A lot of guys complain that when they lift for their arms or back, their forearms give out. This has led to a number of misconceptions—not to mention bad exercises. The fact is, you may think that your problem is weak forearms—but it's more likely tight forearms.
Stretch It Out
If you sit at a computer for hours on end each day, you probably have tight forearm muscles. All the lifting in the world won't fix your problem, and may actually exacerbate it. The typing position keeps your forearms in a perpetually contracted position. But a lot of guys cap off their day of typing with a trip to the gym for some forearm lifting—when what they really need is to start with stretches. With tight forearms and office jobs, you must take the time to lengthen those muscles with stretching.
Forearm stretching should be done throughout the day and can be done nearly invisibly, even at your desk. Begin by simply bending your fingers back over the back of your hand to stretch the underside of your forearms. You can even do this on your desk, in between working (and checking your RealJock inbox). Just press your fingers against the edge of the desk, pushing the heel of your hand forward, such that your fingers come back toward the back of your hand. Hold your stretch for at least 20 to 60 seconds. You should also reverse this stretch to target the tops of your forearms by bending your fingertips and hand into your palm, with arm extended. Again, hold this stretch for at least one minute for each arm.
Build It Up
Let's assume you've done your stretches, and tightness is no longer your primary problem. If you still want to do exercises to increase your forearm strength, you are going to need to think functionally. Forget the wrist curls—to increase your forearm strength, do full body, closed kinetic chain exercises, where your hands are in constant contact with either the floor or a bar or dumbbell. Closed kinetic chain exercises will allow you to strengthen your forearms while using other muscle groups for stabilization. These exercises will help you to strengthen your forearm muscles in ways that are more similar to your daily activities—so that you can both lift more weight in the gym, and sit at your computer without pain. When are you ever going to be kneeling over a bench, wrist-curling heavy weight? Chances are, never. So think of strengthening your forearms along with your body, instead of wasting time with those old school forearm exercises you see around the gym.
Here are some functional exercises you can try instead:
1. Pull-ups: Pull-ups come in many varieties—here on RealJock, you can find a multitude of them, including an overview of the pull-up possibilities as well as Gravitron and Smith machine varieties. Pull-ups train your forearms in tandem with the rest of your upper torso—and the weight you lift is that of your own body. They are an ideal exercise—just make sure that your hands are fully gripped around the bar.
2. Push-ups with Fingertip Raise at Top: To really train your forearms, you want to make them the stabilizer muscles for strength exercises. One great way to do this is to rise to your fingertips at the top of a push-up. You will do a normal pushup, but at the top movement, raise up on your fingertips and then go back into push-up. Your forearms will need to stabilize and hold you, since on your fingertips you can no longer press down into the floor to carry your weight.
3. Farmer Carries: Farmers have amazing functional strength, trained not in the gym, but from years of working in challenging and constantly changing environments. To train your forearms for the real-life experience of carrying awkward objects, take a dumbbell—weighing anywhere from about 25 to 45 lbs. each—in each hand, and hold them so your elbows are bent at 90 degrees with your forearms extended in front of you and elbows at your sides. Then, just walk around the gym. Your arms will be on fire.
4. Olympic Bar Bicep Curls: Use the heavy bar to do your curls, making sure to use a firm grip. If your gym has a "fat" bar—one that is wider in diameter—use this to increase the work in your forearms.
5. Plate Pull on Sled: This exercise is a luxury, since most gyms probably don't have a sled. But if yours does, load it up with plates and pull it toward you using a hand-over-hand motion, tugging on the attached rope. If your gym doesn't have a sled, a little imagination will let you recreate the effect in the outside world. The key is the repeated and fluid pulling motion, against a realistic amount of resistance.
6. Rope Climbing: Rope-climbing is the next step after the sled. Use the same hand-over-hand pulling motion to climb a rope—if your gym has one. Here again, your body weight forms the resistance, and your entire upper body is training along with your forearms, allowing your muscles to develop evenly and as a functional unit.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.