“Walk into any gym in the world on any given day and you’ll see most guys—be it bodybuilders, powerlifters, CrossFitters, and or weekend warriors—training arms,” says Simon King personal trainer and owner of Cre8 Fitness gym in London, England. “While bulging biceps and striated triceps get the most attention, what looks more impressive is a pair of thick-set developed forearms,” King adds.
Besides, ask any professional fitness model the secret to vascular, pumped-up biceps and triceps and they’ll tell you it’s a formidable pair of forearms. Of course these muscles contribute to your aesthetics, grip and overall arm strength, but they also boost your athletic performance.
“For many sports the last link between you and your opponent, or equipment, is your hands, so training these muscles correctly is vital to improving performance,” King says. “This is obvious for grappling sports such as wrestling or judo, but it’s also key when you consider the role forearms play in tennis and stabilizing a bike when you’re cycling,” he adds.
So, if you want to get ahead of the competition, you’ve got to start training your forearms the way they deserve to be trained. These compound movements and specific isolation work will help build the arms you’re been looking for.
Thick Bar Shrugs
How to do it: “You need a thick bar—2-3 inches thick to get maximum results—or, even better, a pair of Fat Gripz which are a great tool to have in your gym bag,” King says. Engage your core, look down to avoid over-extending your neck, and keep a neutral neck, too, by softening the base. You want to prevent the load from coming through the lumbar muscles in your lower back and shrug your shoulders straight up, keeping the bar or dumbbell path as close to your body as possible.
Expert tip: “You want to create as much metabolic stress as possible to stimulate muscle hypertrophy in your forearms as you shrug,” King says. To do this, grip the bar as hard as you can, thinking about leaving finger indents on the bar. Also be sure you don’t roll your shoulders back; this will increase your risk for injury.
Why it’s effective: “Using thick implements in training will take care of developing tremendous forearms and grip strength, both of which are often neglected and more of a haphazard afterthought for most guys,” King says. Thick bar training will also make you stronger beause it recruits more motor units to activate in your muscles.
Application: Go heavy and perform 3 sets of 10-15 reps with a controlled tempo, pausing at the top of the movement if you want maximum stress on your forearms and traps.
How to do it: Take an overhand grip roughly shoulder-width apart on a pullup bar. “Set yourself up with a bar-melting grip and hang from the bar for as long as possible,” King says. “Try different hand positions to add an extra stimulus; for example, switch to chinup position (palms facing you), neutral grip (palms facing each other), false grip (palms facing away with thumbs on top of the bar), and, finally, work toward a one-arm hang (alternate arms).
Expert tip: Make sure you don’t round your shoulders. Think about pulling them toward your ears while keeping your arms straight. “This safeguards the stabilizing muscles around the rotator cuff,” King says.
Why it’s effective: “Often people’s limiting factor in pullups or even deadlifts is their forearm strength coupled with grip,” King says. Bar hangs will fry your forearm muscles, leaving you with an impressive pump.
Application: Aim to work up to 2 minutes hanging before mixing types of grip, and then finally getting up to 30-60 second one-arm hangs.
Pinch Plate Switch/Flip
How to do it: Take a weight plate, ideally an Olympic bumper plate with a good thickness, and hold it in front of your waist in one hand. Your knuckles should be facing away with your thumb on the side of the plate, facing your body. Bring the plate up to chest-height as if you were doing a a one-arm upright row. Let go of the plate, and catch it with your other hand when it reaches waist height, so it doesn’t drop to the floor. Build up speed alternating hand to hand.
Expert tip: “Pinch the plate as hard as possible to not only fire up your central nervous system, but switch on as many forearms muscles as possible,” King says. If you’re feeling confident and want more of a challenge, flip the plate 180 degrees and catch it, alternating hands as you go.
Why you need this: To develop thick, impressive forearms it’s essential you increase grip strength—this exercise does both. “Juggling can be cool but juggling weight plates is impressive,” King says.
Application: Work for time, minutes as opposed to reps, on this one. Start with 3 sets of 60 seconds, alternating hands, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with a weight that may slip through your hand. Just make sure you’re not holding the weight too close to your body so you don’t crush your feet in case you drop the weight.
How to do it: Hold a wrist roller out in front of you with arms straight. Fix a 2-5lb weight plate so it hangs from the bottom of the cable. With your knuckles facing up, turn your wrists toward your body and roll the apparatus between hands to bring the plate up until the cable is wrapped around the wrist roller. Then, in the same manner, lower the plate down slowly without letting it slip through your hands until the cable is straight again. If you don’t have access to a wrist roller, you can make your own. Loop a thick resistance band through a weight plate, and wrap the band around a bar. Place in a rack to allow the bar to rotate; then, manually twist the bar until the weight plate touches.
Expert tip: Make sure your arms are straight at all times in order to target your delts and forearms. “Tack this onto the end your arm workouts to ensure you’re always building vascular, full forearms,” King says.
Why it’s effective: To really develop impressive forearms, it’s key get wrist extension and flexion in. “There’s nothing more effective than specifically hitting extensors and flexors using the wrist roller,” King says.
Application: Aim for 1 full cycle of bringing the plate up and back down while keeping strict turns, working up to 3 sets of 2 up and 2 down. Start with a 2lb plate working up to 5lbs.
How to do it: Wrap one or two hand towels around a pullup bar. Gripping the towel(s) in either hand, perform pullups using a neutral grip. Keep your feet straight as you pull, bracing your core to keep the movement controlled, King says.
Expert tip: Vary the position of the towel(s) on the bar: “The closer your hands are, the greater the emphasis is on forearm development,” King says. “The wider your hands, the greater the emphasis is on your lats.”
Why it’s effective: Rocky Balboa did ’em. Strict towel pulls swell your forearms with blood for a great pump.
Application: Work toward completing 10 strict pullups focusing on the eccentric phase of the movement lowering down under control to maximize full forearm muscle recruitment.
How to do it: If you’re not familiar, a clubbell is a strength and conditioning fitness tool that, as you probably guessed, looks like a club; the swinging motion is used to enhance athletic performance, and strengthen and tone muscles. With one arm, hold a clubbell at the bottom of its base using a tight-fisted grip extending your arm straight out in front of you. “Imagine there’s a clock directly ahead,” King says. The clubbell should be in line with 12 o’clock; now, slowly turn the clubbell counterclockwise 90 degress until it’s in line with 9 o’clock and your palms are facing down. Pause here for one second before turning your wrist clockwise until the clubbell is in line with 3 o’clock and your palms are facing up. Pause again for a second and repeat.
Expert tip: “If you don’t have access to a clubbell, use a hammer or a sledge hammer,” King says.
Why it’s effective: “Clubbell training, like kettlebells, has been used for centuries to develop shoulder strength, mobility, and stability,” King says. “They were used in WWI by the U.S. military as part of their basic training,” he adds. Unlike some other fitness fads; there’s no gimmick here. Clubbells are unbelievably effective because the leverage and distribution of weight challenge your small and large muscles, and allows a range of motion that no kettlebell or dumbbell can offer—forging major forearm growth.
Application: “Perform the exercise slowly without allowing momentum to take over,” King says. Begin with 60 seconds each arm, working up to 2 minutes. When you can do this, increase the load.
How to do it: Before you do anything, make sure you’re using a good-quality stable rope designed to be climbed on. Reach up the rope and clamp on with your hands, pulling your bodyweight as you bring your legs up to lock the rope between your feet to support your weight. Keep the rope between your feet; reach up and repeat. Use the same technique to lower yourself back down. “Whenever you rope climb with any technique, your legs should always contribute for safety,” King says. You’ll still get a beast of an upper body and forearm workout in.
Expert tip: Start slowly and gain confidence, King suggests. “If you’re not ready for this, a great prerequisite is the towel pullup,” he says.
Why it’s effective: Aside from looking impressibe, climbing ropes will sculpt your body all-over. “It has a huge core component and will build functional strength from head to toe,” King adds.
Application: Rope climbs can be integrated easily into your strength or conditioning workouts, King says. Aim to complete 1-2 rope climbs per set for a total of 4 sets in your workout. “Ensure the rest between climbs is sufficient (about 3 mins) due to the high recruitment of fast-twitch muscles fibres and the complexity of the movement,” he recommends.
Pinch-Grip Farmer’s Walk
How to do it: Take a weight plate in each hand using a pinched grip, letting your arms hang straight down so your hands are by your sides. Keeping a pinched grip on the weights, set a target to hit—ideally, a minimum of 10 meters—and once you hit that mark, turn around and complete at least two more laps, King says.
Expert tip: “Take short steps to conserve energy and push your heels into the ground to fire up your glutes and take any pressure off your lower back,” King says. Try not to let your arms swing as you walk.
Why it’s effective: “Like a traditional farmer’s walk, the pinch-grip is phenomenal for improving grip strength, which is essential for forearm strength and development,” King says. It can also improve all your big lifts since it helps develop powerful glutes and hips, a strong and stable back, and a rock-solid core, he adds.
Application: Think about covering distance and pinching thicker plates to really pack on forearm mass, King says.
Seated Alternating Dumbbell Curl
How to do it: Also known as Zottman curls, you’ll start seated with a neutral torso and a dumbbell in each hand. Keep you arms relaxed by your sides, palms facing forward. With your elbows tight to your body, contract your biceps and curl the dumbbells up, pausing at the top of the curl, briefly, with your palms facing up. Rotate your hands so your palms are facing down and keep your elbows close to your body as you lower your arms eccentrically until your arms are straight. At the bottom, rotate your elbows until your palms are facing up again, and repeat.
Expert tip: “If there’s an imbalance between arms, with one hitting fatigue before the other, finish the set off with alternating arms,” King suggests.
Why it’s effective: “Devised by strongman George Zottman in the 1880’s, the Zottman curl is a surefire way to build bigger forearms and biceps through its heavy recruitment of the brachioradialis [the muscle that flexes your forearm at the elbow],” King adds.
Application: Add into a tri-set of biceps work—like reverse curls and hammer curls—to really pack some meat onto your forearms, King suggests. Complete 3-4 sets of 12 reps with 2 minutes rest.
One-Arm Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press
Execution: Hold a kettlebell upside down so the ‘bell’ is in the air. “Stabilize your wrist to keep the kettlebell still, then press it overhead like a simple dumbbell military press,” King says. Lower the weight and repeat.
Expert tip: “When pressing and lowering the weight, think about ‘packing’ and firing your lats and pulling the weight down with your elbow close to your body rather than just lowering it,” King recommends. This will protect your shoulders by keeping your scapula in a shoulder-friendly position, he says.
Why it’s effective: As soon as you flip a kettlebell bottoms-up, you turn traditional exercises into a forearm melting workout, King explains. This is a great move to incorporate since it keeps your body guessing.
Application: Start light and use your non-lifting hand as a catcher in case the kettlebell drops. Pick the heaviest load you can handle, and complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest.