Forearms don’t get the attention of the bigger muscle groups like biceps and abs. However, unless you work as a lifeguard, forearms are one of the only parts of your body that people see daily.
Working your forearms is also one of the most functional things you can do in the weights room. Just think about how many times per day you use your hands. You engage the muscles that make up the bulk of your lower arm whether you’re carrying heavy grocery bags or giving a firm handshake at work.
We’re not saying you should work your forearms at the expense of everything else, unless you want to end up looking like a beloved cartoon sailor. However, including a few forearm isolation exercises or compound movements that target your forearms into your weekly routine can improve your overall aesthetic.
Why is Forearm Strength Important?
Let’s face it, most of the muscles we develop in the gym are just for show. Having a bulked-up chest is important for your overall physique, but how often do you actually use that extra power in your chest in your day to day life?
Almost every exercise in the gym requires you to use your hands and the last thing you want when you’re holding a heavy dumbbell over your head is for your grip to give out.
Increasing your grip strength can also reduce your injury risk. If you fall, you’re going to use your hand to catch yourself and if the muscles around your wrist aren’t developed, you’re at a higher risk of breaking a bone.
If you have any interest in Olympic Weightlifting, it’s fairly common for grip strength to be a limiting factor especially while snatching. You may not be loading as much weight as during a deadlift, but the speed of the movement makes it tough to keep a hold on the bar.
What Do Your Forearm Muscles Do?
It’s time for a quick anatomy lesson.
If I pointed to the front of my upper arm and asked you to name the muscle it, you would probably say biceps without thinking (and if your muscle-knowledge if top-notch you might include the deep muscle brachialis). But what muscle would you say if I pointed to my lower arm?
There isn’t one major muscle in your forearms but dozens that all have slightly different functions.
The muscles in your forearms are divided into two main categories: extensors and flexors. If you stand upright with your palms facing forward, the muscles that flex your wrist and fingers are found on the front of your forearm. Most of these muscles originate on the inner part of your elbow.
The muscles that extend your wrist and fingers are located on the back of your arm and connect to the outer part of your elbow.
You can further divide these muscles into superficial and deep muscles. The deep muscles make up the bulk of your forearm and contribute to the overall size. Superficial muscles are closest to the surface.
When you flex your forearms, the superficial muscles are the ones you can visibly see and feel. For example, if you extend your wrist and flex the muscles in the back of your arm, you can feel a large muscle below your elbow called brachioradialis.
How to Get Bigger Forearms Without Weights?
To understand how to get bigger forearms, we first need to look at the different ways you can stress your muscles.
There are three main types of muscular contractions: isometric, eccentric, and concentric.
Isometric contractions are when your muscles work by stabilizing a position but don’t change length. The classic example of an isometric exercise is the plank. You’re not moving your muscles, but within a few seconds, your muscles will start shaking.
An example that uses your forearms would be hanging off a chin-up bar for as long as you can. If you don’t have access to a weights room or heavy dumbbells, isometric contractions still allow you to get a workout in using light weights or your body weight.
Eccentric contractions are when your muscles elongate to resist a weight. Think of the downward portion of a biceps curl or squat. Eccentric contractions actually cause more muscular damage than other types of contractions, so it’s thought that they stimulate more muscle growth.
The final type of contraction, concentric, is probably the type you’re most familiar with. It’s when you lift a weight by shortening a muscle. Think of raising a dumbbell during a biceps curl. Your biceps goes from a long position to a short position.
Generally, the concentric portion of a lift is the limiting factor. You might not be able to squat 200kg but you may be able to lower 200kg to the pins.
If you want big forearms, include all three types of contractions in your program. Below are our recommendations of the best bodyweight and unweighted exercises you can do at home to get your arms popping.
Top 5 Bodyweight Exercises for Forearms
You don’t need a big set of weights to target your forearms. Here are five exercises that can help you grow your forearms.
Reps: 30-60 seconds per side.
When you do a side plank, the muscles in your forearm work to keep your elbow from collapsing. You’re more likely to be limited by your core strength than your forearm strength, but it’s a great isometric exercise to do if you’re limited for time and you want to hit multiple muscle groups at the same time.
- Start by lying on your left side with your left forearm on the ground and your hand pointing away from you.
- Push your hips off the ground so that you’re supporting yourself on your forearm and the side of your foot.
- Keep your body in a straight line from your foot to your head.
- Hold this position for the duration of the exercise and switch to the other side.
Reps: As many as you can
Doing your pull-ups off a towel instead of the bar engages the muscles responsible for flexing the muscles in your hands You’re grip strength will be more of a limiting factor during this exercise than traditional pull-ups.
If you want to make these pull-ups harder, you can wear a weighted belt or hold a dumbbell between your feet. Alternatively, you can lengthen the eccentric phase by using a 2-1-4 tempo (up-pause-down).
Here’s a towel pull-up example with a few different variations you can try if you want to mix things up.
- Twist a towel so that it’s coiled like a rope. Sling one side of the towel across a pull-up bar and grip both ends of the towel.
- Perform pull-ups as usual while holding the towel instead of the bar.
Peg Board Climbing
Rock climbing is to your forearms what hiking is to your calves. You don’t need to join a rock climbing gym or head to the mountains to get a climbing workout in. Pegboards are relatively cheap to buy or make and provide an easy way to target your shoulders, triceps, biceps, forearms, and intrinsic hand muscles.
Prescribing a peg board workout is difficult since it’s a very technical movement and it takes some practice to get the hang of it. Each time you pull your bodyweight, you’re essentially doing a partial single-armed pull-up.
Perform as many sets/reps as it takes to feel fatigued but not so many that you feel like your arms are going to fall off. Keep track of how many total reps you did and progressively increase the volume. In the beginning, you might not be able to get to the top of the board, so just do what you can.
Here’s a video of an athlete scaling a peg board to help you picture what it looks like.
Reps: 10-30 (slowly)
If you want to get a forearm workout in with minimal equipment, this chair rocking exercising is more challenging than it sounds. 10-30 reps is just a guideline. Once you start to feel a burn in your forearms, perform about three more reps.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms straight in front of you (you can have a slight bend in your elbows.
- Grip a chair by the front legs and rock the chair slowly forward by moving only your wrists. Make sure your elbows stay on the ground throughout the exercise.
- Slowly lower the chair by using the muscles around your wrists.
Stretching Band Wrist Extensions and Curls
Reps: 10-15 (slowly)
You can target either your flexor or extensor muscles by attaching an exercise band to a stable object. You can easily increase the difficulty of the exercise by increasing the amount of tension in the band or by using a thicker band. Once you feel the burn, perform about three more reps.
Wrist Curl Instructions
- Sit in a chair with an armrest and pull the band until it’s tight.
- Hold the band with your palm facing upward. You can hold your arm against the armrest with your free hand if you need to.
- Flex your wrist fully, pause for a second, and slowly lower back to the starting position.
If you want to do wrist extensions, set up the same but start with your palm face down instead.
Top 5 Exercises for Forearms with Weights
You can work your forearms in isolation or include compound movements that stress your grip strength. Compound movements are more time efficient since you hit multiple muscle groups. However, if you feel your forearms are disproportionally small to the rest of your physique, you can increase the number of isolation exercises in your programs.
Reps: About 30m of walking
This is one of the best isometric exercises for your forearms. As you walk around, the muscles in your forearms fire to keep from dropping the dumbbells. Obviously, the heavier the dumbbells the harder the exercise. You can also increase the difficultly by increasing the amount of time you hold the dumbbells.
- Pick up a set of the heaviest dumbbells you can manage without dropping them.
- If you have enough room, you can set up two cones or markers and walk in a figure eight pattern. If you don’t have much space, you can walk back and forth.
Seated Dumbbell Wrist Curls
You can’t go wrong with this classic forearm isolation exercise. Performing your wrist curls while sitting keeps you from shifting your weight to cheat the exercise. The extensor muscles in your wrist are a small muscle group so you don’t have to go heavy.
- Sit with a dumbbell in each hand and rest your forearms on your thighs with your palms up.
- Curl the dumbbells until your wrists are fully flexed.
- Pause for a moment and slowly lower to the starting position.
Seated Dumbbell Wrist Extensions
This isolation exercise works the extensor muscles in the back of your forearm. You can set up the exercise in the same way as the wrist curls above.
- Sit with a dumbbell in each hand and your forearms resting against your thighs. Face your palms toward the ground.
- Extend your wrist fully.
- Pause for a moment and lower back to the starting position.
Rack Pull Holds
Reps: As long as you can
This is a pretty basic exercise to target your forearms. Pull a heavy weight from the rack and hold it as long as you can. Avoid using the hook grip since the whole point of this exercise is to challenge your grip.
Start in a powerack with the bar resting on the pins just above your knees.
With an overhand grip, pull the bar from the pins to your thighs as if you’re deadlifting.
Hold the bar for as long as you can against your thighs without dropping it.
When you feel the bar slipping, return it to the pins.
Barbell Reverse Curls
Shifting to a reverse grip engaging the muscles in your forearms that cross the elbow joint such as brachioradialis. You’ll also engage your biceps and brachialis muscles.
- Hold a bar against your thighs with your palms facing toward you.
- Curl the weight until your forearms break parallel. Hold for a full second and slowly lower.