In today’s world of strength training and fitness the forearms are quickly becoming forgotten and neglected. Many athletes and weight lifters focus purely on increasing the mass and overall definition of their biceps and upper arms, but seldom do they increase the size, and most importantly strengthen their forearms. Forearm and grip strength can be beneficial to a wide range of lifters. From athletes, to combat fighters, to power lifters and yes, even bodybuilders.
First and foremost, the most important thing to remember is that you cannot lift what you cannot grip or hold, no matter how strong you are. You could have the strongest lower back and hamstrings the world has ever seen, but you most certainly will not handle extreme poundage in the deadlift if your grip strength is not up to par. For power lifters and bodybuilders this fact is key to their success. For power lifters it is obvious. To be able to compete at a high level and increase your compound lifts to record breaking numbers you need animal like grip strength. If you cannot handle the bar, you cannot handle the awe inspiring weight I am sure you are trying to lift. On the other hand, this also applies to bodybuilders. How do you get bigger? How do you increase your mass and capture desired gains in hypertrophy? Time and time again this has been proven to be simple. YOU NEED TO LIFT HEAVY. So, I will reiterate. How can you possibly handle the necessary loads and volumes to trigger growth if you cannot properly grip the weight? The answer to that is simple, you cannot!
In addition to power lifters and body builders, athletes and combat fighters (from mixed martial arts, to wrestling etc.) can reap multiple benefits from focusing on their grip and forearm strength. The first benefit is obvious, and is the same one, which applies to power lifters and bodybuilders: being able to handle heavy weights in your training. With that being said, athletes and combat fighters can reap a multitude of other advantages. Football players can have unearthly grip strength and rid of annoying blockers, make jersey grabbing tackles, and make great improvements with their catching ability. Baseball players can increase their arm health by strengthening all the musculature that surrounds their ulterior collateral ligament (the ligament that when torn requires the dreaded Tommy John surgery). These are just a couple examples of athletes that can benefit from working on their grip and forearm strength. Lastly, grip strength can mean the difference in which fighter has the literal upper hand in a bout. Taking hold of an opponent with mammoth grip strength is a key to success and just downright intimidating.
With all this being said, here are five surefire exercises to help not only improve grip strength, but also build massive thigh sized forearms.
Thick Bar Lifting
Yes, this is one of the five surefire exercises to build your forearms grip strength. It is not so much an exercise, but it is something to incorporate into your everyday training. Thick bar lifting not only immediately works your forearms, but it requires extreme levels of grip strength. A standard barbell has a diameter of 1-¼ inches. Lifting with a bar that has a 2 or 3-inch diameter will immediately test your grip. Be aware though and do not be prideful. It takes months and even years to develop well founded grip strength. Use less weight than you usually do and slowly work yourself back up to the weights you would normally use. There is no better way to ignite the “life or death” tension in your grip and spark your central nervous system than by using thick handled barbells and dumbbells. Now, apply this theory to the following exercises that include dumbbells and barbells and you will be well on your way.
Some of the strongest men of all time could deadlift incredible weights with just one or two fingers. Their thumb coupled with their index and middle finger almost created a claw like grip. The number one way to achieve this is by way of pinch gripping. Grab a flat plate (heavy enough to challenge you) without a lip on it that can be grabbed, and hold it down by your side only with your thumb and finger tips. Maintain this hold for as long as possible for multiple sets, and obviously as time goes on be sure to increase the time under tension and the weight of the plates.
Heavy Wrist Curls
I am sure anyone who has ever been to the gym has seen someone off in the corner pumping out loads and loads of low weight and high repetition based wrist curls. If you would like to have some nice definition on your forearms and pop some veins out that will impress all the girls at your beach during the summer, then by all means go right ahead. But, if you are looking to turn your wrist ligaments into steel cables and have bicep thick forearms then ditch the lightweight and go heavy. Like I said, get yourself a pair of 2 or 3-inch fat gripz and really turn it up a notch. Find a weight that allows you to do two or three HARD wrist curls and watch your forearms explode and your wrists strengthen.
Another great way to build forearms that can withstand the tension of heavy lifting is to religiously practice power holds. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells or a barbell (again, use thick bars if you can), and grab hold of them and do not let go until your fingers literally give out and drop the bar involuntarily. When using barbells be sure to not have the bar resting against your thighs, as you want the entirety of the tension to be left solely on your forearms. Perform multiple sets, and seek to increase your time of the holds and weight as you build your strength.
Heavy Hammer Curls
Hammer curls have always been a true mass gainer for the biceps. But, they can also hit your forearms hard. Especially when you go heavy and use thick grips (this seems like a recurring trend doesn’t it). Grab a dumbbell in neutral position (hands facing top to bottom) and pump out a few sets of heavy, low rep hammer curls.
I could give you every secret there is, but the most important attributes you will need for progress here are patience and hard work. Your forearms will not grow overnight and you’re not going to be able to palm medicine balls after one week. Dedication over and over again for months and years at a time will bread results. Lastly, I cannot overstate this enough. GO HEAVY and GO HARD. Heavy weights and exhausting training of your forearms and grip will be the most effective way to steadily see results.
Ok, so you just sat down to read this article. Let us just say that while I am not sure what the duration of the time will be for you to read it, I am definitely sure that while you do I will be known as the “calf saver.” I may not be the hero you want, but I am the one you deserve. You deserve to have nice calves. All the shorts you have stock piled in the back of your closet also deserve to see the light of day. Well, have no fear. I am here to make you comfortable enough to wear shorts to the gym again. All of the dreams you have ever had about having respectable calves may finally be ready to come true. So take out your ankle socks, retire your old gym sweatpants and get ready for me to unlock the door to the room that is effective calf training.
Firstly, let’s just get the gigantic two-ton elephant out of the room before I even say anything else. Yes, I am aware that one of the most important variables when it comes to calf development is directly related to your genetic make-up. So, if you are reading this and have enviable calves, go hug your father and let him know you are very grateful. In addition, for those of you reading this who know me personally, I am sure you are thinking, “oh, easy for him to say. He can’t even roll a pair of long baseball socks up past his mid leg because he is genetically gifted and has calves that even a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby would envy.” Sure, I have that oh so important variable that is a great genetic make-up, but that doesn’t mean that I do not know a great way to train your calves and maximize their growth potential for whatever your genetic make-up may be. As a disclaimer, I have trained my calves in the following manner ever since I first picked up a weight back when I was fourteen. To achieve desirable calves you must understand three concepts. If you can learn to work with the specific muscle fibers of the multitude of muscle groups throughout the body, appropriately apply the ideal repetition and set schemes as a result, and utilize the indispensable idea of time under tension then you will be well on your way to maximizing your calf potential.
Type IIa and Type IIb muscle fibers
If you have ever heard someone refer to another person as “fast-twitch” or “slow-twitch,” you have already unknowingly begun to crack the code that is muscle fiber composition. Basically, your genetic make-up also controls which muscle fibers predominantly appear throughout your body. Fast-twitch people are those who are made up of Type IIa and Type IIb fibers, and thus they are usually fast, explosive, and develop mass and strength at an easier rate. However, the “slow twitch” types are made up of more Type I fibers, and as a result they do better with aerobic type conditioning. Although less explosive, these people often have a higher ceiling for their working capacity. With this being said, both types of people have Type IIa and Type IIb fibers in their muscles. Each muscle group differs in which types are more pertinent, and thus how you train each group also differs. Type IIa fibers show better growth and development from training that includes more sets of low repetitions and heavy weight, while Type IIb fibers respond better to higher repetitions at a weight more conducive to such a workload. Guess what? Training your calves heavy will accomplish next to nothing if you desire to augment their size! This is due to the fact that your soleus muscle (fancy name for one of the actual muscles that makes up your calves) is made up of mostly Type IIb fibers. So, to conclude this first notion, you must understand and accept the fiber composition of the muscle you are aiming to train.
So, I just explained how important it is to understand the composition of your fibers. But, at this point I’m sure that you are dying to have some practical information to apply to your calf training, and look no further. Here is the part of the article where I give you the code to the door, now you just have to open it. Also, a bit of a disclaimer here, but I thought I should mention that I could tell you these things until I’m blue in the face, but it will not mean ANYTHING if you do not apply them and religiously put the necessary effort in at the gym. Warning, this is a bit of a tangent but this definitely needs to be said. Training your calves once a month is worthless. The ONLY way to achieve results is volume and months and months of work. Please do not read this and then go work out your calves three times next week, stop, and then complain that I have no idea what I am talking about. That one is on you my friend. Now that’s over and I can actually give you some applicable information. As I said before, your calves are made up of predominantly Type IIb muscle fibers. THIS MEANS YOU NEED TO EMPHASIZE HIGH REP TRAINING TO ACHIEVE DESIRED RESULTS. So, chose a couple of different exercises (standing calf raises, seated calf raises etc.) and lock yourself into 3-5 sets of 15-25 repetitions. You need this amount of volume to activate and recruit these fibers and coax them to grow. So, turn up the volume and go build your calves.
Utilizing Time Under Tension
Consider this the bonus section of the article. I definitely did not have to include this golden nugget of information but I am a nice guy so here you go. Think of Time Under Tension as the extra five-point question on a test in school. Sure, you don’t need those five points, but you sure as hell could use them at the end of the semester when you’re a fraction of a point away from a B and your professor will not budge. Consider your calves to be that annoying professor. They will not budge unless you do the necessary work. Implementing high repetition training will surely target the fibers that make up your soleus muscle. But, there is more. If you read my last article you will remember the brief time I spent talking about time under tension. Time Under Tension is a very interesting topic. Basically, you can track the amount of volume in a given set of an exercise in a workout based on calculating the Time Under Tension. This time is more simply known as how long a muscle spends in a contracted state, or a state where it is under strain and continuously working. In addition to needing high rep training to grow, Type IIb muscle fibers also benefit from longer periods of contraction. This can be done by holding out the calf raise at the top of the movement, or like you will see in my video post today, driving for more of a contraction after the initial contraction is achieved. I promise you, apply the science behind time under tension to your high rep training and when it comes to Type IIb fibers you will be a better recruiter than Nick Saban.
I have given you the valuable information on how to grow your calves, now go and use it. Work hard, have patience and above all else TRACK YOUR PROGRESS. Tracking your increases in loads, volume, and frequency brings on a proper training effect. Have a purpose, go work your ass off, and build calves you can be proud of!
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.