Exercises for the Forearms
Two groups of muscles importantly concerned with the size, strength and appearance of the forearm are the groups that act to flex and to extend the wrist. The flexor group of muscles bends the wrist so that the hand, or closed fist, is brought closer to the forearm on the palm side. The extensor group of muscles bends the wrist in the opposite direction, so that the back of the hand is brought closer to the forearm on that side. Two combinations of these flexor and extensor muscles bend the wrist sidewise also, so as to bring the hand toward either the little finger side or the thumb side.
It is the action of these forearm muscles on the hand that determines the strength of the “wrist”. The wrist itself is merely a joint, formed by the juncture of the forearms bones with the bones in the base of the hand. Like all other joints it has no motivating power in itself, but merely provides a flexible connection whereby the muscles on one side of the joint may, through their attachments, move the bones on the other side.
Since the forearm muscles with which we are here concerned act to move the hand in different directions in relation to the forearm, the exercises required to bring about development of these muscles are those commonly regarded as tests of “wrist” strength. What such exercises really are, however, are tests of the forearm muscles operating through the wrist-joint.
The regular two-arm curl and the reverse curl barbell exercises, in addition to developing the flexor muscles in the upper arm, have also a strong effect on the forearm. The curl with palms turned develops the flexors of the wrist; the curl with the backs of the hands turned upward develops the extensors of the wrist. The curling of a dumbell, or a pair of dumbells, with the handle of the bell kept pointing fore-and-aft, develops the abductors of the wrist, those forearm muscles that bend or sustain the hand sidewise toward the thumb side.
A single exercise for the flexor muscles that act on the wrist is to curl a barbell with the hands alone while is a sitting position, the backs of the forearms resting on the thighs and the hands extending beyond the knees. First pick up the barbell using the under-grip (palms uppermost), then take a sitting position with the forearms supported on the thighs as stated. The exercise consists in raising and lowering the hands while maintaining a tight grip on the bar, making the hand movement as complete as possible without moving the forearms. A greater bending of the wrists is made possible if the bar is grasped with the hands rather wide apart. This exercise can also be performed with one arm at a time, using a single dumbell. This allows the wrist to be flexed a little further toward the little finger side, with added benefit to the inside forearm muscles.
The muscles on the backs of the forearm which extend the wrist, may be similarly exercised by performing the foregoing movement using the over-grip, that is with the backs of the hands uppermost. As the wrist extensors are considerably less strong than the wrist flexors, a much lighter barbell or dumbell should be used here than in the regular wrist curl with palms upward.
A splendid exercise that acts on the forearm muscles in a somewhat similar manner to the wrist-curling exercise just described, yet which requires only a few pounds of weight for resistance, is the exercise called the wind-up or wrist-roller. Secure a thick wooden dowel, about 1 ½ inches in diameter and about 2 feet in length. Midway between the two ends, bore a hole straight through from side to side. Run a piece of strong cord or light rope through the hole, and tie several knots on the end so that it cannot slip through. If it is inconvenient to bore a hole of the proper size, the end of the cord or rope may be tied to a screw-eye which is screwed into the wooden bar half-way between the ends. In either case, a barbell plate is tied to the other end of the cord. The cord should be of such length that after one end is fixed to the roller as described, and the other end tied to the weight, about 4 feet of cord remains between the roller and the weight.
Grasp the roller with the over-grip, near the ends, and hold it straight in front of you at the level of the shoulders, with the cord unwound to its full length. Wind the weight up to the roller by twisting the top of the roller away from you, twisting first with one hand, then the other hand. Each time you twist the rod, the wrists will bend exactly in the opposite direction. After the weight has been wound all the way up, hold the bar in a loose grip with the right hand, rest the other end of the bar on your left forearm, and let the weight unwind itself. Again take the proper grip on the bar, and wind the weight up again, but this time twist the top of the roller toward you. Repeat once more the forward rolling-up of the weight, once more the backward rolling-up, and at least once more the forward wind-up.
Twisting the top of the roller away from you develops the flexor muscles on the inside and inside-front of the forearm. Twisting the top of the roller toward you develops the extensor muscles on the outside and outside-back of the forearm. Since, as previously mentioned, the wrist flexors are much stronger than the wrist extensors, you will find that you can continue to repeat the winding up of the weight away from you after the muscles on the backs of your forearms are too tired to wind the weight up towards you.
Throughout this exercise the body must be kept erect, the hands near the ends of the roller, the roller horizontal, and the arms straight at the elbows. The object should be to wind the weight up in the fewest possible number of turns, thereby bending the wrist to their fullest extent and bringing the forearm muscles into complete contraction. As a matter of fact, one seldom sees this exercise being performed correctly, with the elbows straight and all the twisting confined to the wrists. Perhaps one difficulty lies in the holding of the bar at horizontal arms’ length. The strain on the deltoids, for many exercisers, is sufficient to divide attention, destroy concentration on the forearms, render the exercise unnecessarily irksome, and lead to sloppy methods of performance.
Another variation which seems to be the best for concentrating on the forearms and performing the exercise correctly, is with the elbows at the sides and the arms bent at right angles. Remember, the roller must be kept horizontal, the wrists must be bent to their fullest extent each way, and the elbows must be kept in one position at the side. In this variation, it is necessary to stand on a chair or bench, in order to wind-up the full length of the cord.
An interesting form of exercise for developing the forearm muscles consists of leverage movements. Leverage movements are those in which great resistance is furnished without using much actual weight. The principle is that the lifting of an object, when the center of balance is at considerable distance from the joint, throws as much stress on that joint as the lifting of a heavier object that is held closer. Leverage exercises for the forearm and wrist can be performed very effectively with the ordinary adjustable dumbell, by loading only one end and grasping the other end. The abductors of the wrist may be exercised by levering the dumbell up and down as shown in illustrations. Continue the movement until the forearm muscles tire. The adductors of the wrist may be exercised by grasping the dumbell handle with the thumb side of the hand nearest the end, and levering the bell up and down, the weighted end of the bell now being behind the body. A heavier weight can be used in this variation than in the former movement. Be sure to keep the arm stiff at the elbow in these two exercises; all the movement is done at the wrist alone.
The muscles that pronate the hand may be exercised by what might be called the wrist-twister. Grasping the leverage dumbell, assume a sitting position with the right forearm resting on the thigh, the palm of the right hand being upward. Without removing the forearm from the thigh, slowly twist the wrist until the palm of the hand is downward (in other words, pronate the hand). Then slowly twist the wrist in the opposite direction until the palm is upward (that is, supinate the hand). This exercise should always be performed slowly and with the weight in full control; if you let the weighted end of the bell fall swiftly of its own weight, after it reaches the vertical position the wrist may be strained. Be sure to resist with your muscles during the downward movement of the weighted end, as well as during the upward movement. Exercise the left arm in the same way, making at least 10 or 15 repetitions.
Another use of the leverage dumbell is to press it while holding one end. Standing erect, hold the bell as shown in the illustration. From this position press the dumbell slowly to arms’ length overhead, keeping the handle of the bell in vertical position. This is a very effective exercise for most of the forearm muscles.
At this point, we might mention an interesting supplementary exercise for the upper arms, using a leverage barbell. Load the bell at one end only, and grasp the unloaded end with your left hand, using the over-grip. Grasp the bar with your right hand, using the under-grip, as shown in the illustration. Now curl the weight with your right hand, bringing your right hand over to your left breast. Keep the left arm straight, and press downward with your left hand so as to make the fulcrum for this leverage movement. This exercise helps to develop the brachialis anticus, which is important in adding bulk to the upper arm. To exercise the left arm, reverse the position of the hands, also shifting the loaded end of the bell to the other side of the body.
A good supplementary exercise for the forearms as a whole is the combination movement known as the Zottman exercise. Stand erect with a dumbell in each hand. Curl the right-hand bell, with the palm up and the wrist bent strongly upward. When the bell reaches the shoulder, pronate the hand (turn the palm downward) and lower the bell, keeping the wrist bent strongly upward as in the reverse curl. But as you lower the right hand bell, you simultaneously curl the left-hand bell, with the palm of the left hand up. And when the right arm is fully straightened, the left arm should be fully flexed. You then pronate the left hand and lower the bell, at the same time supinating the right hand and curling the bell in that hand. Both the arms work at the same time, one hand coming up as the other hand is going down, the upward movement being always a regular curl, and the downward movement always a reverse curl. The illustration shows the right hand coming up and the left hand going down.
It is now opportune to mention an exercise of a different nature. This is to perform the floor dip while supporting the body on the tips of the fingers and thumbs instead of on flat hands as usual. This is excellent for developing great strength and toughness in the fingers and thumbs. Besides, it tends to offset the usual clutching movements of the fingers, and thus to make them more shapely and straight. The closer together the fingers and thumbs of each hand are placed on the floor, the more difficult and effective becomes the exercise. As your ability improves, the exercise should be varied by raising one or more fingers on each hand, pressing with the thumb and only one, two, or three fingers. Eventually, you should become able to perform the dipping movement while using only the two thumbs. Finally, see if you can develop the ability to dip while supporting your weight on your two index fingers. This latter feat denotes extraordinary finger strength, but it has been accomplished.
So far, we have presented the exercises that develop the flexor and extensor muscles of the upper arm and forearm; and the forearm muscles that flex, extend, abduct, pronate, and supinate the hand. Consequently, there remains to be considered those forearm muscles that account for the power of one’s grip – the “grasping” muscles of the fingers and thumb.
It should be borne in mind that in following a program of general body building with a barbell, the hands, wrists, and arms incidentally receive considerable developing work. That is, the grasping and manipulating of the barbell in each and every exercise compels a certain degree of development in the fingers and wrist, no matter which part of the body the exercise is particularly intended for. In some exercises, the grip is developed, and in others, where a fairly heavy weight is held on top of the palm, the strength of the wrist is improved. Thus, all this incidental work for the wrists and grip contributes to the development of the forearm and hand.
Exercises especially adapted for the development of unusual strength in the hand and fingers are largely of the nature of tests, stunts, or the specialties of noted strongmen. For this reason, such exercises will be presented in our book on The Kings of Arm Strength rather than dealt with here as regular body building exercises.