IT ALL STARTS WITH your grip. Whether you’re cleaning a kettlebell, hauling a grocery bag into the house, or opening a jar of (hopefully high-protein!) peanut butter, you can’t make anything happen until you wrap your hand and fingers around an object and tighten your hold. That’s why grip strength is worth training no matter your gym goals.
Powerful forearms ensure you won’t let go of the bar when chasing a deadlift PR, and they’ll help you grab any odd-shaped load in your day-to-day life. A stronger grip may also help you live longer: A 2015 study of about 140,000 individuals found that your risk of mortality-related diseases increases as your grip strength declines. Translation: Don’t be like the average gym-goer and skip grip training. Here’s how you get started.
What Do My Forearm Muscles Actually Do?
Your forearm muscles control your fingers, wrist, forearm, and elbow. They can be divided into two main groups. Your extrinsic forearm muscles control your ability to flex and extend your wrist and fingers; you’ll feel these muscles light up during exercises you’re already doing, like biceps curls and kettlebell swings. Often forgotten are your intrinsic forearm muscles, which help you rotate your forearm so your palm faces down (pronation) or up (supination). Then there’s your brachioradialis, the meaty muscle near your elbow on the top of the forearm. This muscle can flex your elbow—and it’s the forearm muscle that stands out the most.
Conventional gym wisdom suggests you’re hitting your forearms in your strength training already. But MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., says that doesn’t mean you’re hitting all your forearm muscles. “Your forearms’ strengths can camouflage their weak- nesses,” he says. You can keep that from happening without ever leaving the house.
Just fill a large bucket with rice and do 20 to 30 reps of three drills:
- Stab the rice with straight fingers.
- Place your fist in the rice and open your fingers.
- Then grab handfuls of rice with straight fingers and squeeze them into a fist.
How Does Grip Strength Enhance My Overall Strength?
You can’t move a weight if you can’t grasp the bar, so the more grip strength you have, the better. “It’s all about creating the mind-muscle connection,” says Sam Chan, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments. “Depending on how you position your fingers and how the wrist itself is angled, it essentially prepares your body for increased force output.”
An ultra-tight grip lets you take advantage of a process called irradiation. When you grip anything tightly, tension in your forearm muscles enables other muscles to be recruited and activate, making your entire torso more stable—and ready for whatever you’re trying to do.
You’ll want to take advantage of irradiation on your heaviest lifts, and you can practice it with farmer’s holds. Grab heavy dumbbells and stand, holding them at your sides for 30 seconds. Easy? Level things up by keeping your index fingers straight. “By removing the index finger from the action, your pinkies, often your weakest fingers, get put on blast,” says Samuel. Work up to three 30-second sets this way.
Can I Use Those Subtle Grip Changes on Other Exercises?
Yes, but do so sparingly, because they will limit how much you can lift. And rather than removing your index finger from your grip, think of removing your thumb. That’s something you can do during exercises like rows and pullups. Try this with pullup dead hangs, doing 15- to 20-second holds with your thumbs not wrapped around the bar.
“Instead of a balanced distribution of forearm muscles contributing and micro-correcting on any move,” says Samuel, “your wrist flexors now have to absorb constant time under tension.”
You can also take things a step further by incorporating exercises like the plate-pinch hold. Grab a pair of five- or ten-pound plates and hold them together in one hand, at your hip, plates pointing down. Aim for three 30-second sets per side. MH advisor David Otey, C.S.C.S., the creator of the 90-Day Transformation Challenge: Arms program, loves carries like this because they push you to grasp items other than gym bars.
“What about a circular object?” Otey says. “Choosing different combinations of grips can play a big difference in the forearm muscles we work.”
Does It Help to Grip Different Items Throughout My Day?
Yes—which is why construction workers often have jacked forearms. They naturally do what Otey suggests, gripping a variety of tools every single day. They swing and balance those tools, too, much like another group of guys with beefy forearms, baseball players.
Any swing of a baseball bat (or hammer) requires your forearms to stabilize and create force in multiple planes. That’s key to forearm growth and health, says Greg Rose, who works with athletes at the Titleist Performance Institute.
Don’t care to hit 500-foot homers? Work bottoms-up kettlebell carries into your routine instead. Hold a kettlebell around shoulder height, handle in your palm, weight pointed toward the ceiling. Walk (or stand) for 30 seconds. Level this up by removing individual fingers from the handle for brief moments. Do three sets.
Anything Else I Should Do for Popeye Forearms?
Don’t ditch your biceps curls! In particular, work the reverse curl into your routine. This move, which can be done with dumbbells, has you curling a weight toward your chest with your palms facing the floor the entire time. That directly hits your brachioradialis, and it’ll force a tight grip on the bar, too.
Not that you have to do all of this, says Samuel. Simply choose a move and do two or three sets of it at the end of your regular workout. You’ll build serious forearms and a life-enhancing grip, good for everything from shaking hands to hanging from a cliff with one arm, Mission Impossible–style, to grabbing a rail if you slip on the stairs.
Forearmed and Dangerous
Supercharge your grip strength with this gear.
Teaches you to squeeze any object more tightly. Aim for 3 sets of 30 reps per side.
Fat Gripz Pro
Instantly changes the handle thickness of dumbbells and barbells so you can challenge your grip in new ways.
Rogue Wrist Roller
Attach a weight to the bottom, hold the handle at chest height, and roll the weight up for hardcore wrist-flexion work.
A version of this story originally appears in the April 2023 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “GET A (GRRREAT) GRIP”.
Milo Bryant, CSCS, is a California-based trainer and an award-winning journalist.
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