Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ode to Forearm Training

Being a massive Bruce Lee fan since I was 7, naturally I wanted epic, rippling forearms (especially the extensor bellies visible in the picture above!).  Nothing says you mean business like big, rippling forearms...just what business, exactly, is up for mass debate.   

Forearm training seems to be quite the martial arts meme (somewhat independent of stylistic differences), perhaps because large, well-defined forearm muscles have a connotation of grip strength and power; hand dexterity (possibly subliminally extrapolated into skill with bare hand grappling and striking; sticks; clubs and bladed weapons) and general hard training done involving the arms and back muscles.  

Size alone is impressive! My original far, far away goal was 15 inches diameter (currently ~11 3/4 - 12 inches diameter), but I've revised my medium term goal to 13 inches.  Size, definition and functionality trump size alone.  Some combination of medium-high levels of size, definition, functionality, suppleness and tissue quality, awareness and skill would be the gold standard, IMHO. 

The forearm compartment contains roughly 20 muscles; plus/minus the palmaris longus, which is anatomically absent in about 1 in 10 people.  I've still got mine, so I like to think of myself as closer to my palmar fascia-tensing, tree-swinging ancestors. 

The complicated insertion and arrangement of the muscles, nerves, blood supply and soft tissues in the compartment goes with the complexity in manual dexterity of the hand (a lot of the finger moving muscles originate in the forearm compartment), and linking this to the arm and torso muscles in kinetic chains.

This complexity also means there are different types of strength and co-ordination associated with the forearm and hand muscles; with some people excelling in one or a few types, whilst sometimes being relatively weak in other capacities.

Continuing my generalism theme; I personally work on trying to get a good balance of strength in all the different muscles and work on ever-improving movement quality and skill of the hand, and arm.  The common pattern is a need to strengthen the finger and wrist extensors to balance the dominant flexor groups and off-set the anatomical advantage and habitual over-use (typing; gripping steering wheel; writing; furious masturbation; etc).

From a Spatial Medicine perspective, I also try to keep soft tissues supply and healthy, and work on having a uncompressed vascular supply and mobile peripheral nervous system from brainstem to brachial plexus, down the arm to finger innervation. 

Back to the strength capacity for a second; when looking at getting balance between the flexor and extensor compartments of the forearm it is interesting to think about 'flexor addiction' more generally, for a moment - as this passage from the classic Body & Mature Behavior - Moshe Flexdenkrais illustrates nicely:

"This pattern of flexor contraction is reinstated every time the individual reverts to passive protection of himself when lacking the means, or doubting his power, of active resistance.  The extensors, or anti-gravity muscles, are perforce partially inhibited. According to my own observation, all individuals classified as introverted have some habitual extensor rigidity...We have seen that such passive safety is brought about by flexor contraction and extensor inhibition. Voluntary directives inhibiting the extensors are therefore observed in all emotionally disturbed persons. In the long run, this becomes habitual and remains unnoticed.  The whole character is, however, affected.  The partically inhibited extensors become weak, the hip joint flexes, and the head leans forwards." Body & Mature Behavior - Moshe Feldenkrais, p 127-128.  

Look out for my 'Fry the forearm extensors with a wrist-roller for deep inner peace and emotional tranquility™' DVD; in stores now! ;-D  
Specifically now, the finger and wrist extensors are much weaker than the flexors in most humans I have encountered - even the very strong. So, training them more often and more intensely is indicated (they are smallish muscles, so 'hard training' within reason..coupling strengthening with PNF stretching works well in my experience - same with fascial soft tissue work).  

Often I find people can work on supplemental exercises for the extensors for a while by themselves - and let the flexors get their strengthening via gripping equipment during the training of other, larger back and arm muscles.  

Interestingly, Kit and I also found that in the Monkey Gym, people would improve, sometimes dramatically, at all types of upper body strength moves when the ratio of wrist and hand extensors was changed more favorably towards a balance between flexors and extensors.. it is almost as if the brain is limiting the performance of the whole limbs' strength based on a sense of instability/torsion created via the large discrepancy between strength of reciprocally inhibitive muscle groupings..  I have heard other people talk about this, too. 

Specific flexor work can, of course, be added as there seems to also be something happening with the different levels of forearm flexor compartment activation a fair amount of the time (i.e people seem to preference superficial or deep compartment musculature, and can be weak and have very poor tissue quality in one section and still perform very well in a lot of activities - so the imbalance can go unnoticed).  

I really think there is something interesting happening here (and in the lower leg and neck compartments) - with the deepest compartment muscles often being 'off', or having sensori-motor amnesia; and/or, there being a lack of coherence between inner and outer layers of muscles in terms of functional and structural roles. 

When looking at training methods for the forearms, I look at the type of people who have the desired attributes (size; strength; definition; control; awareness; etc.) - and found some interesting results!  

There were the expected groupings of martial artists; boxers; rock-climbers; arm-wrestlers and strength athletes, and the like.  Then the manual laborers and farmers (often with exceptional functional capacity, endurance and strength to go with size - or in spite of relative lack of diameter).  

A finally the unexpected - Granny!  I kept seeing old caucasian women with massive forearms, and couldn't place it at first.. then I picked up an old caste iron pan - motherfucker was HEAVY!  I am in the processing of re-framing dish washing and cooking as 'forearm strengthening and wrist mobility' sessions.  It never stops...

..Nice work Dave.. Epic forearm blog, and only two masturbation jokes! You've done well. 


  1. I discovered an excellent forearm workout this morning. Buy the 8x1.5litre pack of water at Wynyard Coles and carry it with the fingers under the plastic wrap to Pitt St :). Flexing the fingers for extra points.

    If you have specific routines I'm interested

  2. Yah; carrying bags is a good exercise for grip and moving postural awareness and tension control.

    I do, in fact, have a number of specific rountines - that will be posted, in time.


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