A fully ripped body just isn’t complete without focusing on how to get bigger forearms. Beyond mere appearance, there are many good reasons to work on forearm strength and muscle development. This is a part of the body most fail to consider when working out, but it’s important.
Focus on the forearm muscles will build strength and hypertrophy, improve overall strength, get better grip strength, and even manage or reduce hand, wrist, and elbow pain.
The forearm refers to the lower arm. It is the section between the elbow and the wrist. In total, 20 different muscles make up the forearm portion of the upper limb. Some of these muscles sit on its anterior (top). Others are on the posterior (bottom) of the forearm.
The anterior forearm muscles are responsible for flexor movements. They can be split into three categories based on whether they are close to the surface or deep in the forearm.
The first category is the superficial compartment. This means that these muscles sit closest to the skin. The four superficial muscles are the:
Flexor carpi ulnaris. The flexor carpi ulnaris sits on the outermost side of the forearm. It aids in wrist flexion. It also assists with wrist adduction.
Palmaris longus. The palmaris longus sits next to the flexor carpi ulnaris. This muscle also assists with wrist flexion. Interestingly, research has found that roughly 35.4% of males and 25.9% of males are missing the palmaris longus in their right arm. This muscle is missing in the left arm of 37.5% of females and 27.9% of males. (1)
Flexor carpi radialis. Next to the palmaris longus is the flexor carpi radialis. Like the flexor carpi ulnaris, this muscle aids in wrist flexion. Unlike the ulnaris, which assists with wrist adduction, the flexor carpi radialis assists with wrist abduction.
Pronator teres. The innermost superficial forearm muscle is the pronator teres. This muscle assists with forearm pronation.
Next to the superficial compartment is the intermediate compartment. There is only one muscle in this portion of the anterior forearm. It is the flexor digitorum superficialis. This muscle helps flex the finger joints. The digitorum superficialis also assists in wrist flexion.
The deep compartment of the anterior forearm contains three muscles:
Flexor digitorum profundus. This flexor is the only muscle that can cause the joints closest to the fingertips to flex. The digitorum profundus also flexes the other finger joints, as well as the wrist.
Flexor pollicis longus. The pollicis longus sits next to the digitorum profundus. This muscle aids in thumb joint flexion.
Pronator quadratus. This muscle sits under the digitorum profundus and pollicis longus. It helps pronate the forearm.
Muscles in the posterior compartment are responsible for extensor movements. Specifically, they assist in wrist and finger extension. Whereas there are three layers of anterior muscles, the posterior forearm has only two layers of muscles.
The muscles in the most superficial layer include the:
Brachioradialis. Although this muscle has characteristics of an extensor, it actually acts as a flexor. The brachioradialis helps flex the elbow. It runs along the middle of the posterior forearm.
Extensor carpi radialis longus. This muscle is a wrist extensor. It also aids in wrist abduction.
Extensor carpi radialis brevis. Like the extensor carpi radialis longus, this muscle also works as a wrist extensor and abductor.
Extensor digitorum communis. The main role of this muscle is to act as a finger extensor.
Extensor digiti minimi. This is the muscle that enables you to extend the little finger. It also acts as a wrist extensor.
Extensor carpi ulnaris. This wrist extensor also aids in wrist adduction.
Anconeus. This posterior compartment muscle is an elbow extensor. When the forearm is pronated, it also abducts the ulna.
There are also a group of muscles that sit deep in the posterior forearm. They are the:
Supinator. This muscle helps you rotate the forearm so your palm can face upward.
Abductor pollicis longus. The abductor pollicis longus helps you abduct the thumb. This muscle sits next to the supinator.
Extensor pollicis brevis. This extensor enables the movement of two of the three thumb joints.
Extensor pollicis longus. This muscle helps extend all thumb joints. This includes the joint where the thumb joins the hand.
Extensor indicis proprius. When you extend your index finger, this is the muscle that assists.
The forearm includes more than just muscles. It also includes bones, nerves, and tendons.
There are two bones in the forearm. One is the ulna. The other forearm bone is the radius. While the ulna is largest near the elbow, the radius is larger near the wrist. If someone breaks their forearm, they have likely broken both of these bones.
There are also different tendons in the forearm. Tendons are soft tissue that connect bone to muscle. They further aid in muscle movement.
One example is the four digitorum superficialis tendons. Collectively, these tendons aid in finger flexion. Each individual tendon helps you move one of your fingers. (One tendon moves the index finger, one tendon moves the middle finger, and so on.) Some tendons are finger extensors. Other types of forearm tendons aid in thumb, wrist, and elbow movements.
There are three main nerves in the forearm. They are:
Median nerve. The median nerve is on the inside of the forearm. It impacts the muscles responsible for bending the fingers and wrist. The median nerve is also often the nerve that is affected in carpal tunnel syndrome.
Ulnar nerve. This nerve is also on the inside of the forearm. And it also impacts muscles that bend the fingers and wrist. But it also affects muscles that enable you to move your fingers from one side to another. (If you’ve ever hit your funny bone, you’ve actually hit your ulnar nerve.)
Radial nerve. The radial nerve is on the back of the forearm. It impacts the elbow extensors. The radial nerve also affects muscles that straighten joints in the wrists and hands.
Do your eyes gloss over when reading this list? That’s understandable since many of these arm muscles have names that are long and complex. However, learning what each muscle is and does is important as a personal trainer.
One reason is that it can help you identify where weaknesses may exist. If a client struggles with wrist extension and abduction, the problem could be their extensor carpi radialis longus. If they struggle with thumb abduction, the abductor pollicis longus may be to blame.
Or maybe their grip strength isn’t what it should be. It’s possible that their flexor digitorum profundus is weak. Although, it could also be their flexor pollicis longus. Research connects both to grip force production. (2)
Knowing forearm anatomy also helps you better pinpoint a potential problem. You can do this based on where the client has pain. Imagine a client comes to you and complains of forearm pain. Or maybe they are more vague and simply say that they have arm pain. How do you know which muscle may be damaged if you aren’t familiar with what each one is?
Ultimately, if a client experiences pain, they should see a medical professional. But knowing forearm anatomy is equally important in injury recovery. You’re able to avoid an injured muscle based on exercise movements.
Knowing the difference between extensor and flexor muscles also enables you to target each muscle type to boost strength in the forearm. There are two different pollicis longus muscles, for instance. One aids in thumb joint flexion. The other aids in thumb joint extension. Work both for total thumb (and grip) strength.
This important but often overlooked part of the body can be developed and strengthened like any other. So why focus on forearm size and strength? There are a few reasons that you shouldn’t overlook the forearms, and in some cases really put some effort into muscle growth:
One reason to focus on forearm growth is aesthetics, and there is nothing wrong with that. For your hypertrophy clients, those interested in bigger muscles and greater definition, skipping the forearms means an incomplete look. Picture bulky, impressive biceps, triceps, and shoulders, with skinny forearms. Building bigger forearm muscles completes the whole picture.
Another good reason to work on forearm strength is to develop overall better functional strength. The body is a kinetic chain, and all the muscles, big and small, plus connective tissue, joints, and bones, work together. By developing strength in all muscles, you move more efficiently and safely, minimizing injuries and pain.
No muscle should be overlooked in this process, including the forearms. There are more muscles in there than most people realize, and they connect to and impact movements in
the elbows, wrists, and hands. Strong forearms help with daily tasks, like opening jars and carrying heavy objects, and in sports like golf and basketball.
Grip strength is one of those functional movements that forearm workouts will improve. It helps with those practical things like lifting objects and opening jars, but grip strength is important in other ways. In the gym, good grip strength will allow you to lift more with weights and equipment, which in turn improves overall strength.
Researchers have also found a compelling health reason to work on grip strength. In a study of over 140,000 people, decreases in grip strength were associated with a decline in health. Every eleven-pound decrease in strength led to a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease. The increased risk of dying from heart attack and stroke was seven and nine percent. (3)
Finally, there may be rehabilitative reasons to work on forearm strength. Pain in the forearm can result from injuries and accidents, overuse injuries, nerve damage, and arthritis. Strengthening the muscles involved can help manage pain and speed recovery from injury or surgery.
For the best results, do these exercises two to three times per week. Once per week strength training isn’t adequate to develop bigger, stronger muscles efficiently. Building forearm strength and size can take some time, so be patient. But, with focused efforts, you should see some results in a month or two.
Use a variety of these exercises in your forearm workout, some with machines, some with weights, and some with only bodyweight, to hit all the muscles of the forearms and around
the wrists, hands, and elbows. You need the range of exercises to include all the way the wrist and forearm move and flex. And, by changing up the routines, you’ll challenge the muscles more and get faster results.
Yes, the best exercise for forearm training might be an exercise you already include. It’s important to understand that many of the exercises you’re already doing in the gym are improving forearm and grip strength: deadlifts, chin-ups, pull-ups, and others. Lifting heavy things, including your own body, using your hand grip, will build forearm strength.
A simple modification makes these workouts you’re already doing even more effective at building that strength. Make the barbell handle bigger with a specialist grip. A fat grip increases the width of the bar and forces you to hold with a stronger grip, working the forearm muscle group.
Another simple change that really develops strong, big forearms is to switch to a pronated grip. Hold the bar with the backs of the wrists facing up and palms facing down. This takes pressure off the biceps and transfers it to the forearms.
Use dumbbells to work on all the small muscles of the forearm. With just a few exercises, like variations of wrist curls, you can hit all the muscles and the ways in which the forearm moves:
Wrist flexion. Sitting on a bench, rest your forearms on your legs, palms facing up. The back of your wrists should be right on the kneecaps. Holding on to a pair of dumbbells, lift the wrists and squeeze. Only your hands should be moving, but you’ll feel this wrist curl throughout your forearm.
Wrist extension. Do the same basic exercise as above, but with the palms of your hands facing down. Lift at the wrist and squeeze. This reverse wrist curl works the forearm extensors.
Reverse biceps curl. Perform a standard biceps curl but with the backs of your hands and wrists facing up. This works out forearm muscles important for elbow flexion.
Zottman curls. This variation on curls takes some of the focus off the biceps and redirects it to the forearm muscles that attach to the upper arm. To do it, perform a regular biceps curl. At the top of the movement, rotate the palms until they are facing forward, then lower down to the starting position.
Grip and forearm strength are essential for carrying heavy objects, so try these simple but challenging loaded carry exercises to develop the muscles:
Farmer carry. This is a very simple exercise that builds up strength in the wrist and fingers while also engaging a lot of other muscles. Hold a heavy dumbbell in each and let the arms rest straight down at your sides. Your palms should be facing in. Walk in a straight line with good posture.
Trap bar carry. Do the same exercise but with more weight when you use a trap bar.
Pinch carry. Perform a carry exercise with weight plates to focus on grip and finger strength. Pinch your fingers together through the holes in two plates. Using two plates is important to really challenge the muscles here.
There are many ways to work the forearms using a pull-up bar and some of the weight machines in the gym:
Pull-ups. The pull-up is a challenging but important exercise for upper body and core strength. Do pull-ups with your palms facing in and then out to hit different muscles. If you can’t do these yet, start with hangs.
Pull-up bar hang. This
is as simple as it sounds. Just hang from a pull-up bar with palms forward and arms shoulder-width apart for a great forearm challenge. Modify this for a challenge and to hit different muscles. Hang a towel over the bar and hang while gripping each end of the towel.
Reverse cable curls. With your back to the cable machine, grip a lower pulley. Curl your arm forward and bring your hand up toward your shoulder, like a biceps curl.
Towel cable row. You can also use the cable pulley with a different grip to target forearm muscle. Pull a towel through the handle and hold each end of it with one hand. Pull back to do a row.
You can also use simple bodyweight exercises in your forearm workout. These are great for working out at home without a lot of equipment:
Fingertip Push-ups. To turn a regular push-up into more of a forearm exercise, do push-ups balanced on all ten fingertips. Start on your knees if necessary. This is great for building stronger forearms and wrists.
Crabwalk. In reverse tabletop position, keep your hands under your shoulders and
the fingers pointing towards the feet. Walk back and forth.
Developing massive forearms doesn’t have to limit you to lifting or simple bodyweight exercises. Those are great, and effective, but it can get boring. Rock climbing is an incredibly demanding sport that especially builds upper body strength, forearm strength, and grip strength.
If you have access to a climbing wall or gym, or the real thing outdoors, do a weekly session. It will improve strength all over and really put emphasis on forearms and grip, working every one of those little muscles.
For you and your clients, building forearm strength is something you can choose to do incidentally with a comprehensive strength training program. Alternatively, you can use some
of these strategies to really get ripped from elbow to wrist.
Learn about strength training, functional movements, building muscle, and so much more by enrolling in ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer course. ISSA will get you certified in just weeks and set you up for success with our job guarantee!
Cetin, A., Genc, M., Sevil, S., & Coban, Y. K. (2013). Prevalence of the palmaris longus muscle and its relationship with grip and pinch strength: a study in a Turkish pediatric population. Hand (New York, N.Y.), 8(2), 215–220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11552-013-9509-6
Ambike, S., Paclet, F., Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Latash, M. L. (2014). Factors affecting grip force: anatomy, mechanics, and referent configurations. Experimental brain research, 232(4), 1219–1231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-014-3838-8
LeWine, H. (2016, September 8). Grip Strength May Provide Clues to Heart Health. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/grip-strength-may-provide-clues-to-heart-health-201505198022
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