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The Importance of Forearm Strength and How to Build It

Do you have weak forearms? Is your lack of forearm strength holding you back? Get-Fit Guy answers a listener's question and gets to the bottom of this weakness.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #444
Photo of a man hanging from a bar

I received an email from a listener named Trish a few weeks ago all about the importance of forearm strength. Trish said, "I read somewhere that having weak forearms can limit your ability to build other muscles. That seems extreme. Is it true? And other than not being able to build bigger biceps, why should we worry about our forearm strength? Thanks."

Great questions. I will tackle them in the order they were asked and then give you some exercises that you can do to strengthen those puny wrists.

Weak Forearms

Let’s start here. Your forearms are indeed used in many exercises you might do at the gym. Exercises like pull-ups, rows, farmer carries, kettlebell swings, deadlifts and bicep curls all involve a certain amount of forearm strength. If you lack forearm strength, your ability to build strength in other parts of your body is indeed compromised.

This is essentially due to the fact that stronger forearms lead to a stronger grip with more muscles generating more squeezing force during your workouts and everyday life.

When you have weak or underdeveloped forearms or wrists, those muscles may be the first group to tire out when you are doing something like pull-ups or rows.

When you have weak or underdeveloped forearms or wrists, those muscles may be the first group to tire out when you're doing something like pull-ups or rows. That means you'll never seriously tax the actual pulling muscles during the workout because your forearms give out too quickly.

We call that the weakest link in the kinetic chain.

Kinetic Chain

First coined by the orthopedic surgeon, Art Steindler, in 1955, the concept of a kinetic chain is described as “individual joints and muscles working together as a group to perform any meaningful motion.” Simplified, this means that when we are doing something like a pull-up, we're not only engaging the major muscles that you're targeting with the exercise (like the back and triceps) but you are also including all the muscles involved in the kinetic chain that performs this movement. This includes your wrists, hands, forearms, biceps, teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, pectoralis major, coracobrachialis, and so on.

So, if you are doing that pull-up exercise and you have weak grip strength, your back may not get a decent workout because your hands fail before the other muscles even get challenged.

Got it? Ok. Now, you may be wondering how your forearms got so weak in the first place. Let's talk about it.

How Weak is Weak?

A 2017 study pointed out that prehistoric women’s manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5500 years of farming in Central Europe. It compared the bones of Central European women that lived during the first 6,000 years of farming to modern female athletes. The study showed that the average prehistoric woman had stronger upper arms than even today’s female rowing champions.

The researchers said that this forearm physical prowess was likely gained by doing manual farming labour such as tilling soil, harvesting crops, or grinding of grain.

Over three weeks during the trial, the researchers scanned the limb bones of the Open and Lightweight squads of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club who were training twice a day, rowing about 120km per week.

The Neolithic women analyzed by the researchers had arm bones that were 11-16 percent stronger for their size than the rowers.

The Neolithic women (from 7400-7000 years ago) analyzed by the researchers had arm bones that were 11-16 percent stronger for their size than the rowers, and almost 30% stronger than non-rowing students. The Neolithic women were followed closely by the Bronze Age women (from 4300-3500 years ago), who had 9-13 percent stronger arm bones.

So, once again we see that by simply setting aside a few hours a week for exercising (in this case rowing), and then living our sedentary and cushy lifestyles, we don’t hold a candle (or an oar) to our predecessors’ fitness levels.

Now, I know we aren’t all planning to start farming like Neolithic women or grinding our own flour like our Bronze Age ancestors, but there are things we do that require strong forearms. Activities such as opening jars, typing, using a trackpad or computer mouse, washing dishes, wringing out wet laundry, turning a doorknob, using a vacuum, and even driving all require some forearm strength. Then there are the sports we like to play such as golf, tennis, football, basketball, baseball, and CrossFit. Even many of your favorite yoga poses demand some serious lower arm strength.

Anatomy of Your Forearm

Before we get into strengthening exercises, let’s look at a few of the major muscles in the forearm and what they allow us to do.

  • Flexor pollicis longus: This muscle allows you to bend your thumb.

  • Flexor digitorum profundus: This muscle aids in bending your index, middle, ring and pinkie fingers.

  • Flexor digitorum superficialis: Allows you to use chopsticks (among many other cool things).

  • Flexor carpi ulnaris and radialis: Allows you wiggle your wrist back and forth.

  • Brachioradialis: Allows you to do the ever-popular “so-so” motion with your hand.

  • Palmaris longus: Allows you to wave goodbye to a child. 

  • Extensor pollicis brevis: Allows you to give a strong thumbs-up.

Working Forearms: How to Build Strength

Let’s start with some things you can do at home and around your neighborhood, and then we'll dive into some exercises you could do at the gym, if you're so inclined. 

Farmer’s Carry (or Walk)

Find a weighted object like sandbags, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, cinder blocks, tires or just about anything else you can get your hands on and simply pick up that object and start walking for as long as you can. When you get tired, set the object down, shake out your hands for a few seconds, then pick it back up again and start walking. Repeat until you get bored or tired or both.

Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups

Using various grip positions (front, overhand, neutral, sideways, reverse, or underhanded grip) do pull-ups, chin-ups or simply some static hanging. Try using a thicker bar as well to make this activity more and more challenging. If the bar you have access to is thin, you can wrap a towel around it t make it thicker or drape the towel over the bar and do your hangs or pull-ups from the towel instead of the bar.

Pick up Heavy Objects

Sure, you can go to the gym and do deadlifts but by simply practicing picking up heavy objects and holding them up and off the ground for a few seconds, you can build useful strength. For example, I was doing the laundry the other day and we had a huge and full bottle of detergent. Picking it up by the handle was challenging but picking it up and holding it by the lid was even harder (and more daring). Plus I could feel it working parts of my hand and forearm that tend to get forgotten the majority of the time. This was an easy way to turn a household chore into a workout. 

Find a Playground

More specifically, find some playground equipment and hang from or climb the swingset chains or support poles. Hang from the jungle gym, or go hand-over-hand on the monkey bars. If you’re lucky, and the playground is super fancy, they may even have a small climbing wall. Doing what rock climbers call "bouldering" is an excellent way to build grip, hand, writing, and forearm strength.

Work With Your Hands

Gardening is a great way to not only strengthen your hands and arms but it is also a wonderful way to keep your full-body range of motion intact. Other activities like using shovels, rakes, chopping wood, sawing planks, hammering nails, or pulling weeds lend themselves to strong forearms as well. 

Carrying Heavy Bags

This is one that you probably don’t even need to plan for; it’ll likely happen on its own. We’ve all been there—you're carrying a heavy load of groceries and you can feel your grip strength starting to fail. You pick up your walking pace and barely make it to the doorstep before you drop the bags and shake out your hands. This, believe it or not, is an excellent way to work on your grip strength. When you feel your grip strength failing, challenge yourself to see how long you can hold on and try to extend your ability each time. 

Go to the Gym

There are a ton of exercises that you can do with weights, resistance bands, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and so on at the gym. These are three of my favorites.

  1. Pinch Plate Hold: Find a weight plate, pinch it between your fingers and let gravity do the rest. You can also do it with a hexagonal dumbbell by using your fingers and thumb to hold the dumbbell out in front of you. The goal is to not drop it.

  1. Finger Curl: In a seated position, hold a barbell with both hands, forearms on your thighs and palms facing up. Lower the bar as far as possible, allowing the bar to roll down your hands, and then catch the bar with the final joint in the fingers and curl the bar back up as high as possible while closing your hands. Hold for a second and repeat.

  1. Dumbbell Reverse Curl: In a standing position, hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms by your sides, palms facing backwards and behind you. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides and slowly curl the weights up above 90 degrees. Lower the weights to the starting position and repeat. I like this one because it works on your biceps at the same time as your forearms and grip strength

Good Function

The forearm muscles are the muscles that help us grip everything from a grocery bag to a doorknob to a barbell. From a kettlebell, to a child, to an awkward piece of furniture we have to move. Having forearm strength (and grip strength) means that you have the independence to pick things up and move them around on your own. Plus, the stronger your grip, the more you can lift at the gym and I can’t be alone in my desire to have bulging forearms like Popeye, can I? Oh well, I yam what I yam.

More from Get-Fit Guy

For more forearm info, grip strength tips, and to join the Popeye conversation, head over to Facebook, Twitter, or BrockArmstrong.com. Don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify, Google Play or via RSS.

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