The Forearm Secret of Old Time Strongmen

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When you have huge, thick forearms that are so muscular, it looks like you have a bowling pin implanted in them, and when they are so vascular that they look like a map of the Los Angeles Freeway system, and when the cuts are so deep you could lose loose change in there… I think that is pretty darn cool. Gnarly, even. Unfortunately, not many bodybuilders have that “look” because there are two ubiquitous “forearm problems” that almost every bodybuilder experiences… Fortunately, there is a secret remedy for both. It’s not new, it has simply been forgotten, except by those who are students of old time strongman methods…


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Before I give you the remedy to skinny forearms, first let me explain the two problems.

Problem number one is that forearms are one of the “blow off” muscles.

Yes, you know exactly know what I’m talking about. Forearms and calves, and for some people, the abs too, are often left for last in the workout and then “conveniently” forgotten or intentionally blown off. Tell me the truth: Do you train calves and forearms as hard and as consistently as biceps or chest? Didn’t think so.

Most bodybuilders neglect their forearms or insist that they get enough “secondary” or “incidental” forearm work from training biceps, back and anything else that requires gripping. It’s actually quite true that your forearms get worked hard from the mere act of gripping barbells or dummbbells in all your other exercises, especially if you don’t use straps. However, unless you have very good forearm genetics, you are unlikely to get optimal forearm development without working them directly.

That brings us to forearm problem number two:

Most bodybuilders find that their forearms, like their calves, are stubborn and they don’t respond as well as other muscle groups. I’m sure some exercise physiologist out there could give us a scientific reason for this… something about muscle fiber type or somethingorother. For now, however, let’s just keep it simple and agree that the forearms are sometimes a stubborn body part.

So what’s a skinny-forearmed guy to do? Well, when it comes to stimulating any stubborn body part into growth, I often like to recommend that “harder” and “more” are not necessarily better – “DIFFERENT” is better. So when I recently wanted to take my own forearm development up another notch, I simply asked myself:

What kind of habit patterns have I fallen into with my forearm training, and what forearm exercises do I know about but have never done before?

Having recently written an article about an old time strongman exercise called the “Zercher Squat” (see previous blog posts), I started thinking about how all the old timers did a lot of grip strength work, and then “THE BIG IDEA” hit me…. No, it wasn’t hand grippers (although those are great too)… no, it wasn’t the the wrist roller either (excellent little piece of equipment, but I was already using that regularly)… no, it wasn’t sandbags (another great grip strength tool, but not really my cup of tea)…

What was it?????

THICK BAR TRAINING

Lucky for me, one of the gyms I train at has thick bars in a variety of different diameters. The standard olympic barbell is 1.14 inches in diameter (29 millimeters), if I’m not mistaken. The thick bars run from just a wee bit larger than a standard bar, all the way up to three inches in diameter.

Just to give you a reference point, the outer sleeve of an olympic barbell is approximately 50 millimeters, or two inches, so if you visualize doing wrist curls or barbell curls with a grip the size of an oly bar sleeve, then you’ll get the idea.

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So, all I did was to start using the thick bar for all my forearm exercises: wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, and behind the back wrist curls and even reverse curls and some of my bicep curls. That’s it. One little change and the result was an immediate increase in forearm development.

Of course, the body adapts quickly, so after a few workouts of thick bar wrist curls, then I looked for a way to increase the intensity further. I like to find various ways to do extended sets. Of course the most common is the descending set, and I use those often.

However, I also like to take the harder form of an exercise and do that first, and then superset into the easier form of an exercise, or the one with greater mechanical advantage. for example, on bicep day, I might do strict bicep curls standing against a post, and then without changing the weight, I step away from the post and continue with semi-cheat curls.

I used the same line of thinking to devise the forearm program you see below. You will reach muscular failure with the thick bar, but at that point, rather than ending the set, continue on with the same poundge, only using the regular bar. The switch over to the standard grip will allow you to keep going.

A1 Thick bar wrist curls or behind back wrist curls
A2 regular olympic bar wrist curls or behind back wrist curls

3 supersets, 12-15 reps

B1 Thick bar reverse wrist curls
B2 regular olympic bar reverse wrist curls

3 supersets, 12-15 reps

In order to avoid the “blowing off” of small muscle groups problem, I recommend that you do this quick forearm program right after biceps, and consider your biceps and forearms as a single, flowing unit, because you will already have a pump in your arms and a little bit in your forearms after training biceps. The most recent bicep program I used in conjunction with the new forearm routine looked like this:

A1 EZ bar barbell curl 6-8 rep max
A2 Ez Bar Reverse barbell curl 6-8 rep max

Perform this superset 3 times

B1 Dumbbell Hammer Curls (together) 8-12 rep max
B2 Dumbbell Curls (together) 6-8 rep max
B3 Dummbell Hammer Curls (alternating) as many as possible

Perform this tri-set 2-3 times

Train your forearms twice a week with this program (just the forearms – use your regular frequency for biceps), even if you are on a standard bodybuilding split where you are accustomed to working each muscle once every 5-7 days. The foreams do not require as much recovery time as the larger muscle groups. This forearm program should be done for at least 6 to 8 workouts, before changing to something else. With each successive workout, be fanatical about progressive overload, adding weight to the bar every time, even if it’s as little as a 2.5 pounder on each side.

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This brief article in no way begins to do justice to the many other uses of thick bars. You could conceivably use a thick bar for any exercise and it will help to improve your grip strength and forearm development (although it may affect the mechanics of the exercise and the amount of weight you can use). The program above is just one way you could use the thick bar to work your forearms in the most direct manner possible.

I realize that many gyms do not have thick bars. It’s a shame too, because it’s such a valuable training tool. If you have access to thick bars, give this program a try, and then drop a comment on this blog and let me know what you think.

If you want better forearms, but your gym doesn’t have a thick bar, well, then get on your hands and knees and start begging the owner to get one!

Train hard and expect success,

Tom Venuto

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Comments on The Forearm Secret of Old Time Strongmen Leave a Comment

March 31, 2008

lifetime fitness @ 12:47 pm #

Great article again Tom! I have also noticed that the forearms are very ‘stubborn’, but I probably haven’t given them enough attention.

Jessie @ 10:52 pm #

To make a regular barbell thicker, I use Tyler Grips (http://www.tylergrip.com). Don’t know what the size difference is between it and the thick bar, but they do the trick.

Tom Venuto @ 11:26 pm #

Jessie
thats a great find – thanks for the link.
Tom

April 21, 2008

DeAndre Davenport @ 3:06 am #

Dear sirs.
I own a small gym in St Louis and have recently added a few thick bars to my collection. I had a new member ask me an interesting question the other day, he wanted to know what muscles we benefiting from using a thick bar that would not benefit by using a regular size bar. He also asked if you only used the thick bar would that hurt him in the long run because he is a pitcher and a quarterback on his high school team. I told him that I would ask someone with more knowledge than I had on the subject.
Please help
DeAndtre Davenport

May 8, 2008

Great point about the forearms that most bodybuilders are avoiding. I have to say that I’ve never used the thick bar for forearm workouts.

April 16, 2010

Billy @ 3:28 am #

Hey thanks for the great read Tom. I often neglect my forearms as they as you said “stubborn” as hell! Just like my damn calves! I’ve started to use kettlebells as well and I’ve noticed some results already. I’m to give the thicker bars ago!
Thanks
Bill

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