Like getting to those last specks of dust under the bed or shaving the awkward hairs under your nose, training your difficult-to-target forearms seems like an almost impossible task. The problem grows when you realise they’re the one gain that will likely be on permanent display all year long. So while leg day will be hidden beneath your trousers and those bench press gains shrouded behind a curtain of wool and cotton, you’re bound to roll up your sleeves one day and have to unveil the oft-forgotten forearms below.
Thank goodness then that gym-favourite triceps and biceps exercises will hit your forearms too. Moves such as bicep curls, push-ups, and tricep pull-downs will all work the other side of your elbow, and once you’ve got the basics of these must-do compound movements down, you can tailor your workouts to focus on just the forearms. The benefits go beyond filling your shirt sleeves, too.
“Strengthening the forearm muscles and improving their conditioning, mobility and motor control could potentially help keep chronic pain away from sporting activities such as tennis or golfer’s elbow,” says James Castle Mason, a trainer at London’s Roar Fitness. What’s more, Mason explains that “forearm strength is required in many upper body exercises for better pulling and pressing movements. Weak forearms or grip strength can be a limiting factor in acquiring muscle and strength developments elsewhere.” In other words, getting to grips with the best forearm exercises will benefit not just your forearms but the majority of your upper body.
The Arm Workout That Builds Your Forearms, Too
Mason has put together a four-part workout comprised of two compound and two isolation exercises. Each of the below will rope your forearms in as part of a complex exercise that benefits your entire arms, and other areas of fitness too.
Try working through the below once a week alongside your usual workout. If you think you’ve got it down after a few weeks, add in the two forearm exercises in the next section, known as finishers for good reason, to really fatigue the muscles and get them growing.
Tricep Compound Movement: Dips
“Dips are a great accessory exercise to bench presses, which in turn encourages both chest, tricep and grip development,” says Mason. “The more upright we are, the more we can load the movement through the triceps muscle as opposed to the chest – which is what we’re aiming for here.” Your forearms also help to stabilise you throughout the move.
Aim for three sets of 10 dips.
Grip the bars and bend at the elbows, lowering your body no lower than 90 degrees. Don’t rush, go slow and focus on keeping the elbows in. Then push down through your palms to straighten your elbows out, returning to the start position. Be careful here not to lock your elbows out straight as this can cause injury.
Having trouble? “Beginners unable to use their own body weight can use bands across the bars or an assisted dip machine beforehand to build strength,” says Mason. Want to upgrade? If you’ve really got it down you can think about adding some weight around your waist – speak to your gym staff about the safest way to do this.
Before you start busting out dips, Mason has a few words of advice. “Dip bars should be used, and the trainee should limit the range of motion depending on how mobile they are at the shoulder joint,” he says. Got that? Then you’ll want to approach the dip bars and take a firm grip with your hands opposite each other.
Tricep Isolation: EZ Bar Skullcrushers
It might sound like a Spinal Tap b-side, but when it comes to working those forearms, the skullcrusher is no joke. A highly focused exercise, it involves laying back with a loaded EZ bar held above you, which you’ll slowly lower to your forehead. Consequentially, grip strength and therefore forearm strength, is a vital component here.
“The skull crusher is a great move for the long head of the tricep,” says Mason. “This muscle gives your arm the most thickness as it develops over time and should definitely be a movement for those wanting more noticeable arm development.”
Work through three sets of 10, once a week for best results.
Start laid out straight on a bench, the bar held above you at nose-level, your arms straight. “The bar should be lowered carefully behind the top of the head with the elbows lined up slightly further back than the shoulders,” says Mason. “The weight should then be pushed up through elbow extension directly towards the ceiling that you are looking up at whilst laying on the bench. A little elbow flare is fine, but not too much.”
There’s no need to actually touch the bar to your forehead, but it should come close. To reverse the movement, focus on extending your triceps (like a reverse bicep curl) and push the bar up to the starting position.
You might be familiar with the EZ bar from bicep curls, but the grip here is slightly different as you’ll want to hold the narrowest grips that form the triangle in the middle of the bar. Because of this grip position, you should get a good burn in your forearms, as well as the rest of your arms.
In terms of weights, it’s much better to start light. Look to have just 7.5kg on each side while you’re getting used to the weight, saving the bigger loads until you’re sure you’ve got it perfected.
Biceps Compound: Chin-Up
“The chin-up is a staple big movement that develops excellent back muscles but allows the arms to play an assisting role,” says Mason. It’s also (along with its cousin the pull-up) one of the more difficult moves to master for a gym novice. The key is just to try it, then keep trying. The first time you might manage two, the next time, three.
“Although the prime movers should always be the back, the biceps still have to do plenty of work to complete the chin up and will confer some easy bicep development in the early stages.”
Five sets of 12 reps (if you can manage it; adjust accordingly if you can’t)
The movement is simple; grip an overhead bar with your palms facing you, focus on squeezing your core and contracting your shoulder blades to pull yourself up. A lot of the movement will come through your biceps, but they shouldn’t be working in isolation – try to lift yourself with your arms alone and you’ll quickly cause damage.
“If the trainee cannot do chin-ups, they should focus on core strengthening work, assisted chins-ups and potentially other direct bicep work instead,” says Mason.
A good method is to wrap an elastic band around the bar creating a cradle either for your foot or knee and perform chin-ups that way. The band will take some of your weight, but you’ll still have to work to get your chin up over the bar. Find what works for you and aim for three sets of ten a few times a week, or one set of as many as you can do at the start of every workout.
Incline Dumbbell Curl
We couldn’t have an arms workout without a curl, so here we are. When you perform standing curls there’s a temptation to swing your arms up, putting some of the movement through your back which is not only cheating but can also cause damage. Thankfully, this variation forces you to focus on form with the weight being carried by your biceps and forearms. Oh, and it’s difficult, too.
“The seated incline dumbbell curl allows the trainee to put the bicep into a fully loaded stretched position, which is particularly difficult to work from,” says Mason. “The great thing about the incline curl is that studies have reported it has stronger biceps activation than other forms of curl and is great for building the biceps peak.”
Go for the usual three sets of 10 for a punishing, sleeve-shredding move.
To perform the movement, adjust your bench so that you’re sat upright but not at a rigid 90 degrees. Take whatever dumbbells work for you (8-12kg is good for a beginner) and hold them down by your side.
Lifting the weight, focus on contracting the bicep, and nothing else. Power the weight up, hold by your chest, then – the killer – lower down over the course of three seconds (this is when you’ll feel the forearm burn).
The temptation with this dumbbell exercise is to swing your arms wildly as you bring them up, but real results come with control.
“The curl should have the arms hang down the side of the body at roughly a 60-degree incline on the body and the shoulders should be pulled back with the elbows remaining fixed in place to prevent using momentum or swinging of the weight,” Mason explains.
Forearm Exercises To Complete Your Workout
Work in three sets for each of these forearms finishers for an extra challenge at the end of your workout. Be warned, though, if you’re new to the workouts above, adding in these moves straight away may be a step too far. It’s best to space them out unless you fancy walking around with robot arms for the next few days.
While seated on a bench rest your wrists on your knees with your palms facing up. You’ll want to hold a dumbbell in each hand. Start with 2kg, this isn’t the time for showing off.
Now, raise your hands up towards your wrist, keeping your wrist and arms locked in place. Pause at the top of the movement, then count to three as you lower your hands to the starting position. That’s one or ten reps this set.
With an overhand grip, pick up a 30kg dumbbell in each hand. Keep your arms straight and chin up as you walk slowly across the room and back.
Do this for one minute without varying your pace, then rest for one minute at the end. You’ll feel this one throughout your palm and your forearm.
It’s a brutal finisher, but a great exercise for building grip strength, so stick with it.