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January 12, 2021 10 min read

Your forearms are an easy part to ignore. They’re weird to isolate, and when you’re showing off your work in the gym, you’re not often flexing your forearms to show off how big they are. Ignoring them altogether, however, if rookie stuff. If you’re serious about getting shredded, then your forearms are going to become a limiting factor quickly.

If your grip strength is weak, then it will quickly become one of the things keeping you from reaching your maximum potential. Your grip is the thing allowing you to lift basically any of the weights you reach for in the gym, and without it, you’re not getting far. Wrist curls will solve your grip problem while granting you a greater range of mobility if you do them right. 

First and Forearm Most

Your forearms are basically a braid of muscles that run from the end of your humerus and down towards and into your hands. It’s responsible for all of your hand and wrist movement as well as allowing you to twist your lower arm. The forearm is split into several basic compartments

Your superficial compartment is made up of muscles that all originate from the same tendon. That tendon is found on the medial epicondyle of the humerus. It’s easy to locate this area on your arm, just look on the outer edge of your inner elbow when you make the Bruce Lee “bring it on” gesture. The muscles in your superficial compartment flex your hand at the wrist and allow your fingers to move at the first and second joints.

The intermediate compartment is made up of just one muscle. That’s the flexor digitorum superficialis. This muscle also flexes your fingers. It’s the one that makes up most of your forearm, it’s the one you feel flexing when you make a fist and move your hand towards yourself. The intermediate compartment works with the superficial compartment and a muscle a little deeper in your forearm called the flexor pollicis longus to give your fingers all of their strength and range of motion. 

You also have your pronator quadratus, which moves your palm out parallel to the ground, and the flexor digitorum profundus, which is unique to humans giving us our trademark fine motor control over the thumb. You also have an essentially equal number of muscles that are just as complex opposing your flexors allowing you to open your hand back up. We’re going to go over how to beef those up, but for now, this is what you need to know most about your forearm and the muscles that go into allowing them to function.


Why Wrist Curl?

Now that you see all of the muscles that go into making your hands and wrist operate, you can see why you need an exercise that engages all of these disparate parts of your forearm. That’s where the wrist curl comes in. It’s an exercise that forces you to grip a weight, engaging all of the muscles that close your fingers together, and the curling action, when done through your full range of motion, is going to activate the muscles that flex your wrist.

The tension you’re keeping on your fingers, combined with the very specific movement of a wrist curl is one of the best ways to work out all of those muscles. You’re going to be vastly improving your grip strength with just this one exercise, allowing you to get through your grip-intensive exercises like never before. No more tapping out of your deadlifts before your thighs are done, and you’ll be looking forward to the cable machine after spending a decent amount of time on your wrist curls. 

Warming Up Your Wrists

Before you dive hand first into your wrist curls, you should take some time to warm your forearms up. Your fingers will probably feel pretty limber after living a day as a normal human being. You basically can’t avoid moving your fingers around. If you’ve had to brush your teeth, use your phone, or grab the keys to head out to the gym, your fingers and their flexors have probably been given ample opportunity to get the blood pumping. Your wrists however are a different story. You can solve this by doing some simple palm presses. 

Palm presses are pretty easy, and they have the added benefit of acting like a decent shoulder stretch as well. You can do them sitting or standing, at your desk, or while you’re taking a walk around the neighborhood. It’s good to stay limber, and if you’re about to start some wrist curls, then they’re going to get your muscles ready for the ordeal.

  • Press your open palms together in the center of your chest
  • Keep your forearms level with the ground
  • Alternate pressing your palms backward by exerting force with one hand at a time
  • Don’t bend your finger, and focus on keeping your hands in the center of your chest
  • You can also move your hands from one side of your chest to the other to increase the stretch you’re getting throughout your muscles

If you feel like the palm press isn’t quite getting the job done, you can also give the overhead palm press a shot. This one is going to require more general flexibility. It may be tough to get this under your belt, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. You want to remain limber while you’re working out anyway. When you’re bulking up, you add a lot of rigid muscle to your body, and if you don’t take the time to stretch regularly, you’re going to be exerting a lot of undue force on your tendons during your daily life, and it’s going to be hard to undo later on.

  • Start with your open palm pressed together in the center of your chest
  • Push your palms together up above your head until your arms are fully extended, imagine a diver’s pose here
  • Keeping your hands together move them back behind your head and bring them down towards your shoulder blade
  • You should feel your biceps, triceps, and shoulders stretching along with your wrists while your hands are behind your head

Keep these basic stretches in mind while you’re starting your wrist curl journey, and you’ll be vastly increasing your grip strength while also keeping your wrist loose and healthy the entire working out arms

Resting for Maximum Growth

When you’re looking to become a serious lifter it’s easy to think that you can never ever take a single day off, but by at least switching things up and allowing your muscles a recovery period you can really push your gains to the next level.

Resting your muscles, especially smaller ones like your wrist flexors and the other forearm muscles responsible for flexion will give your body time to build muscle. If you’re taking on wrist curls then you’re going to want to give your entire arm at least a day to recover.

Muscle growth primarily comes from a process called hypertrophy. This is your body’s natural response to increased physical activity, particularly the kind that pushes your muscles to the brink. When you lift weights and apply extended periods of tension to your muscles, your body wants to repair and improve those overworked fibers.

Tiny tears are rebuilt with protein from your diet, and local storage mechanisms are beefed up allowing your muscles more efficient and direct access to the sugars that your body uses to power them. This is why you don’t want to fall into the trap of overworking a muscle you’re working on when trying to achieve some noticeable growth. When you don’t allow for a recovery period, your muscles end up struggling and starving for nutrients. This is when people plateau early and stop noticing gains.

Take time in your routine to allow your forearms some rest, switch to some lower body exercises to balance things out, and give your grip a break if you want those big powerful forearms to shine.

Dumbbel weights

Getting Your Wrists Curled

Wrist curls are pretty simple for all of the benefits they bring to the table. At their heart, they are an isolation movement, but because your forearms are so intricate, you could almost consider wrist curls as a compound movement. The tension you keep on your fingers can’t be overstated, especially once you start adding on more and more weight. 

To begin with, you’re going to want to lift some lighter weight, around 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max. If you haven’t done any wrist curls before, you might have to take some time to figure out what a reasonable one-rep max is, but once you have, you’ll be able to tackle this exercise without running the risk of early fatigue or injury. 

Let’s go over your basic dumbbell wrist curl:

  • Find a flat bench and place your forearms firmly on top of it, or 
  • Extend your hands off of the bench, allowing for a full range of motion
  • Grab a pair of dumbbells in your supinated palms (underhand  grip)
  • Lift them through the full range of your wrists
  • Lower them slowly to your starting position
  • Try to get about 12-15 reps in per set

That’s really all it takes to get some solid wrist curls in. You’re going to feel the burn deep in your forearms because you’re working on muscles that are deep inside of your forearms. That’s normal, and a good way to know if you’re doing them right and actually hitting the muscles we’re targeting. 

Reverse Wrist Curls

You’ve probably noticed that your wrists don’t move in only one direction. Every flexor group has an opposition set of muscles that will move your body in the opposite direction. Your forearms want balance just like any other part of your body, especially because your hands are made up of so many small bones that are just begging to be pulled out of place by overspecializing your workouts.

Adding reverse wrist curls to your routine will work your extensor muscles keeping your body balanced, your arms looking powerful, and growing your strength overall. 

  • Start in a position similar to your regular wrist curls
  • Grab your weights with your palms facing towards the ground (overhand grip)
  • Start with your hand extended down below the bench 
  • Be sure not to clench your weights too tight, or you’ll limit your wrists range of motion
  • Lift the weights throughout your full range of motion, squeezing at the top
  • Lower the weight to the starting position
  • Get about 12-15 reps in per set

The neutral position of your hands in this orientation will make using a bar a little tough, consider sticking with dumbbells for this exercise, and you’ll have significantly less trouble in the short and long run. 

Cable Wrist Curls

If you don’t like the position you’ve got to take in the standard wrist curl, or you just prefer cable machines for the constant tension they provide throughout an exercise, then cable wrist curls will provide a much more pleasurable experience for you. You can adjust the grips you add to the cable machine and even which direction you take the curls on from to customize your cable wrist curls to your exact specification.

  • Sit down or stand at a cable machine
  • You’ll want the cable machine to pull the weight down away from your hands in order to maximize tension, as well as making sense with the anatomy of your body
  • Grab the cables in your hands and pull the weight with just your wrists up towards your body
  • You still want to be working the same flexors with cable wrist curls no matter what position, sitting or standing, you want to take them on from
  • Make sure you’re making full deliberate motions with your curls
  • Don’t fool yourself into taking on more weight than you can comfortably handle, it’s easy to forget how much weight you’re really pulling on a cable machine because the weights aren’t directly in front of you the entire time 

Behind the Back Wrist Curls

If you want to push your wrist curl even further, try adding the behind the back wrist curls into your workout routine. This exercise is all about pushing the forearm muscle group as far as you possibly can.

Starting with the weights held in your extended fingers and rolling the weights all the way up into your palms before doing the wrist curling motion means that you’re going to be fully engaging all of the forearm muscles responsible for your grip. This barbell wrist curl is great for folks that feel like they’re ready to graduate beyond the basic wrist curl.

  • Set up a loaded bar on a squat rack
  • Back up to the bar and grab it with your hands shoulder-width apart 
  • Allow the weight to roll down to your mostly extended fingers
  • Curl the weight up towards your hands until you can grasp it 
  • Once the weight is in your hands curl your wrists up
  • Lower the weight back into your starting position and repeat about 12-15 reps

Tips and Tricks

  • If you don’t like using dumbbells, you can swap out a barbell and work on both of your wrists at the same time
  • Keep in mind that using a barbell over a pair of dumbbells might mean that you’ll unconsciously overcompensate with your dominant hand
  • If you feel like your wrists aren’t as sturdy as they need to be for wrist curls, you can throw on a pair of gym gloves for additional support
  • Keep an eye out for your from the entire time. When your form starts dropping, you’re going to start using other muscles to lift the weights, defeating the purpose of doing wrist curls in the first place
  • If you can find a bench tall enough, try kneeling next to it and resting your forearms on it rather than using your knees. Kneeling next to the bench will allow your shoulders to rest further back and force your forearms to do more work
  • If you want to make your wrist curls a little more difficult you can start adding a twist at the apex of your lift instead of just a clench
Man with big muscles

    Curling it all Together

    Wrist curls are a great exercise for anybody looking to get their forearm strength up. They’re basically mandatory once you hit a certain point in your lifting career. Your forearm strength is going to become a limiting factor in a lot of your exercises after you’ve added enough weight. It’s just a matter of physics.

    Your quads are always going to be able to lift more weight than your forearms, so you need to keep an eye on your grip strength when you’re doing your deadlifts. It’s not enough to rely on incidental growth when you’re trying to push yourself as far as you possibly can week after week.

    Everything from your pull-ups to your bench press will benefit from wrist curls. Growing in strength is about methodically finding weak spots and eliminating them, and wrist curls are the kind of exercise that will target an area that’s prone to lagging behind and bring it up to snuff in no time flat.