The forearms are the calves of the arms.
You can have well-developed biceps, triceps, and shoulders, but “the look” just isn’t complete if your forearms aren’t also on the beam.
Strong forearms do more than massage your vanity, too.
They also augment your grip strength, which is vital for progressing on pushing and pulling exercises like the bench and overhead press, deadlift, and row. (Fun fact: research shows that people with stronger forearms live longer, too!).
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to workout your forearms, including the best forearm exercises you can do to build stronger forearms, and an effective forearm workout routine for mass that you can start right away.
Your forearms are composed of many small muscles, each with a slightly different job to do.
Digging into the biomechanical minutiae of the forearms isn’t necessary for our purposes. Instead, we can divide them into two broad categories:
Flexors bend your palms toward your inner forearms; and extensors straighten your wrist, bringing the back of your hands closer to your outer forearms.
Flexors are also responsible for pronating your forearms (rotating your palm downward) and extensors for supinating your forearms (rotating your palm upward).
Think of pronation and supination this way: with your hands at your sides, your hands are pronated when your palm is facing backward, and supinated when your palm is facing forward.
Here’s how the flexors, or inner forearms, look:
And here’s how the extensors, or outer forearms, look:
When you’re doing exercises that demand high levels of grip strength (such as deadlifts, barbell rows, and pull-ups), you’ll struggle to get the full benefits of the exercise if your forearms can’t cut the mustard.
That’s because you have to end your sets when your forearms are tired but before your other upper-body muscles are fully trained, which partially defeats the purpose of the exercise. By improving your grip strength, you’ll ensure your forearms aren’t a weak link.
Having strong forearms increases the stability of your wrist joint (your wrists don’t bend or tremble under heavy loads). This is beneficial when doing pressing exercises because it ensures maximum force is transferred into the bar or dumbbell, allowing you to lift more weight, which is important for gaining strength and building muscle.
Elbow pain is a common injury among weightlifters, but building stronger forearms may reduce your risk of elbow injury. This could help you be more consistent in your training and thus make faster progress over time.
For most people, following a proper weightlifting program that includes lots of heavy pressing, deadlifting, rowing, and curling is enough to build strong, muscular forearms.
In fact, I’d argue that if you just keep getting stronger at these kinds of exercises, you won’t need to do any forearm-specific exercises. That said, if you feel your forearms or grip-strength is lagging, it’s worth doing a few exercises aimed at improving your forearm strength.
Despite what many fitness gurus suggest, you don’t need to do a hundred different forearm exercises to get “popeye forearms”. In fact, just a handful of carefully selected forearm exercises will get the job done (more on what these exercises are soon).
Remember, though, that doing the right forearm exercises is only half the battle. You also need to continually strive to add weight or reps to these exercises in every workout (a process called progressive overload).
This is an excellent forearm builder that doesn’t put too much wear and tear on your joints. It’s also a good test of forearm strength (if you can’t maintain your grip for at least 30 seconds, then it’s a sign you may profit from some forearm-specific exercises). If you can maintain your grip for 60 seconds, you’re above average. And if you can maintain your grip for 2 minutes, you’ve got Orangutan-level grip strength. 🙂
- Grab a pull-up bar with your palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and facing away from you.
- Relax your back and shoulder muscles so that your body weight pulls your arms straight.
- Hold for as long as you can (30 seconds is a good initial target).
The forearm curl is a great addition to any forearm dumbbell workout because it directly trains the forearms without fatiguing your other upper-body muscles, which could interfere with your progress on other exercises. It also requires minimal equipment and is comfortable for most people.
- Grip a dumbbell in your right hand, lean over, and place your forearm against the top of a bench so that your wrist extends just over the edge and the back of your hand faces the ceiling.
- Push your elbow into the bench so that your forearm doesn’t shift out of position as you do the exercise.
- Without moving your forearm or upper body, raise your hand toward the ceiling as far as you comfortably can, and then lower it to the starting position.
- Once you’ve completed the desired number of reps, switch sides and repeat the process with your left arm.
As with dead hangs and forearm curls, the plate hold is an effective way to isolate your forearm muscles. It also strengthens your forearms in a similar position to what you’d use when doing most deadlift variations.
- While standing up straight, pinch a weight plate between your thumb and fingers on your right hand.
- Hold it for as long as you can (aim for at least 30 seconds).
- Set down the weight, switch sides, and repeat the process with your left hand.
The dumbbell row trains your upper back, lats, and biceps like other row variations, but because you have to hold the weight for the entirety of your set, it’s also extremely effective for training your forearms and grip.
- Hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Bend over and put your left hand and left knee on a bench, chair, windowsill, etc. that’s about knee height off the ground.
- Keep your right foot planted on the floor and let your right arm (the one holding the dumbbell) extend toward the floor.
- Keeping your back straight, pull the dumbbell upward until it touches your torso.
- Return the dumbbell to the starting position.
- Once you’ve completed the desired number of reps, switch sides and repeat the process with your left arm.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) should be included in any barbell forearm workout because it trains all of the same muscles as the conventional deadlift, but it’s more challenging for your forearms because you don’t set the weight down between each rep.
- Stand up straight holding a loaded barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing toward your body).
- Flatten your back and lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line while keeping your legs mostly straight, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend.
- Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more, and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round—just below the knees for most people, and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
The Zottman curl gives you a bicep and forearm workout in one exercise because it trains your biceps during the concentric (lifting) phase, and the forearms and grip during the eccentric (lowering) phase.
- Stand up straight holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other and your arms hanging straight at your sides.
- Flex your arms and curl the dumbbells up until they’re in front of your shoulders. As you lift the dumbbells, rotate your wrists so that your palms are facing toward your shoulders at the top of the rep.
- While the dumbbells are in front of your shoulders, rotate your wrists so that your palms are facing away from you.
- Lower the dumbbells until your arms are hanging at your sides, then rotate your wrists so your palms are facing each other.
The farmer’s walk is a great exercise to add to your forearm workouts with dumbbells because it improves your whole-body strength and coordination. It’s also particularly taxing for forearms because you have to maintain your grip on heavy dumbbells as they sway while you walk.
- Stand up straight and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Keeping your shoulder blades pulled together and down, take small, quick, even steps forward.
- If you run out of space to continue walking forward, turn around and walk back to the starting point without dropping the dumbbells.
- Walk for a set distance, number of steps, or until you feel like you have to drop the dumbbells.
Good forearm workouts don’t have to be long or complicated. In fact, most people don’t need (or want) to do a dedicated “forearm muscles workout” at all.
A better approach is to work some of the best forearm exercises above into a well-designed workout routine that already includes plenty of heavy, compound weightlifting, like this:
- Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Incline Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Forearm Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Barbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 4–to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Seated Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Zottman Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Plate Hold: 3 sets of 30-to-60-second holds with 2-to-3 min rest
- Barbell Back Squat: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Leg Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Farmer’s Walk: 3 sets of 30-to-60-second walks with 2-to-3 min rest
- Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Weighted Pull-up: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Barbell Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dead Hang: 3 sets of 30-to-60-second holds with 2-to-3 min rest
Most “workout tools”—like weights that shake, and plates that vibrate—are a waste of time.
Forearm workout tools are different. Many make training your forearms easier and more effective, and unlike most other fitness gewgaws, they tend not to cost much.
My favourite pieces forearm workout equipment include:
If you look around online for forearm workouts with no equipment, you’ll find plenty of articles that claim you can build impressive forearms by jerking your wrists back and forth like you’re doing something terribly inappropriate to thin air.
The reality is, none of these exercises will help you build stronger forearms. To do an effective forearm workout you’ll at least need something you can hang off, such as a pull-up bar or attic rafter.
This allows you to do exercises like the pull-up, chin-up, and dead hang, and even more challenging forearm-specific versions of these exercises like the towel or rope pull-up, chin-up, and dead hang.
You can do a dumbbell (or kettlebell) forearm workout at home using any of the dumbbell exercises in this article.
If you don’t have any workout equipment available, then the next best solution is to find something you can hang off, such as a pull-up bar, attic rafter, or doorframe.
This will allow you to do effective forearm exercises like the pull-up, chin-up, and dead hang, or in the case of a pull-up bar or rafter, even more challenging forearm-specific versions of these exercises like the towel or rope pull-up, chin-up, and dead hang.
+ Scientific References
- Bohannon, R. W. (2019). Grip Strength: An Indispensable Biomarker For Older Adults. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 14, 1681. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S194543
- Fleck, S. J., & Falkel, J. E. (1986). Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 3(1), 61–68. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198603010-00006
- Melrose, D. (2014). Exercise technique: The Zottman curl. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36(1), 92–93. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0B013E318297A092