When a bodybuilder complains they can’t add mass or strength to their elbow flexors, I often suggest they add some direct grip and forearm work. This advice might sound off base until you remember you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
When you add direct forearm and grip work to your workout regimen, your curling poundages go up. The explanation for this can be found in any anatomy textbook. What you’ll find is that forearm muscles such as the flexor carpi radialis contribute to elbow flexion. Consequently, strengthening the forearm muscles will lead to enhanced biceps and brachialis development. And this is not a recent discovery.
Elite bodybuilders of the ’60s were known for having great forearms, and they could handle Herculean weights in curling exercises. Case in point: the late Chuck Sipes. Sipes competed for 16 years and won the 1960 IFBB Mr. Universe and placed second (to the genetic freak Sergio Oliva) in the 1967 Mr. Olympia. At 5 feet 9 ½ inches Sipes had 19 ½-inch arms. He said, “Every bodybuilder should work the forearms regularly as part of their workouts. I worked in sawmills and lumberjacking when I was younger, and this helped my development and strength quite a bit.” As testament that this bodybuilding legend practiced what he preached, Sipes could bench press 570 pounds raw and perform barbell curls with 250.
Here’s another benefit to working on your forearms and grip strength: If you perform regular grip work, it will permit you to use greater loads in key back exercises, such as pull-ups and the various forms of rowing movements. As you know by now, using heavier weights means a greater overload on the muscular structure, and a greater overload on the muscular structure means greater hypertrophy.
The regular performance of direct grip work will help pack size on the forearms and will enhance the overall symmetry of the arm. Now, you may be convinced that you’re going to have a hell of a time building up your forearms, but contrary to popular bodybuilding mythology, the forearms can grow! For a man to pack a full inch on the forearms within 12 weeks of specialized work is well within the realm of reality for one who’s committed to the task.
Developing Bowling Pin Forearms
I’m about to share with you a 20-session forearm-building routine that normally results in gains in forearm circumference of 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch. This program is designed around the assumption that you’re training arms once every five days, and I recommend that you train your forearms right after you train the arms.
You may be concerned about how you’re going to fit in all this forearm and grip work without neglecting your arms. Trust me on this one. For the duration of this program, I want you to cut down drastically on your biceps and triceps work. You’ll only need to do two exercises (two sets each) for both the triceps and the elbow flexors. Don’t panic, though. You won’t lose any size, and you may, in fact, gain some size from the aforementioned forearm-elbow flexor tie-in. Likewise, remember that forearms recover quickly from one set to another, so you don’t need much of a rest period.
Palms-Down Dumbbell Wrist Curl, 3 x 15-20, 2010 tempo, no rest
Palms-Down Low-Pulley Wrist Curl, 3 x 15-20, 2010 tempo, rest 120 seconds
Palms-Up Dumbbell Wrist Curl, 3 x 15-20, 2010 tempo, no rest
Palms-Up Low-Pulley Wrist Curl, 3 x 15-20, 2010, rest 120 seconds
EZ-Bar, Palms-Down Wrist Curl, 3 x 10-12, 2010, no rest
As opposed to using barbells, using the EZ-bar or dumbbells for palms-down wrist curls greatly reduces strain on the wrists and allows for better isolation of the forearm extensors.
Palms-Up Barbell Wrist Curl, 3 x 10-12, 2010, no rest
Standing EZ-Bar Reverse Curl, 3 x 10-12, 2010, no rest
Palms-Up Wrist Roller, 3 x 60 seconds, 2010, rest 120 seconds
Keep rolling up the weight and lowering the weight as quickly as possible for 60 seconds. Due to the variance in rope length from gym to gym, I prefer to give a time-under-tension goal instead of a rep bracket.
Decline Barbell, Palms-Up Wrist Curl, 4 x 12-15, 1110, rest 30 seconds
For incline and decline forearm work, just prop up the appropriate end of a flat bench by placing it over an object 4-6 inches in height.
Incline EZ-Bar, Palms-Down Wrist Curl, 4 x 12-15, 1011, rest 30 seconds
One-Arm Radial Flexion, Low Pulley and Special Handle, 3 x 12-15, 2010, rest 30 seconds
One-Arm Ulnar Flexion, Low Pulley and Special Handle, 3 x 12-15, 2010, rest 30 seconds
Incline Barbell, Palms-Up Wrist Curl, 4 x 8-10, 2010, rest 60 seconds
Decline EZ-Bar, Palms-Down Wrist Curl, 4 x 8-10, 2010, rest 60 seconds
Forearm Pronation, Adjustable Pulley and Triceps Rope, 3 x 10-12, rest 45 seconds
Forearm pronation exercises recruit the pronator teres and pronator quadratus. Including them in your routine will improve your curling strength in those exercises that use a pronated grip, so all forms of reverse curls will normally go up after just a few sessions of pronation exercises.
Forearm Supination using adjustable pulley and triceps rope, 3 x 10-12 reps, rest 45 seconds
Forearm supination exercises recruit the short head of the biceps brachii and the supinator. If you have a tendency to falter when you get tired and inadvertently switch to a semi-supinated grip when doing supinated-grip dumbbell curls, you’ll benefit from doing these exercises. They’ll improve your curling strength in those exercises that use a supinated grip, particularly when you work with dumbbells.
I hope you’ll give this workout a try as a tribute to Chuck Sipes, a champion bodybuilder who was as strong as he looked.