Arm strength, including forearm strength, has been admired in a multitude of civilizations for thousands of years. It was vital in daily tasks and of course in wielding weapons. Today’s weight-training enthusiasts still strive to develop their forearms. The bodybuilder’s need is obvious: The well-developed forearm aesthetically complements the upper arm very nicely. Arm wrestlers must have very strong forearms and wrists, or they will lose their competitions. Strongmen have always interested society. The World’s Strongest Man contests still get good ratings on television. In the first World’s Strongest Man competition there was a timed 100-pound wrist roll for 10 feet. First through third places went to bodybuilders—Mike Dayton, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, in order—while legendary strongman Ken Patera came in a distant fourth. The value of specific forearm training was obvious.
You can perform a wrist curl in many ways: barbell, dumbbell, sitting with your forearms resting on the tops of your thighs, sitting with your forearms resting on a bench, standing with the bar behind your back. Is it best to keep your hand closed tightly around the bar throughout the stroke or let the bar roll down your fingers and then curl it back up your fingers into a regular wrist curl?
Since 1989 I’ve been writing about common injuries in the gym, injury prevention, exercise modification and program modification. My goal has been to find sound clinical and biomechanical methods to keep you training. We learn so much gym myth as we grow up training that we assume those myths are true and repeat them with such authority that the next generation of trainees believes them.
So what is the truth about the wrist curl? Does the act of letting the bar roll down your fingers place great stress on the finger flexor tendons and cause injury?
I asked an expert for his opinion. John Knight, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon with specialty training in the hand and wrist and is in practice at D.I.S.C. Spine and Sports in Marina del Rey, California, just minutes from Gold’s Gym. “There certainly is more force on the tendons of the fingers as the bar rolls down the fingers,” he said when I asked about the wrist curl dilemma. “There’s less chance of injury if we can keep the hand closed around the bar and allow the motion to occur in the wrist. The amount of weight that can be tolerated by a disadvantageous biomechanical position is certainly less. Not only can the longer levers and greater stretch add more stress to the tendons of the fingers, hand and wrists, but the joints of the hand and wrist take much more load.”
When I asked him about someone performing the rolling style of wrist curl after a day of work as a grocery clerk or someone who types four to six hours per day, he replied, “This is an entire topic itself. People who are grocery clerks or who type all day should not be performing this movement. They need to rest their wrists and hands at night so they can recover for the next day’s work.”
As with any exercise, we have to weigh the risk against the benefit. In other words, what do we stand to lose vs. what do we stand to gain? If an exercise can produce results but has a high probability of producing an injury, then we may want to avoid it. Injuries are the most common reason that trainees leave the gym. The longer you can avoid injury, the longer you’ll train and the greater your gains will be.
I agree with Dr. Knight about the wrist curl. Simply perform it in the traditional manner by keeping the bar in your closed hand, and flex and extend your wrist only.
—Joseph M. Horrigan
Editor’s note: Visit www.SoftTissueCenter.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at www.Home-Gym.com.