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Dumbbell Forearm Workout: Forearms Like Popeye in 30 Minutes

Is there a more neglected body part than forearms in the gym? 

I can’t think of one. 

It just doesn’t seem to be a body part that many people train. Well, certainly outside of specialist sports such as climbing and grappling…

The thing is, there’s all kinds of fitness, health and strength benefits to strong forearms. Honestly, in my 20+ years in gyms, I’ve lost count of the amount of people who have had their deadlift limited by their grip rather than their back or leg strength. 

There’s a strong reliance on things like straps and hooks for deadlifting by some people, when a more prudent and beneficial approach would be to strengthen their grip – the fundamental thing that is holding them back.

The ‘Forearms like Popeye’ dumbbell forearm workout will correct that for them. 

It’s a very simple auxiliary workout, meaning it’s something you throw on the end of your workout 2-3 times per week. The exercises are all very simple, and they’re designed to be done quickly.

Within 12 weeks you’ll have a super strong grip… and you’ll be the go-to jar opener for the entire town (possibly).

Dumbbell forearm workout general infographic

Forearms Like Popeye Dumbbell Forearm Workout: Benefits of the approach 

Why would anyone be bothered about bigger, stronger forearms? It’s not like they’re going to gain much attention on the beach!

Well, that’s true. They probably won’t. What they will gain you, however, is worth MUCH more than a few admiring glances…

Forearms Like Popeye Dumbbell Workout Benefits

Benefit 1: A stronger grip

A strong grip is a fundamental benefit in the weight room. As I mentioned a moment ago, across my years as a personal trainer, I’ve seen so many people have major lifts fail because of their lack of grip strength.

Deadlifts, pull ups and olympic weightlifting movements offer huge returns on effort, but only if you can do them. If your grip gives way before your other muscles, it’s like trying to drive a car with a handbrake on – you won’t get very far.

A strong grip has a disproportionate impact on your deadlift and pull ups, because it stops the grip and forearms being the stopping point of progress.

Benefit 2: It has a direct impact on sports

The forearms are unsung heroes of the sporting world. Without even trying, you can name a bunch of sports where strong forearms are an advantage…

Ju-Jitsu, wrestling, climbing, sailing, tennis, baseball, gymnastics, rugby, and weightlifting, to name just a few. Use this dumbbell forearm workout to get stronger, and watch all of those sports become easier.

For the sports where a strong grip is essential, rather than a ‘nice to have’, forearm training is like a cheat code to improvement. 

Benefit 3: It reduces your injury risk

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the amount of people I see with an astonishing lack of wrist function. My girlfriend, Rachel, is a physiotherapist (physical therapist) and has noticed the same.

She calls it ‘the IT worker wrist’ – basically people who sit at a desk all day never really demand much work from their wrists and forearms. It then makes them weak, stiff and in need of some serious attention – as soon as they start lifting, it hurts.

This workout will force the wrists into a full range of motion and will help to regain the natural function of the wrists and forearms.

Further notes on why you need strong forearms…

Time to get a little geeky into exercise science here, but bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth it. More than that, you’ll learn a few things about the relationship neuromuscular contractions have around the body.

There’s a process in muscle physiology known as ‘irradiation’. This is the process where a muscle, or group of muscles, benefit from additional contractile force from muscle further afield.

Take the forearms for example. You might be performing a grip exercise that you think is only targeting your forearm muscles.

However, what is actually happening is that muscles in the bicep and tricep groups are helping out too, improving and increasing the force generated by the forearms.

The muscles team up to help each other and maximize the contraction force they’re capable of producing.

You can see an example of this in scientific research…

Research from 2004 by David J Szymanski et al saw young baseball players undergo specific wrist training 3 times per week, for 12 weeks. They had their wrist, parallel squat and bench press strength tested at the start of the research project.

The players then underwent 12 weeks of progressive wrist and forearm training. Their other training stayed consistent – no additional work was done.

The results showed that a 12-week wrist and forearm training program significantly increased wrist and forearm strength (obviously). More surprising was the squat and bench press strength also increased.

Despite the fact that there was no additional training of the squat or bench press (beyond the normal program), they were both assisted by strength training the wrists. There are benefits to forearm training that you just aren’t expecting. 

5 Steps to Use the ‘Forearms Like Popeye’ Workout to Get Bigger, Stronger Forearms

Here’s a quick and simple guide to maximizing your results from the Forearms like Popeye dumbbell forearm workout…

Step 1: Do the workout 3 times per week

Here’s the deal with your forearms… they’re a small muscle group that has a high work capacity, but are easy to fatigue. This means you need to train them hard, but give them a chance to rest and recover. It’s a lot of focus on one small body part. 

Giving them a day or two off between workouts. This will allow the gains to kick in, but it’ll also allow the forearm muscles enough time to be rested and recovered ahead of the next session. This means they’ll be able to work to their maximum in the session.

Don’t be tempted to do more!

Step 2: Perform the workout AFTER your main session

As we’ve discussed, grip strength is an integral element of a lot of performance. Without a good grip, you’re likely to make other tasks more difficult.

If you perform this dumbbell forearm workout BEFORE your other lifts, your forearms will be tired. This fatigue will make everything more difficult in your main workout.

Your grip of the bar, dumbbells and kettlebells will be impacted. It’ll make deadlifts, kettlebell swings, pull ups and olympic weightlifting movements more difficult.

You want your target muscles fatiguing to be the reason you stop an exercise, not your grip failing.

Step 3: Keep volume high and rest periods short

Just like the calf muscles, your forearm muscles are used to a high volume of (relatively) low intensity work. Every movement of your fingers or hands involves the muscles of your forearms.

They’re designed to cope well with this, so in order to challenge them we have to think more about intensity and duration than load.

You’re always going to be limited on how you can get your forearms to lift heavy weights, because they’re simply not very big. Think about your legs – they’re huge muscles.

The forearms aren’t. You’re better off focusing on medium resistance, high reps and short rest periods.

Think 30 seconds max – but even just 10-15 seconds rest is enough.

Research by Ellenbecker on young tennis players from 2006 showed an increase in forearm strength on the dominant side. This isn’t because of huge loads being lifted – it’s because of high intensity, repetitive movements on one side. Our training needs to reflect this.

Step 4: Use a full range of motion

The important thing with the execution of these exercises is the range of motion. You should reasonably expect your wrists to be able to bend up to around 90 degrees in flexion (when under heavy load) and extension during exercise. 

See the image below for how far a healthy wrist extends in exercises such as the clean. This is completely normal and how a healthy wrist should function.

If your wrist can’t go this far back under load, and there’s no good reason (such as previous injury etc), then you’ll need to work on your wrist flexibility…

A person with a formidable wrist flexibility doing a barbell squat

The other movements of the wrist are radial and ulnar deviation (also known as abduction and adduction), pronation and supination (rotation).

While a full range of motion is important for all movements, it’s especially important in flexion and extension, because they’re the movements with the largest range.

Movements of the wrists

By performing the lifts with the full range of movement you do two things…

  1. You increase the time under tension for the muscles, therefore build more muscle and strength.
  2. You effectively stretch the joint, because you’re lifting under load. It’s forcing the joint through any existing stiffness.

This may not always be comfortable at first, but it does get significantly easier with time. After a couple of weeks, you’ll really start to notice an improvement in wrist flexibility if you are exercising them properly.

This is a lasting benefit as well, so it’s easy to maintain.

Step 5: Use a bench, leg, table etc for the supported wrist movements

In the workout you’ll see some exercises listed with the word (supported) next to them. This means you support your forearm on a bench, or something similar as you do it. 

There’s a simple reason for this – it takes away the help that other muscles may provide, and forces your forearms to do the work.

If you didn’t have the support of the bench etc, the process of irradiation I mentioned earlier would kick in and the biceps and triceps would likely help you perform the exercise.

Not all of the exercises in the workout are supported, so pay attention to them to ensure you get it right.

Forearms Like Popeye Training Notes

The forearms primarily support the functions of the hand, so grip, opening and closing, finger movements and stability all fall under its remit.

On top of that, there’s the rotation of the wrist and the movement of the hands in various directions. This means we have to select exercises that train the forearms in various planes of movement, and in a variety of ways.

As we discussed earlier, the high work capacity but small muscle size of the forearms means they can’t cope with traditional heavy loads, so we will approach them with a medium weight, high repetition approach.

We will use heavy weights in one of the exercises though, to challenge the grip strength. Across the exercises you’ll train all of the muscles in the forearm at appropriate weight levels.

Forearms Like Popeye – Dumbbell Forearm Workout Exercises

Here are the exercises in the dumbbell forearm workout. It’s a simple program, designed to focus on a very small area of your body. We keep it simple, keep your workout fast and enjoy the benefits.

The Dumbbell Forearm Workout Exercises…

1. Dumbbell Wrist Curl (Supported)415 (per side)
2. Dumbbell Reverse Wrist Curl (Supported)415 (per side)
3. Dumbbell Radial Deviation (Supported)15 (per side)
4. Dumbbell Ulnar Deviation (Supported)315 (per side)
5. Dumbbell Wrist Rotations420 x 180 degrees
6. Dumbbell End Grip Holds430 Seconds

Forearms Like Popeye Dumbbell Workout Infographic 1

1. Dumbbell Wrist Curl (Supported)

This is the basic wrist curl for working on wrist flexion with a weight. It’ll also help with wrist extension, but that is generally a more passive movement because it’s performed under load, therefore much of the work is done for you.

It’s a very simple exercise, but an effective one. This one is supported to remove the influence of the other arm muscles.

How to do dumbbell wrist curls

  • Take hold of a dumbbell with your palm facing the ceiling
  • Position your forearm on a bench, table or your leg, with your hand dangling over the end, able to move freely up and down
  • With the hand in the fully extended position, curl the hand up as far as it will go, until it is fully flexed
  • Pause at the top, then slowly lower it down to the start position
  • Repeat as required 

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

2. Dumbbell Reverse Wrist Curl (Supported)

The reverse curl is (as the name suggests), the reverse of the exercise above. Instead of moving from wrist extension to flexion, it does the reverse – takes the wrist from flexion to extension.

It’s a tough exercise, but one that will train the extensor muscles in the top of the forearm very effectively. Again, this exercise is supported to remove the influence of the other arm muscles.

How to do dumbbell reverse wrist curls

  • Take hold of a dumbbell with your palm facing down to the floor
  • Position your forearm on a bench, table or your leg, with your hand dangling over the end, able to move freely up and down
  • With the hand in the fully flexed position, curl the back of the hand up as far as it will go, until it is fully extended towards you
  • Pause at the top, then slowly lower it down to the start position
  • Repeat as required 

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

3. Dumbbell Radial Deviation (Supported)

This is the start of the next movement type – deviation. This one is known as radial deviation, where the dumbbell is ‘curled’ upwards in the direction of the thumb. It’s a very simple exercise and one that will only need a light weight.

It’s a small range of movement, but it’s important for forearm strength. Again, this exercise is supported to remove the influence of the other arm muscles.

How to do dumbbell radial deviation

  • Take hold of a dumbbell with your hand positioned upwards, so the back of your thumb is facing towards the ceiling
  • Position your forearm on a bench, table or your leg, with your hand dangling over the end, able to move freely up and down
  • Maintaining the upright hand position, allow the hand to lower towards the floor
  • When it reaches its natural end of range, pause and lift back up until the hand is as high as possible
  • Repeat as necessary

Forearms Like Popeye Dumbbell Workout Infographic 2

4. Dumbbell Ulnar Deviation

Ulnar deviation is exactly the same movement pattern as radial deviation, just the emphasis is on moving the dumbbell towards the floor rather than the ceiling. The execution of the lift is different, as you’ll see in the video.

The grip on the dumbbell is different, to allow for a greater range of movement in the ulnar deviation. This is an UNsupported movement, which again you’ll see in the video.

How to do dumbbell ulnar deviation

  • Sit perched upright on the end of a bench or a chair, with your hand off the side. Your arm should be straight and your hand able to move freely
  • Take hold of a dumbbell with your hand holding an end of the weight, and the rest of the dumbbell pointing backwards
  • The palm should be facing your body throughout the movement
  • Maintaining a straight arm throughout, push your hand ‘backwards’, so the dumbbell curls up towards your forearm
  • When the hand has moved backwards as far as it can, pause and return to the start position
  • Repeat as often as necessary

5. Dumbbell Wrist Rotations (Supported)

The dumbbell wrist rotations are a way to train the forearm muscles through a full rotation of the forearm and wrist. They’re a supported movement, so you’ll need a bench or table to help you perform the exercise correctly.

This is an exercise that can be challenging, so you’ll need a light dumbbell again. It has the widest range of motion of all the exercises we’ll perform in the workout.

How to do dumbbell wrist rotations

  • Position your forearm on a bench with your palm over the end, facing downwards
  • Hold a dumbbell at the end, with the opposite end pointing inwards, towards the center of your body
  • Maintaining forearm contact with the bench, rotate your arm through 180 degrees
  • Once you’ve completed a full 180 degree rotation, pause and return to the start
  • 1 full 180 degrees is one completed rep
  • Repeat as necessary

Note: if you enjoy using the dumbbells, don’t stop at the forearms! Check out our dumbbell chest workout, our full body dumbbell workout, dumbbell shoulder workout, or our article on compound dumbbell exercises to get more ideas on working out using dumbbells.

6. Dumbbell End Grip Holds

This is the heavyweight of the grip exercises. It forces both the muscles of the hand and the forearm to engage, helping to grip whilst the fingers are extended.

Thanks to our friend irradiation, this exercise also helps to engage the upper arms and the core as well, so it’s a multi-benefit. The exercise is easier if you have hex dumbbells rather than round ones, but the round ones will make it a great challenge!

If your hands are smaller, pick up a hex dumbbell – they aren’t very expensive.

How to do dumbbell end grip holds:

  • Keeping your back straight and core tight, take hold of the end of a dumbbell
  • Squeeze the dumbbell tightly using only your finger tips, ensuring you have a secure grip throughout
  • Keep that in place until you have to drop the dumbbells – if you can manage more than 30 seconds, the weight is too light
  • The sweet spot is 15-30 seconds – too short, the dumbbell is too heavy and you haven’t gotten the benefits

So that concludes the exercise descriptions of the ‘Forearms like Popeye – Dumbbell Forearm Workout’. It’s a simple line up, but it trains the forearms through the different ranges of movement and with different weights.

Perform the workout 3 times per week and enjoy the benefits.

Forearms Like Popeye – Dumbbell Forearm Workout: The bottom line

As I’ve said in my workout articles before, we are sometimes guilty of overcomplicating fitness. This dumbbell forearm workout is 6, easy to perform exercises long. There’s nothing too complex here and the equipment requirements are minimal – easily the kind of thing you’d find in any home gym.

Follow the guidelines for the workout I’ve explained in this article and get busy. Your forearms, strength, and sporting capabilities will thank you!

For further program ideas from the Strong Home Gym website, take a look here.

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Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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