function: flexion.
But, what does the forearm do?
It supports flexion, extension, pronation, and supination. In simple terms, your hands can move up and down and rotate your hand. You can perform two of these movements at once. Roll your hand in a circle, and you'll notice you move between flexion and extension and pronation and supination.
When performing forearm exercises, the forearm muscles can be split into the anterior (front) and posterior (rear) regions due to the respective muscles' similar functions.
The anterior portion of the forearm is responsible for flexion and pronation, which occurs when the forearm is turned so the palm faces downward. It includes these muscles:
That's a lot, but we only have to remember this group as the flexor and pronator group of the forearm. More simply, the anterior forearm.
On the flip side, we have the forearm's posterior region responsible for extension and supination, which occurs when the forearm is turned so the palm faces upward, like during spider curls. It includes these muscles:
Again, a long list of muscles serves the main purpose of extension and supination. The posterior forearm is shown and used during a palms down wrist curl.
If you want to experience the myriad of muscles in the forearm, wrap your hand around your upper forearm and start rotating, flexing, extending, moving individual fingers, and squeezing your free hand. You'll feel many of these muscles acting independently and in unison with the others through the range of motion of the wrist and hand.
Forearm strength is crucial to many movements that we take for granted in everyday life. Take a look at what they do for us.
Having strong forearms typically means having strong wrists, hands, and grip strength, which are not only crucial for completing almost all daily tasks (like lugging those grocery bags to the kitchen), but it is also essential for lifting heavier weights in the gym. This leads us to…
In basic strength training, it's commonly accepted that your lifts are only as strong as their weakest link. Forearms can limit many exercises, like deadlifts, pullups, bent-over rows, and more. If you can lift more weight using lifting straps, it's easy to decipher that your forearms limit your potential on that lift!
Even when your forearms aren't directly activated during an exercise, they can serve the purposes of concurrent activation potentiation, which is a fancy term for primary muscle groups performing better when non-active muscle groups are also contracted.
Research shows that concurrent potentiation activation can help improve sports performance1. The study we’re referencing looked at jaw clenching, but hand clenching to activate the forearm is another accepted CAP technique.
Strength training has the amazing ability to improve bone density, so direct forearm training will improve the surrounding bones and joints.
This last benefit of forearm strength is something you might not expect. While correlation doesn't automatically equal causation, it's interesting to note that research shows that those with higher grip strength tend to lower all-cause mortality and risk for severe diseases like heart disease and cancer2.
Better bone health improves the potential for heavy lifts, building muscle mass, increased athletic performance, and correlation to better longevity. So yeah, it looks like forearm strength may be quite important!
The short answer: Yes, dumbbells are great for building big and strong forearms. In fact, we could go on all day about the benefits that dumbbells provide. More specifically, when it comes to building strong, muscular forearms, three benefits stand out.
Dumbbells are one of the best training tools available. The unilateral function allows for each side to work independently. Forearms tend to be imbalanced, with the dominant hand's forearm being quite strong and more coordinated. Utilizing dumbbells over barbells or machines can help eliminate the imbalance, ensuring even muscle hypertrophy on both sides.
Dumbbells also allow flexion, extension, pronation, and supination, all of which are the primary functions of the forearm muscles. The more your forearms can move, the greater work your forearms muscles can put in.
You can go heavy, or you can go light. Dumbbell forearm exercises can equally build strength and muscular endurance. In reality, there isn't a better way to train your forearms directly, especially if you already do heavy barbell lifts like deadlifts and rows that work on your grip strength and endurance isometrically.
While there are plenty of dumbbell forearm exercises to choose from to improve your grip strength, utilizing the best to activate the multitude of muscles in the forearm simultaneously will increase efficiency. We don't want to spend an hour on forearm training alone, so picking exercises that work most of the small muscles in the forearm is imperative.
Here are the best of the bunch.
Also called the Farmer's Walk, this exercise works the forearms in an isometric hold instead of through flexion and extension. And it still activates the majority of the forearm muscles, making it one of our favorite forearms exercises.
If you've ever watched Strongman or followed a strongman workout plan, you'll have seen those monster athletes carry absurd amounts of weight on this exercise. While you don't have to get to that, you should be training heavy so you can carry all of your groceries in one trip from the car!
While light weights and long distances could work for endurance, it's best to prioritize maximal strength and heavy weights for this exercise.
How to do the Farmer’s Carry:
The reverse wrist curl is a great way to add some humility to your dumbbell biceps exercises, especially if you haven't directly trained your forearms before. Even those who train forearms regularly tend to work more on flexion than extension, so this exercise can be quite tough.
Try to keep your elbows tucked in as much as possible because they'll want to flare out to compensate for the difficulty. This exercise tests your isometric strength and endurance for extension and pronation as the dumbbells work with gravity to try to induce flexion and supination.
How to do the Reverse Curl:
When it comes to hammer curls vs. bicep curls, hammer curls have a leg up on bicep curls when it comes to activating both the upper arms and forearms at the same time. This exercise can also be done with greater weights than reverse curls, which makes it a better choice for those with strong biceps and weak forearms.
With an imbalance like this, reverse curls can be ineffective for the biceps and turn into a forearm movement. Hammer curls mitigate this imbalance and create an effective exercise for both muscle groups.
Ensure that when you curl the weight up, you bring it up to the center of your chest instead of directly in front of your body. This is easier on your shoulders and allows for more weight to be lifted.
Again, this is another isometric movement for the forearms that focuses on grip strength and endurance rather than flexion or extension. A bicep workout that also works the lower arm muscles? Sign us up!
How to do the Hammer Curl:
This exercise doesn't have a flashy name, but it's one of the best forearm exercises. You'll have to use a lighter weight as the start of the movement requires finger strength more than total grip strength. It will work on the contraction of your grip strength and flexion of your forearm if you utilize the bonus at the peak of the finger curl.
We guarantee you'll see gains in your sumo deadlift once you start to regularly do this strengthening move.
How to do Dumbbell Finger Curls Behind the Back:
Much like the behind-the-back version, these finger curls work the contraction of your grip strength and can work the flexion of your forearm as well, making it a great forearm exercise. The difference is that your wrists are fully extended at the start, so the flexion on this movement can include the full flexion of your joint instead of a partial range of motion.
As a reminder, make sure if you are regularly strength training, you know how much protein per day you need to build muscle, so your hard work doesn't go to waste!
How to do Dumbbell Finger Curls:
If it's difficult to keep your elbows tucked and hands pronated during standing reverse curls, these concentration curls can mitigate the issue. Working one arm at a time allows that much more focus on each forearm to improve the results from training. This movement works on isometric strength and endurance to fight against flexion and supination.
How to do Reverse Concentration Curls:
This movement can work flexion and extension, along with an in-between angle that other exercises simply don't hit. It all depends on the position of your hands during the movement. If you do this movement pronated, it'll work extension.
If you do this supinated, it will work flexion. If you hold a neutral grip with palms facing each other, it will work a different plane between flexion and extension, creating a novel training stimulus to enhance results. This is a great exercise to work into your back and biceps workout.
How to do Bench Wrist Curls:
Bonus: As you can see, this exercise can work three planes of movement: flexion, extension, and a hybrid when your palms are facing each other. However, the neutral grip only works on flexion, pulling your thumbs up toward your elbows. Bench wrist curls can't train in the opposite direction, which would be an extension where you are working to pull your pinky fingers towards your elbows.
To work this other plane, you can lay down on your back. Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees and your palms facing each other in a neutral grip. With light dumbbells, press the weights upward, away from your head. Then lower them back down. The range of motion in this exercise and your strength will be low. However, this unnamed exercise can work the only angle neglected by bench wrist curls and all of the other dumbbell forearm exercises.
When working forearm training into your program, it's best to save the exercises for later in your session. As far as which session to place it in, you could really incorporate it into any. Place it at the end of your back and biceps day, or add it to the end of your leg workout.
Just remember: If you pre-fatigue your forearms, heavy lifts afterward will suffer. You don't want to start your workout with forearm work and then move to deadlifts and Kroc rows just to find you can't even hold the barbell at your normal working weight.
Having your forearms pre-fatigued from being activated through other exercises is a good warmup for the above-mentioned exercises. So, best forearm workouts should be left at the end of a routine, much like these dumbbell ab exercises and calf training.
Regarding how many exercises, sets, reps, and frequency, the forearms respond better to a higher frequency and a variety of rep ranges. Again, they can be treated much like you would calf exercises since they are one of the more used muscle groups throughout the day and benefit from that active rest time. Since almost all weight training will activate the forearms somewhat, you could train them every workout session if you don't overdo it.
The typical recommendation for strength and hypertrophy is 10 to 20 weekly sets of direct work per muscle group. As for rep ranges, the lower rep ranges build strength, and the higher ones build endurance. It's best to include both to achieve balance.
An example of how to include forearm training in a four-day split is to perform four sets of forearm work in each workout:
Using this pyramid fashion hits all muscle fiber types in a workout and exhausts the forearms enough to cause growth and strength gains. It doesn't have to be complicated!
Don't neglect forearm training by assuming they are trained enough during heavy lifts that focus on other muscle groups. For example, you wouldn't avoid training biceps because pullups and Pendlay rows hit your biceps, right?
Utilizing the exercises in this guide and including them properly in your programming, as suggested, will help improve your grip strength and crossover to many other lifts.
They will also help the aesthetics of your forearms, which is always a good thing. So try out a few of these exercises and incorporate the ones you respond best to regularly to reap the benefits of dumbbell forearm exercises! Plus, your rolled up sleeves will look significantly more impressive when you're rocking massive, muscular forearms.
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