John McCallum photo courtesy of Liam Tweed
The wrist curl is the mainstay exercise for forearm strength and development. For bodybuilders and arm wrestlers, in particular, it is important to build up this area. As with all weight-training movements, however, the wrist curl is not without its myths and hazards.
When you do wrist curls, you work the muscles that are collectively known as the wrist flexors. Many of the muscles originate on the medial epicondyle of of the humerus, which is the bony prominence on the inner elbow, and insert into the wrist and fingers.
There are two common methods of performing this exercise. The first is to lay your forearms against the bench or the top of your thighs with your palms up and overhanging the bench or thighs. You hold the bar firmly in the palms of your hands, and the only action is at the wrists as you move the bar up and down.
In the second method, you set the exercise up the same way, but instead of limiting the movement to lifting the bar up and down, you take it farther in the bottom position, letting it roll down your fingers to where you are holding it by your fingertips and then curling it back up into your palm before lifting it up to complete the movement.
For years the bodybuilding magazines have touted the superiority of these ways to perform the wrist curl. The proponents of each always give their rationale for their choice, but they never tell you about the risk factors.
Nevertheless, letting the bar roll down you fingers is by far the more risky method because it places tremendous stress on your wrists.
Tendinitis is the best case scenario of the injuries you can incur when you do wrist curls this way. One of the worst case scenarios is stenosising tenosynovitis, in which the tendon sheath can tighten, or narrow, producing what is known as a "trigger finger."
Tendinitis is still a possibility when you perform wrist curls using the safer method, where you hold the bar firmly in your palm. If you experience pain while doing this exercise with your forearms on a bench, try placing them on top of your thighs.
If you have experienced any previous injuries to your wrists, such as a fall in which your palms padded the shock, a football injury to your wrist, an auto accident in which your hands were strained while holding onto the steering wheel of a motorcycle accident that hurt your wrist, you have to put this exercise on the back burner for a while. The wrist is a very complicated area, and it should not be overstressed after a traumatic injury.
If you have incurred any such injury, you should have it treated properly by a medical professional. If the injury is not serious, you can try doing wrist curls with a very light weight (perhaps just the bar) to see if your wrist will tolerate the movement. Working with the empty bar may be of some rehabilitative value if it does not cause pain. If it does, wait several months before you attempt this exercise again.
If your wrists are healthy, however, you will find that the wrist curl lends itself to heavy weight.
I recall Ken Waller (above) performing wrist curls with 225 pounds. Another patient of ours, who trained for the enjoyment of training did 315 for 5 with his forearms on his thighs - and his forearm measured 19-plus inches pumped. A recreational trainee should have no trouble working up to 100 pounds in this exercise.
Increase the poundage gradually on your wrist curls. If you have a previous injury, work entirely within your comfort levels. Even if you don't have a previous injury, AVOID ROLLING THE BAR DOWN YOUR FINGERS.
You may not get hurt by doing it, but you greatly increase the odds.