Saturday, September 5, 2009
Forearms - Greg Zulak
by Greg Zulak (1991)
The biggest reason why most bodybuilders have poor forearm development and weak grips is simple: Neglect. They just don’t train their forearms with the intensity, regularity or workload they give their other muscle groups. Whereas few lifters mind hammering their biceps and triceps with 10, 15 or even 20 sets (each) several times weekly, it’s a rare one who gives his forearms equal attention. More likely than not, it’s a few, if any, wrist curls thrown in at the end of their arm workouts, and yet they wonder why their grip and forearms are sadly lagging behind.
As for grip strength, most bodybuilders don’t even give it much of a second thought, until they discover their pulling movements are suffering due to a lack of holding power. Then they resort to straps which further denies their weak hands and grip the work they need and deserve. Soon, the forearms and grip become the “weak link” of their strength chain, and just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the whole body suffers as a result.
Don’t forget that every upper body exercise involves the hands, wrists and forearms to some degree. If these areas are weak and underdeveloped they limit the amount of weight or number of reps that can be handled, thereby greatly reducing your potential for progress. Now think of all the movements that involve pulling of any kind.
This is especially true for the upper arms. Larry Scott, famous for his thick, fully developed biceps, triceps and forearms, has always maintained that the key to building the biceps was through heavy forearm and wrist strength work, which allows one to use heavier weights on all biceps exercises.
Having powerful hands, wrists and forearms will also allow you to do more reps and handle more weight on chins, all forms of pressing, flyes, laterals, rowing movements, shrugs, deadlifts, well, just about any upper arm and torso movement you can think of. In fact it’s safe to say that you will never realize your greatest upper body potential or know full involvement in your workouts unless you develop your hands, wrists and forearms. You MUST eliminate the weakest link in your chain of development.
There are aesthetic reasons for forearm work as well. Developed upper arms with stick-like lowers look no less foolish than Popeye forearms on ten inch uppers.
Forearm work isn’t easy. Half-hearted sets give half-hearted results. No, no fall-asleep sets here. You must work hard enough to make the forearm muscles burn and ache every set. When you do the work properly the pump should be incredible.
First, a little anatomy lesson. 20 muscles make up the flexor and extensor areas of the forearm. There are also two layers of tissue in the forearm, deep and superficial. Heavy weights are needed to work the deep fibers, as would be necessary with any muscle. Now, although there are 20 muscles in the forearms, we will, for our purposes, speak mainly about flexors (the muscles under the tops of your forearms), and extensors (the muscles on the tops of your forearms). For more information see this anatomy chart:
The forearms are dense, thick muscles. Like the calves they get a lot or work in daily activity, a fact that can be evidenced by making a point of noting how often they come into play in one single day. They are, therefore, very resistant and unresponsive to light exercise lacking intense involvement.
Although your forearms will grow to some degree just by gripping the bar hard while doing other exercises, you must do specialized movements and use high intensity techniques to get a real response. I find supersets, tri-sets and drop sets work well. The heavy-light technique seems to fit here especially well.
It’s probably best to train your forearms on their own if you will be specializing on them, or at the end of your regular workouts, because once they are pumped it is difficult to maintain your grip on any other exercises.
Rest periods should be kept to an absolute minimum – no more than 30 seconds or the time it takes to change the plates on the bar and take a few deep breaths. If you’re supersetting, tri-setting or doing heavy-light drop sets, only rest after the two or three exercises are done.
If your forearms are really under par, treat them as a major muscle group and specialize on them for several months. Set aside two or three workouts a week that are just for training forearms. These should only be 20 to 30 minute workouts. That should be plenty enough time to do what needs to be done.
There are many excellent forearm exercises for both the flexors and extensors, literally dozens. For our purposes we’ll stick to a few basics and variations of the basics. For example, the best exercise for the flexors or underside of the forearms is the standard wrist curl, and it can be done in many ways: seated with the backs of your wrists on the end of a bench, standing with a barbell held behind the thighs, plus variations done with one or two dumbells. You can also do the basic wrist curl while in a low squat position, the backs of your wrists resting on your knees. This version allows you to keep your hips lower than your forearms so you can lean back at the end of a heavy set and really pour your guts into the final set. Larry Scott developed a small 12” x 12” bench that allow you to squat down but still support your forearms on the bench. This allows you to go all out in relative comfort, and a facsimile can be easily designed.
This bench can be used training your forearms intensely by allowing you to utilize a very effective heavy-light superset method. Off the front end of the bench, place a very heavy barbell that lets you get no more than 10 reps. Make sure your hips are below the level of the bench. On the other side of the bench, place a lighter barbell that will allow you to do about 15-20 reps. After a light warmup of one or two sets of wrist curls, grab the heavy bar and go to failure, preferably no more than 10 reps. At this point do several more quick half-reps and drop the weight. Immediately grab the lighter bar and rep out again to failure.
For the extensor muscles of the forearm, reverse curls, hammer curls and Zottman curls are the standards. These should all be treated as power exercises and it is possible, with work, to use heavy poundages. Don’t be afraid to cheat on the last few reps. The reverse curl can also be done on the preacher bench using either a bar or two dumbells.
One of the best all-round forearm routines you can do is to tri-set one of the reverse curl variations with the heavy-light wrist curl superset. try gradually working up to four or five cycles, doing 6-8 reps on the reverse curl, no more than 10 reps on the heavy wrist curl and 15-25 on the light wrist curl.
For variety you can substitute hammer curls or the Zottman Curl in place of the reverse curl. Hammer curls are performed with the thumbs pointing up throughout. For a description of Zottman curl performance, see here:
Other wrist-forearm exercises you can utilize are reverse wrist curls, three-way wrist curls and preacher bench reverse curls. The reverse wrist curl (knuckles up) is a hard exercise that places the strain on a weak part of the forearm; however, with time and hard work improvements in strength and development can be attained. Try 3 or 4 sets of 15-20 reps.
To do the three-way wrist curl sit on a bench and grab a pair of dumbells. Perform 5-7 reverse wrist curls, immediately turn your wrists over and perform another 5-7 palms up wrist curls. Next, without any rest, turn your wrists so that your palms face each other, thumbs up, in hammer curl style, and perform 5-7 wrist curls with the hands in this position.
The preacher bench reverse curl isolated the pronator forearm muscles, as well as the extensor group. You can allow the arms to extend straight at the bottom and perform a reverse wrist curl before each rep. Try some sets with the knuckles down at the bottom, gradually pointing them up as you curl the bar.
For variety, be creative in designing your programs. Seek the key to enthusiasm at each workout. Try different exercise combinations, but a word of caution is in order. The wrists are surrounded with many tendons which can be irritated and inflamed is you strain or overwork your forearms. To avoid problems, warm up sensibly, and always build up workload – sets, reps, weights and the number of exercises you do – SLOWLY.
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