When we think of climbing strength this is probably the first one that jumps to anyone’s mind. Along with our good friends Mr biceps and the lats, this trio forms the cornerstone of all that pulling power!
In this article we look at 7 of the best forearm pump-a-licious exercises you can do for the ultimate forearm dumbbell workout.
Do them at the gym, in front of the tv, these bad boys are awesome to build strength and contribute to a healthy elbow and wrist.
First Things First
Whilst climbing has to be the most forearm intense workout you can possibly imagine, sometimes it might be useful to stop pulling on plastic and shift your attention on other ways to train the mighty forearms.
Enter the mighty dumbbell.
Why those dusty dumbbells lurking at the foot of your bed or in your closet?
Dumbbells are great for multiple types of training and have numerous advantages.
- They are unilateral. This means each arm is working independently and so you can’t use that stronger arm to do most of the work.
- Dumbbells allow your wrists to move in natural motions and stay neutral if required. Using them is less likely to irritate any existing upper kinetic chain
Some Basic Forearm Anatomy
The muscle groups can be split into two:
- The anterior muscle group
- The posterior muscle group.
These two groups together perform all the wrist flexion, extension, pronation and supination.
Pronation = Turning your hand palm down
Supination = Turning your hand palm up
The Anterior Forearm Muscle Group
This part as the forearm is made up of multiple different smaller muscles, all used for flexion and pronation of the wrist (turning palm down).
These main ones are:
- Flexor carpi ulnaris
- Palmaris longus
- Flexor carpi radialis
- Pronator teres
- Flexor digitorum superficialis
- Flexor digitorum profundus
- Flexor pollicis longus
- Pronator quadratus
For the golfers elbow sufferers you’ll recognize these names. These two are guilty of playing a central role in most medial tendinopathies. For climbers, the usual culprits are the flexor carpis and pronator teres.
The Posterior Forearm Muscle Group
For extension and supination (turning your palm face up), the antagonistic counterparts to the above are:
- Extensor carpi radialis longus
- Extensor carpi radialis brevis
- Extensor digitorum
- Extensor digiti minimi
- Extensor carpi ulnaris
- Abductor pollicus longus
- Extensor pollicus longus
- Extensor pollicus brevis
- Extensor indicis
With lateral epicondylitis (a.k.a tennis elbow), the extensor carpi radialis brevis is the main culprit with pain radiating from the common extensor origin, or “boney outside elbow joint point”.
1) Wrist Curls
Probably the best known direct forearm exercise, this one gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Get a good pump at the top of the contraction and a nice slow eccentric movement on the way back down to get the most out of it.
This little gem works all of the forearm flexors nicely in isolation.
You can perform it one with the back of your forearm resting directly on your knee or on a bench, dumbbell in hand palm up.
Start with your wrist extended.
Then simply contract your wrist upwards lifting that dumbbell. Then slowly lower it back down. The eccentric movement it super important here and great for strengthening dem tendons so don’t rush it.
2) Reverse Wrist Curls
The juxtaposed twin of number 1, this one works the antagonists to wrist flexion: wrist extension. In order to keep those elbows and forearms healthy it’s important to work both sides.
These are performed in the same manner as wrist curls, except that here you place the palm side of your forearm down on either your knee or a bench, so that your wrist is handing over the ending, palm down.
Holding the dumbbell palm down, raise the back of your hand, extending the wrist. You should feel the burn on the top of your forearm towards the end on the outside of your arm (lateral side).
3) Wrist/Dumbbell Rotation
This exercise is commonly used in physiotherapy programs for elbow tendinopathies, targeting both the supinator and pronator teres.
Again holding a dumbbell in your hand, in a neutral grip (palms facing inwards), place your forearm on either your thigh or a bench.
Slowly rotate your wrist clockwise, so that it is palm-up. This means that from the neutral position you should only rotate through 90° degrees towards the right, keeping your shoulder and arm in line.
Once you have your palm face up (in a wrist curl position), slowly rotate your wrist back round, through neutral, till it is palm down. Effectively performing a 180° degree rotation.
This inwards rotation (in comparison to the previous outwards rotation), works the pronator teres muscle, whereas the outwards, clockwise rotation works the supinator on the outside.
Holding the dumbbell with your hand towards the bottom end, will increase the leverage effect making for a harder exercise. These can also be performed with a hammer or dumbbell where you remove the weights completely at the lower end.
4) Finger Rolls
As with most of these exercises one of the benefits of using a bumbell is the ability to keep your elbows in a neutral position and work unilaterally.
They can be performed standing up with your arms extended down parallel to your body or with your forearm resting on your leg as with wrist curls.
With the dumbbell in your hand slowly allow it to roll down your fingers, till your fingers are as extended as possible, without dropping them.
Now slowly, contract your fingers, rolling the dumbbell back up, until you have a closed grip/fist again. That’s a rep and repeat till your hearts content.
These are truly amazing, working the forearm flexors as well strengthening your fingers. If you don’t believe me ask Magnus Mitbo!
5) Dumbbell Holds
Another one guaranteed to get the blood flowing around your elbow.
This also specifically works pinch strength in comparison to the other which use a crunch grip, so transfers over great for climbing.
Simply select a set of dumbbells and hold them parallel to your body, holding them by pinching the top. If the end of the weights are too wide, pinch the side or bar between.
6) Farmers Walk
Whilst the next two don’t only concentrate on the forearms, they engage them fully and are therefore great 2-in-1 exercises.
Select a set of dumbbells and hold them straight down parallel to your body.
Make sure to hold them centered so that they’re evenly balanced not leaning forwards or backwards.
Walk at a quick but controlled pace, ensuring to keep your traps activated and arms straight, avoiding any undue pressure on the shoulder joint.
If you have to turn to cover your distance, slow down at the turn, stop, turn and then walk back again.
7) Zottman Curls
Think of bicep curls with a literal twist. This one effectively combines a supinated bicep curl, pronated curl and rotation all in one.
If you’re short on time and need to eliminate some exercises, be sure to keep this one in your forearm dumbbell workout for greater diversity.
Start holding the dumbbell as you would for a normal bicep curl.
Contract and curl as with a bicep curl but once you’re at the top and start moving back down rotate your writs into a pronated position, so your palm is facing down wards and then slowly lower the weight all the way back down in this position.
Do the eccentric lower part nice and slowly for added benefit. Once at the bottom rotate again so that you’re in a supinated, palm up, position again
Here you should feel the engagement on the outside of your forearm.
This exercise targets first your biceps, then the forearms on the way down with finally the rotation training wrist and elbow stability.
You definitely don’t want to work these exercises before any heavy lifting or a climbing session.
The best time to work the forearms is therefore at the end of a training session.
As these little muscles are used to getting continuously worked, you can go light and go long, especially on the extensor movements. You equally shouldn’t go too heavy on wrist curls as this can damage your wrists.
As they are one of the more used muscle groups throughout the day the forearms equally respond better to a higher frequency and a variety of rep ranges. As most weight exercises activate them somehow, you can train them nearly every session, as long as you don’t go overboard.
What forearm specific exercises do you include in your training routine?