The Weak Link – Increase Power and Control With Forearm and Grip Strength Training

By on July 3, 2014

I strongly believe that gripping power and forearm strength might be one of the biggest ‘weak links’ in most people’s strength training that greatly hampers power and performance. Our forearms are packed with overlapping muscle groups – which I believe is for a good reason – but unfortunately we tend to use them very rarely (other than for typing). improve-grip-strength In the wild we’d have used our forearm and hand muscles all the time for climbing trees, using tools, tearing meat and more; and it could be that a lack of gripping strength is actually the primary reason we can no longer leap through trees and scramble up walls like monkeys (rock climbing is fantastic for building strength in the forearms).

If you’re interested in hand balancing and bodyweight training then you need to take heed of this too: when doing handstands, forearm strength is actually one of the big things that will often let you down as your arms tip forward and you’re unable to keep your palms flat on the ground. In a handstand your entire weight is running through your wrists and hands, so they better be equal to the task. This applies to the gym of course as well – if you can grip onto the bar better then you can perform more repetitions.

Further, training your forearm strength can improve your proprioception (body awareness), your dexterity, your fighting prowess, your catching ability, your all round sporting performance, your functional strength and much more. It’s critical in parkour as well when grabbing onto a ledge or bar can be absolutely essential. As for aesthetics, huge forearms look awesome and are almost always on show unlike biceps. So with all that in mind then… how do you go about training your forearms and grip strength?

Fitting it In

I’m not naïve enough to think that anyone is likely to add an entire forearms day to their routine (though I know someone who did… he’s a little crazy). Instead then you’re better off trying to simply add the training into your regular routine. Specifically I recommend putting some wrist training in at the end of your biceps workout, and adding general grip strength training to all your workouts by modifying the exercise.

Training the Wrists

To train the movement of your hand and thus the strength of your wrists you need to focus on two types of muscle – your forearm flexors (wrist flexors) and forearm extensors (wrist extensors). You have eight different extensor muscles which are the extensor digitorum, extensor carpi radialis longus, extensor carpi radialis brevis, extensor carpi ulnaris, extensor indicis, extensor digiti minimi, extensor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis brevis. Fortunately you’re not going to have to remember all this…

As for your flexors, you’ve got six heads: the flexor digitorum superficialis, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus and the flexor pollicis longus. The extensors are what you use in order to ‘extend’ the wrist by moving your hand backwards to point upwards. Meanwhile the flexors are what you use to pull your hand downwards. To train these muscle groups you need to use wrist curls, which are curls performed by only moving the hand at the end of your wrist, normally while supporting the forearm. Supinated curls mean overhand grip (palm facing the floor) and train your extensors, while pronated curls are underhand with your palm facing up and will train the flexors.

These muscles are also responsible for moving your wrist side to side (along with the abductor pollicis longus which controls the thumb). If you want to train your forearms with bodyweight you can perform ‘pull up bar wrist curls’. These involve hanging from the pull up bar with a pronated or supinated grip, then pulling yourself up just slightly by flexing purely at the wrist. Take it slow though, as that’s a lot of weight to begin with for your little old wrists! You can also train these muscles by rolling things upwards or downwards. A unique exercise a friend came up with involved tying a weight to a dumbbell with a piece of string then ‘rolling’ it to bring the weight up then lower it back down.

More Forearm Muscles…

Two more muscles of note in the forearm here are the pronator teres muscle (it’s not teres, it’s mine!) and the supinator muscles – located at the top of the arm and responsible for ‘twisting’ the hand. The pronator teres twists your arm outwards so that the palm faces up or forward (for an underhand grip), while the supinator is used for turning your forearm inwards so the wrist points down/back. To train these muscles you can add a twist to your bicep curls so you gradually switch from a pronated grip to a supinated grip or vice versa. Another option is to turn a screwdriver! This is surprisingly hard work… On top of these you also have your brachioradialis – the muscle near the top of your forearm that helps bend at the elbow. Opposite that you have the aconeus muscle which helps the elbow bend the other way and supports the triceps. You can train these by using bicep curls/tricep kick backs while having your arms in a neutral (hammer) grip.

Understanding Gripping Strength

If you want to increase your gripping strength then you need to focus on the extensors and flexors (together with the pronator and supinator these are known as the ‘extrinsic’ muscles) which act on the fingers via the tendons (tendons connect bone to muscle, while ligaments connect bone to bone). At the same time though you also need to focus on the muscles in the hand itself: opponens digiti minimi, opponens pollicis, flexor digiti minimi brevis, flexor pollicis brevis, adductor pollicis, first dorsal interossei and palmar interossei. The best way to focus on these is simply to grip things strongly with your fingers and hand. This includes anything that involves gripping essentially – whether that’s curling with a larger bar, or using towels to perform pull ups. You can also train your grip constantly by squeezing a ball or using one of those grip strengtheners you can get from sports shops (or Amazon). Finally, you may also find that making your hands tougher can also improve your gripping strength. That’s why you should definitely get rid of those weightlifting gloves (pussy) and once again consider doing some rock climbing or traversing.

List of Forearm Muscles and How to Train Them

The Extrinsic Muscles

Forearm extensors: Overhand wrist curls, wrist curl pull ups, hand balancing

Forearm flexors: Underhand wrist curls, wrist curl chin ups, hand balancing

Pronator Teres: Twisting curls, Arnold presses, Perfect Pushups

Supinator Muscles: Twisting curls, Arnold presses, perfect pushups, towel pull ups while twisting the arms

Muscles That Control the Elbow Hings

Brachioradialis: Neutral (hammer) grip bicep curls, neutral grip pull ups (and variations)

Aconeus: Tricep kick backs with neutral grip, tricep pull downs (with rope)

Exercises for Grip Strength

These are all exercises that will improve your gripping strength:

  • Towel pull ups
  • Rope climbing
  • Grip trainers
  • Curls with wide bars (or pull ups with a wide pull up bar – or something around it)
  • Pronated grip curls with wide bars (the pronated grip means you have to squeeze harder to prevent the weight dropping through the gap)
  • Finger board pull ups
  • Rock climbing/traversing/bouldering

 

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