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Get A Grip: The Importance Of Forearm Strength

A strong grip is good for more than opening pickle jars. Work some forearm tools into your existing program, and your reward will be greater overall strength.

Quick! Pop quiz:

  1. Which muscle group is visible more often than any other?
  2. What's the easiest change you can make to increase your functional strength?

Unless you're one of those guys who wears a parka and shorts all winter long, the answer to No. 1 is the forearms. For many people, the answer to No. 2 is to increase grip strength.

Powerlifters have always known they could never hope to pull a heavy bar off the floor without a vise-grip. Strongman competitors know their success in many events hinges on grip strength. MMA fighters, wrestlers, and grapplers also need to sustain a strong grip in order to maintain control over their opponents. Other than the aforementioned groups, few guys do any direct forearm work. If they do, it's thrown in as an afterthought at the end of a workout.

Unless you're genetically gifted with thick forearms, they can be resistant to growth, much like calves, but a few small tweaks to your existing gym program may be all it takes to start getting mistaken for Popeye on the street.

Why Grip Matters

I've been a police officer since 1985, and I've worked my entire career on the street. I've been involved in thousands of arrests over that time, and it didn't take me long to learn something every good cop knows: Watch the hands.

If someone wants to hurt you, they're most likely going to use their hands. So my partners and I have always used a simple rule with combative persons: Grab a wrist and don't let go. I can't recall how many times I've had to fight or struggle with someone, but when all else failed, I still had 90 percent of the battle won if I could control his or her hands.

One officer I worked with had to battle for his own handgun. A bigger, stronger guy had a hold on his gun. Luckily, my friend was able to maintain his grip until backup arrived. He told me he knew that if that suspect was able to pull his gun away, he probably wouldn't be around to tell the story.

This is why, in my field, grip strength is not negotiable.

How Not To Do It

With this in mind, I decided approximately a year ago that I would make forearm training a priority. Once each week I dedicated an entire workout to training the muscles of my lower arms. I know you're thinking: How long could a forearm workout take? This was my routine:

I mixed up each workout by using barbells, dumbbells, or cables. The total routine takes 30-40 minutes. Even though I was murdering my forearms, I felt little delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) the next day, and I didn't see much muscle growth. Popeye status was still beyond my grasp.

In The Thick Of It

I started to do more research. I learned about thick-bar training and the concept of "irradiation." According to a 1992 study in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, a muscle will contract harder if the surrounding muscles are also contracted. So if you perform curls, your biceps will work harder if all your forearm muscles are fully contracted. The same pertains to any triceps exercise.

In action, this meant that as barbell thickness increased, so did the neuromuscular response. I learned that thick bars are beneficial in pressing movements, such as the bench and military press, because they take harmful stress off the wrists and elbows.

This rang a bell with me. Back in my competitive bench-pressing days, one common technique for increasing your bench was to squeeze the bar hard as you pressed. This was based on the concept of irradiation. However, the standard one-inch bars in most gyms are too thin to sufficiently squeeze. This is why thick bars were developed.

Charles Poliquin, one of the most respected trainers in the country, has always been an outspoken advocate of thick-bar training. His Poliquin Strength Institute in Rhode Island has three-inch wide barbells, and dumbbells more than two inches wide. When asked once about building bigger biceps, Poliquin's answer was, "Work your forearms." As for how to work them, he wrote in 2010, "If nothing else, using thick implements takes care of grip and forearm training."

Sounds great, right? The only problem is that your standard commercial gym probably doesn't have thick bars. You could invest in a Watson thick bar or a ball barbell—which, like it sounds, has two baseball-sized globes in the grips—but they're not cheap and make sense only if you have a home gym.

Squeeze The Fat

Are we cursed to live with forearms that look more like Olive Oil's? Not quite. Recently I heard about a product called Fat Gripz. The concept is brilliantly simple. They're just heavy handles made of silicone, and when slid onto a barbell or dumbbell handle, they transform it into a thick bar.

I had to try these for myself, and I decided the real test would be using Fat Gripz during my pull-up workout. I believe pull-ups are essential in maintaining a good strength-to-body-weight ratio, so they form the basis of my back work. Using the Fat Gripz, I figured, the toughest hand placement would be palms facing me (supinated) because most of the tension would be on my thumbs. The bar I was using was so thin that the Fat Gripz could spin around it, making it even tougher to hold onto.

For my first set, I can always get 15 perfect full-range pull-ups. With the Fat Gripz I could only hang on for 10. I did three more sets with this grip, finishing with five reps. I couldn't believe how difficult it was to hold on. I then went to a neutral (palms facing each other) grip for four sets of five, and finally the pronated (overhand) grip for four sets of five. By the end, my forearms were so pumped I could see my own pulse beating.

Using the Fat Gripz brought pull-ups to a whole new level of difficulty. The next day I felt DOMS in my forearms like I never have before. The pain was from my elbow all the way to my wrist, and it lasted for three days. Since then, I've experimented with both thick-bar training and Fat Gripz with various exercises. After about two months, I noticed new growth in my arms, and people have commented on how vascular my forearms have become.

If you make the commitment to go wide—either by lifting with a thick bar or an accessory like Fat Gripz or Grip4orce—you'll probably also see an initial decrease in the amount of weight you can pull. A 2007 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, for instance, found that deadlift 1RMs dropped 28 and 55 percent when using two- or three-inch bars. In the long term, both your grip strength and overall strength will improve, so those numbers should come back up.

In the first few days after making the switch, you might have trouble opening a tube of toothpaste, let alone a can of spinach. Don't say I didn't warn you!


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About The Author

Jim Vaglica is a full-time police sergeant and on call 24/7 with a regional SWAT team.

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Comments

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DocF

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DocF

wish my gym had those bars...

Dec 3, 2012 5:47pm | report
 
Nirmal1991USA

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Nirmal1991USA

Yes, Me too... =(

Dec 16, 2012 1:45am | report
footbest

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footbest

I do have fat gripz and it's really, really worth the money

Dec 3, 2012 6:40pm | report
 
RippedRico69

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RippedRico69

I really need those Fat Gripz really bad. My forearm bone it's killing me when I do curls, specially preacher curls. Can anybody PLEASE REPLY me and tell what I can do for the pain that I have in my forearm bone? Because it's staring to get worst and I need some kind of method to fix it.

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Dec 3, 2012 7:34pm | report
 
ruckin

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ruckin

try icing them during the day. that helped a lot when i had shin splints. also, if an exercise is causing a sharp pain like that, you should stop doing the exercise for a while and try a different one that doesn't cause the pain

Dec 3, 2012 8:03pm | report
tylernelson21

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tylernelson21

I got the same pain from the preacher curl, try standing up with the bar, lean forward a little bit and do a the reps without the pad under your elbows. If you really concentrate on not swinging your body and controlling the movement you can actually get a better workout for your biceps without the pain

Dec 3, 2012 8:55pm | report
hfoley32

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hfoley32

the key is keeping your upper arms vertical or in line with your body. the pain comes from reaching outward and all the weight coming down on your elbow joint. use less weight, and do not lean back to cheat. a great way to make sure your arms and body stay vertical is to stand sideways in the mirror instead of straight on.

Dec 3, 2012 10:34pm | report
PumpFocusRipp

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PumpFocusRipp

Hey man i used to go through the exact same thing! it was not the fact that the weight was too heavy it was simply a inexplicable pain on my radius. I no longer have that pain its its a pretty simple fix, i mean at least it worked for me. on my back day at the end of the workout i would just grab the wide grip bar and hang for as long as i could and finally when my grip gave out i would hit up the lat pull down with half my body weight and just hold it right in the middle of the rep. after a month my gripwas like it had never been before.also when on ht e preacher i would flex my forearms harder than i would my biceps. never letting the weight make my hands fold backwards and ta da no more pain.

Dec 4, 2012 10:52am | report
longhaired

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longhaired

if it is really bothering me i use wrist straps for extra support. for some reason that works for me and they feel fine afterwards also

Dec 4, 2012 4:58pm | report
josephrobeson

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josephrobeson

Wear wrist straps, avoid wrist curls, and start squeezing a sand ball. Wrist curls are very detrimental and cause unfavorable micro tears and injury to surrounding tissues. To help alleviate the pain, prevent future wrist injuries, as well as improve forearm shape, size, and strength use a sand ball. You can squeeze with your entire hand or with each finger.

Dec 4, 2012 5:03pm | report
amnjones14

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amnjones14

Tennis elbow! Get wrist straps to prevent your wrist bending back when doing curls. I was overtraining my arms and got tennis elbow. Just bought straps and focused on not bending my wrist back and decreased to one tie a week for arms

Dec 4, 2012 8:40pm | report
gang2519

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gang2519

I had the same exact problem in my forearm and it was really annoying. As I curled more weight, it was getting even worse. I found out that this pain was called TENDONITIS. There are many ways to treat it but for me, I used the ICY HOT PATCH and it was gone in no time. You should try it out. I put them on before sleep and another one in the morning until I go lift.

Dec 4, 2012 8:51pm | report
bigglesdonut

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bigglesdonut

It seems like its the bone, but actually its the tendons in your forearm, Its called Tendonitis. Doc told me only thing you can really do is rest it and ice it for about 2 weeks. Then start building it back with very light weight. I did 5's and 10's wrist curls. Also make sure you do a proper warm up, using the EZ bar also helps instead of the flat bar.
Ibprofen can help with swelling but i wouldnt make a habbit out of it. Ice, heat, stretching and rest is what you gotta do.

Form > Weight . Feel the pinch, want the pinch, be the pinch.

Dec 5, 2012 8:14am | report
cobaltsssc760

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cobaltsssc760

you are rotating your wrist as you finish the upward movement of the curl. this becaomes worse as your biceps increase in size due to your curl stopping due to your bicep and the wrist wanting to rotate further. just concentrate more on your form and your wrist control as well as not over extending your movement.

Jan 3, 2013 4:56pm | report
robinjarrell

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robinjarrell

Go to your doctor stop procrastinating it might me something he can help with

Mar 3, 2013 3:54pm | report
Blogofanclub

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Blogofanclub

dude I had the same pain, but it went away right when I started using fat gripz!! I suggest u get it!!! its worth ur money!!!

Mar 15, 2014 6:40am | report
mrSPECTACULAR

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mrSPECTACULAR

IT'S A CONVINCING ARGUMENT. I'M GOING TO LOOK INTO GETTING "FAT GRIPS"

Dec 3, 2012 8:39pm | report
 
gymratnick95

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gymratnick95

i have fat gripz, best 40$ i ever spent. i put a full inch on my forearms in just under 3 months

Dec 3, 2012 9:58pm | report
 
PillClinton

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PillClinton

People need to be careful when using fat gripz regularly. If you are continuously working your forearms because of the grips plus your biceps/triceps 4-5 days a week, you could develop tendonitis, particularly golfer's elbow, as the forearm could get worn out and weaken the tendon it connects to. That is in my experience, anyway

Dec 4, 2012 12:30am | report
 
tylernelson21

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tylernelson21

a good chiropractor will fix that golfer's elbow right up, (one that does extremity work as well as the spine)

some people have had bad experiences with chiropractors in the past and don't like them, to that i say your chiropractor was an idiot, just try a different one that isn't stupid, once you find one that knows what he is actually doing you will complain you didn't find him sooner

Dec 4, 2012 5:24pm | report
sd3

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sd3

i do use the fat gripz and they are great, but i also have a wrist roller and do heavy wrist curls and have had a large improvement using these exercises

Dec 4, 2012 3:40am | report
 
Elt31987

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Elt31987

Just got mine in the mail 2 days ago. Funny this article came up. Cant wait to try em out tomorrow night

Dec 4, 2012 6:07am | report
 
cfranklin2004

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cfranklin2004

if you don't have the fat gripz u can also take the small gym rags fold them in half long ways and then wrap them around the bar. redneck fat gripz if you will.

Dec 4, 2012 10:25am | report
 
xMiiDNIGHT

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xMiiDNIGHT

I got nice big forearms naturally just not ripped. But once a week I do some grip training. IE lifting a dumbell by the round end and passing a 25lbs weight back and forth. Didn't help with strength but it does rip up the forearm muscle a bit

Dec 4, 2012 10:29am | report
 
Flinttown32

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Flinttown32

I've had Fat Gripz for 2 years. Love them! Make workouts 100% different.

Dec 4, 2012 11:00am | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 50 Comments

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