by Greg Zulak (1991)
Although the basic laws of muscle physiology, as related to muscle growth, apply to the forearms as they would any other muscle group, you probably find you have to actually work the forearms harder than any other muscle group (calves excepted!) to make them grow in size and strength. That is, unless you have naturally large and responsive forearms. Although the forearms are difficult for most to build and strengthen, if worked intensely and persistently, they WILL improve, and few muscles can be more rewarding to develop.
But again, you have to think of your hands, wrists, forearms and upper arms as a chain, If your forearms are weak and undeveloped you’ll never be able to handle weights heavy enough to make progress throughout the rest of your body. Work the whole chain if you want make progress on the whole. You must try to get your hands, fingers, wrists and forearms as strong as you can, and this will provide a strong base for your total development.
It might interest you, if you are primarily a bodybuilder, that except for the neck, the hands, wrists and forearms are nearly always exposed. If you’ve ever seen a top bodybuilder with huge muscular forearms – Chuck Sipes, Dave Draper, Casey Viator, Mike Mentzer, Larry Scott, etc. etc. – you’ll know and remember how impressive such lower arms can be. They look like they could rip railroad ties in half with their bare hands.
There are also practical reasons for building a strong, vise-like grip. It can be embarrassing if you can’t even open a pickle jar, only to watch as your girlfriend, wife or daughter easily does it. I recall Bob Kennedy telling me the story about the time Dave Draper was visiting
Old-time strongmen like Louis Cyr, Mac Batchelor, Apollon and Hermann Goerner all sported massive, powerful forearms and incredible gripping strength because they devoted plenty of time to their forearm and grip training. They had to. All the strength and lifting feats they did required enormous grip power and strong development. They took great pride in this power, much more so than upper arm size, and would regularly test their grip by lifting thick handled dumbells, heavy anvils, kettlebells and odd-shaped objects, with which they would do one and two arm lifts – especially heavy cleans, deadlifts and overhead movements. They’d also spend considerable time pinch-gripping smooth plates, doing pinch-grip chins and just about anything and everything else imaginable to build their gripping power. Modern lifters often shy away from that kind of work.
Before we get into the movements to be used and routines you can try, keep in mind that forearm development and shape are largely genetic. There’s not a great deal you can do to change the natural shape of your forearms. If you were not blessed with long, full muscle bellies all the lifting in world won’t change that, BUT, you CAN build up your forearm size and grip strength to the highest level available to you.
Earlier I spoke about old-time strongmen who devoted a lot of time and energy to developing powerful grips. I’d be willing wager that the average lifter of 50 or 100 years ago had a much stronger grip than the average trainer today. A good test of your grip strength, a simplified home version of David Willoughby’s grip dynamometer tests, is to squeeze your bathroom scale. Do this with both with two hands and with right and left hands individually. It is said that Bruce White, Australian grip specialist, squeezed 308 lbs. on his bathroom scales at only 148 bodyweight! The average untrained man is lucky if he can do 120 lbs.
The fun thing about squeezing the scales is you can do sets and reps just as you would with weights and use one or two hands. You can challenge yourself, even with something as simple as this.
Old-timers also had powerful grips because they did so much of their lifting with thick-handled (2 to 3 inch) barbells and dumbells. It’s also important to remember that many of these earlier strongmen worked with bells that were a far cry from the smooth-revolving Olympic bars of today. As they say, “it’s a poor carpenter.” You can create your own thick-handled barbells and dumbells by either wrapping more and more layers of tape around the grip points of the bar, or go to your hardware store and buy 2 to 3 inch pipe cut to measure to fit onto your bar or dumbells. Put the pipe over the bar in place of the revolving sleeve.
You can also put the thick pipe of wrap tape or towels around a chinning bar and get a great grip workout. Old-timers used to chin from rafters using a pinch grip and were capable of doing some incredible feats this way. Pinch gripping smooth barbell plates has long been used to develop strength.
and from many other suppliers.
To really give your fingers a heavy workout, superset pinch-gripping plates with finger tip pushups. Work on building up the number of reps of fingertip pushups you can do and the amount of weight-for-time you can hold in the pinch grip.
Here are some other finger, grip and wrist strengtheners you can work on:
Try deadlifting with a thumbless grip (don’t wrap the thumbs around the fingers). Do this in a power rack for safety. Set the pins so the weight only has to be lifted a few inches. Hold as long as you can and try to lift more, longer. For a real challenge work on holds using single fingers or combinations of fingers.
Try chinning using with a thumbless grip. Hold for time or go for reps. Chin or hand for time with two tennis balls, one squeezed in each hand between the bar and your fingers. Try chinning while holding a towel hanging from the bar. Try softball pull-ups. You need two softballs, two long threaded eyebolts, two washers and nuts, chain and two strong carabiners or hooks. Drill a hole through the softballs large enough to push the eyebolts through. Place one washer and thread one nut onto each ball. You would take two short pieces of chain of equal length. Loop them over the pull-up bar and hook the two ends of each chain onto the eyebolts by way of the carabiners or hooks. Make sure they are strong enough to hold your weight. Grip the softballs with your hands and do your pull-ups. As mentioned before, rafter chins and holds. With a little creativity and a lot of hard work any pinch or grip-handle can be used for chins.
Try pinch-lifting a 35 or 45 lb. Olympic plate by its hub (the raised part around the center hole). If this is too hard start with a 10 lb. plate gripping the outer edge of the plate, and work up over time.
Try very heavy (100 lbs. over max weight) bench press “holds” in the power rack. Like the top deadlifts, you only lift the weight 2” and hold as long as you can. Needless to say, use the catchers, start light and build up slowly.
Try the farmers walk - walking while holding heavy dumbells or specially made lifting implements.
Another effective grip strengthener is to use a grip machine, both single-handed and both hands at once. The grip machine allows you to add weight progressively and really gives the fingers, hands, wrists and forearms a good workout.
The time-proven wrist roller should not be ignored. Roll both up and back down with the palms up and palms down. Do three rolls each way each grip workout. Make sure you add weight when you can to make the exercise harder.
Just squeezing hard is very effective for building the grip. Try squeezing a rubber ball or a thick towel as hard as you can for about ten seconds. Then relax and repeat. Squeeze mostly with the fingers. Do 3 sets of 3-5 squeezes. The disadvantage to this is you cannot tell how much harder you are squeezing over time, but if you test yourself on the bathroom scales you should see the results of these isometric squeezes.
Here are some further grip-training ideas -
Stretching the fingers, hands and wrists will help maintain flexibility and relieve stiffness.
The forearm back bend – Try to relax your body, take several deep breaths and then hold your breath as you do the first “rep.” Try to focus all your energy, both physical and mental, in your hands. Bend your hand back at the wrist and gradually try to touch your knuckles to your forearm. Pull back with the other hand. Hold for 7 to 10 seconds and relax. Perform this several times for each hand.
The fist pull – Again relax, breathe fully and hold your last breath. Form a fist, then bend your wrist and try to touch your fingers to the underside of your forearm. Pull for 7 to 10 seconds, relax and repeat. Do several pulls for each hand.
The spider web – Relax, breathe fully, holding your last breath. Spread your fingers and thumb as far apart from each other as possible. Do this for 7 to 10 seconds as hard as you can, relax, and repeat with the other hand. Do this several times with each hand.