Forearms are one of the most neglected muscle groups by trainees nowadays, probably because of it’s boring and slightly painful nature due to the high tension placed on the wrist joint.
This, when coupled with the fact that forearm training almost always needs to be done at the end of a workout to prevent grip fatigue from affecting other exercises, causes most lifters to skip it entirely.
A common misconception is that there is no need for forearm training since exercises like the deadlift, barbell row or shrug will exercise grip strength enough, rendering isolated training useless. However, this only applies to beginners, since they are very susceptible to stimulus. As a lifter progresses, it will not be enough.
This is why it is not uncommon to find trainees with an unbalanced look due to overdeveloped biceps and triceps but underdeveloped forearms. Moreover, forearm strength is the sole determining factor for grip strength, so a lack of development in the forearm can lead to plateaus in other exercises that require it, such as the deadlift, the weighted pull up or the barbell row.
Insufficient forearm development can be worked around with straps and varying grips, but they are not a permanent solution, the subject will continue to grow in strength until even the measures aren’t enough.
The right way is to incorporate better training practices and exercise selection, in order to cause forearm development. One such way is the Zottman Curl, which is a variation on bicep curls that places greater emphasis on the forearm. By performing the Zottman curl instead of traditional curls, lifters get a “2×1” effect, since they can train both without spending more time in the gym.
What is a Zottman Curl?
As previously mentioned, the Zottman Curl is a variation on traditional bicep curls that places a greater load on the forearm muscles. It was invented by 19th-century strength athlete and strongman George Zottman, and popularized when it was featured in “The Gold’s Gym training encyclopedia”.
In broad strokes, the Zottman curl is a combination of bicep curls and reverse bicep curls, the concentric portion of the exercise occurs as normal, but for the eccentric (the negative), you rotate your wrists so that your palm is facing downwards, which will put a greater load on the forearm.
How to Do the Zottman Curl
Here is how to do the Zottman curl, step by step.
Stand up with your back straight, feet shoulder-width apart, while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Those looking for greater forearm activation can choose to use a false or thumbless grip, though a conventional grip can be used just fine.
Curl the dumbbells upwards with a supine grip -palms facing up- until your biceps are fully contracted. The dumbbells should be level with your shoulders.
Hold the contracted position for one second, then rotate your wrists into a prone position, palms facing down. Then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position, where your biceps should be fully extended.
Repeat with your other arm, alternating each other until you reach the desired number of repetitions for each arm. You can also perform these bilaterally, using both arms at the same time.
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How the Zottman Curl Works
By combining the bicep curl and the reverse curl into one, trainees can get the “best of both worlds” in one exercise. The reverse curl can not be performed with enough weight to cause bicep development, while the traditional bicep curl does not work the forearms.
By performing the first portion of the exercise as a bicep curl, you can use substantially heavier loads, which will provide bicep development as well as allowing you to perform the second portion with a much heavier weight, improving forearm development as well.
Benefits of the Zottman Curl
Zottman curls have many benefits, we name and discuss a few below.
Strength and Size
As is to be expected of resistance training, performing the Zottman Curl will eventually lead to strength and size gains, both for your biceps and forearms, this is one of the things that differentiates weight exercises from calisthenics. This is especially true for your forearms, since you’ll be able to use heavier loads than on forearm isolation exercises. It’s also known that exercise increases metabolism and this helps greatly when losing weight. Another thing to do to lose weight, since we are on the subject, is to limit or cut sugar entirely from your diet.
The forearm is, in most occasions, the only part of the arm that is fully visible, since even when wearing short sleeve shirts, your biceps and triceps are partially covered. As such, gaining size on your forearms is one of the easier ways to have your arms look bigger.
Those training for aesthetics would benefit a lot from introducing forearm work into their routines.
Improved Grip Strength
With increased size, comes increased strength, which in this case has large carryover into other exercises. Better grip strength will allow you to hold on to the bar with greater loads on exercises like deadlifts, barbell rows, lat pulldowns and more. In a sense, improving grip strength can allow athletes to progress on their entire body.
More Efficient Workouts
While those striving to maximize their forearm growth will still need isolated forearm work, the Zottman curl is a great starting point, since it requires no extra time in a workout, and can be performed instead of regular dumbbell curls.
People with tight schedules, who can’t train for several hours, can benefit from the “two for one” nature of the exercise. It’s easy to perform and time-efficient too, you won’t need to measure your fitness level before performing it, unlike other advanced exercises, or exercise challenges like the ones I recently did; doing 100 jumping jacks a day, doing squats daily for 3 months, or doing 100 pushups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats for 30 days. These require a certain level of fitness to pull off.
Sets and Reps for the Zottman Curl
For beginners to forearm training, the Zottman curl will still have to be performed with lower weights than you would use on a traditional bicep curl, and they will benefit from higher rep ranges, such as 12-15 or 15-20 reps per set for a total of 3 sets.
As you progress and gain strength, you should aim to transition back to lower rep ranges, such as 8-12 and working with higher loads to maximize muscle growth.
Note About Grip Fatigue
As previously mentioned, forearms are integral for performing the deadlift and -to some extent – the barbell row. You should keep this in mind when introducing forearm training into your workouts.
It is not uncommon for trainees to fatigue their forearms before performing heavy lifts, hindering their ability to hold on to the weight correctly. A simple rule of thumb for avoiding grip fatigue is to have at least one day of rest between heavy lifts and forearm training.
Just to clarify, a day of rest does not mean that you shouldn’t work out, just that forearm specific training should be avoided.
Here are the muscles worked by the Zottman curl.
Primary muscles are those that control the movement performed. In short, these are the muscles you’re targeting and that will receive most of the stimulus.
Like most other bicep exercises, the biceps is the primary muscle worked in the Zottman Curl. The biceps is composed of two heads – long and short – which work together during contraction to bring the weight up.
The brachioradialis is the biggest and most visible muscle in the forearm, which is in charge of flexion of the elbow as well as pronation and supination. During the Zottman Curl, the brachialis will receive the most stimulus when resisting gravity as you lower the weight in a slow and controlled manner.
Secondary muscles are those that are not directly targeted by the exercise, but that assist primary muscles in order to provide stability and complete the exercise.
In the Zottman Curl, the deltoids, upper and middle traps and abdominals work to stabilize your torso as you lift the weight, while a small muscle below your biceps and brachialis assists in lifting the weight. Another workout that works these muscle areas is the seated tricep press, and another exercise that targets the abdominals specifically is the double crunch.
I went over the topic of working the biceps and triceps on the same day before, you should consider reading it if you want to mix Zottman curls with other workouts these muscles on the same day.
Common Mistakes Beginners Make During the Zottman Curl
Here are the common mistakes beginners fall for when doing the Zottman curl.
Many trainees will involuntarily flare their elbows when performing curls, this makes the curl easier to perform, but reduces the stimulus placed on the biceps and forearms. Keep your elbows tight and close to your torso for better results, if you find your elbows keep flaring, consider lowering the weight.
Too Much Weight
Many beginners are tempted to perform Zottman curls with the weight they use for regular dumbbell curls. However, this results in them not being able to resist the negative properly, as well as increasing risk of injury for their elbows. Use a weight that feels challenging for you, but that can still be controlled.
Many lifters tend to round their back when performing curls, this puts them at risk of injury by compromising the integrity of their spine. Make sure your back is straight, your core engaged and that you’re going through the reps in a controlled manner.
When using more weight than appropriate, many lifters will arch their backs in an attempt to “cheat” the exercise and get the weight up regardless. However, this results in less activation of the biceps, as well as increased risk of injury. If you find yourself unable to perform the exercise without arching your back, lower the weight.
Usually seen alongside arched backs, using momentum is another way lifters “cheat” the exercise in order to use more weight than they can handle. As previously mentioned, this reduces bicep activation, so in most cases it is counterproductive.
Pushing Their Elbows Forward
Your elbows should always remain at your sides, by pushing your elbows forward, you’re engaging your front deltoids to raise the weight up.
Not Resisting the Negative
Many lifters go through each rep too fast. They explode upwards and then let the weights fall back down due to gravity. However, if you want optimal forearm activation, you need to resist gravity as much as possible. A good baseline is to count 2-3 seconds for each negative.
Alternatives and Variations for the Zottman Curl
The Zottman curl has some variations and also alternatives, we discuss those below.
Reverse Zottman Curl
The reverse Zottman curl is a great option for those looking to target the forearm even more than a traditional Zottman Curl would. As is to be expected, the exercise is performed as a Zottman curl in reverse.
Start the curl with your palms facing the floor and curl the weight up until its level with your shoulders. Then rotate your wrists until your palms are facing upwards and slowly lower it back down. Repeat for as many reps as desired.
While its ability to sufficiently stimulate the biceps is limited, the reverse curl is an amazing exercise for those looking to maximize their forearm development. It can be performed with both dumbbells and barbells and even using a thumbless grip for an even bigger challenge.
The reverse curl works in the same way as the bottom part of a zottman curl. Grab the barbell or dumbbell in a pronated grip (Palms facing down) and curl it like you would a regular barbell. As always, be sure to use slow, controlled motions for maximum impact.
Fat Gripz (You can probably throw an affiliate link here)
While not really an alternative exercise per se, “fat grips” are a great way to turn any exercise into a challenging forearm workout and are especially useful for those who feel pain or discomfort in regular forearm training.
Simply put, fat grips are a grip that is manually placed around any bar or dumbbell to make it thicker. The reason being that the thicker the bar, the harder it is to hold on to for a long period of time.
If used consistently, fat grips will lead to great forearm size and strength development, as well as grip strength progression without the need of specialized forearm training. In fact, many athletes claim that after going back to regular bars, these feel lighter and they can lift more weight.
The hammer curl can be thought about as an in-between a Zottman curl and a bicep curl. It stimulates the forearm and bicep throughout the whole movement, and athletes are usually stronger than they would be in the Zottman curl, but when it comes to forearm activation, it still falls short compared to the Zottman curl.
The hammer curl is performed in a similar fashion to a traditional dumbbell curl, but instead of having your palms facing upwards in a supinated grip, you’ll keep your palms facing each other throughout the movement.
This will target the long head of the bicep primarily, as well as the brachioradialis, which is responsible for keeping your palms and wrists in position.
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Wrist curls are a forearm isolation exercise, so anyone looking to maximize their forearm development should include them in their workout regimen. However, as an isolation exercise, they do not stimulate the bicep, which means losing the “two for one” benefit that Zottman curls provide.
How to Perform a Barbell Wrist Curl:
- Stand with a shoulder-width stance, holding a barbell with an overhand grip at shoulder width as well.
- Using just your wrists, curl the weight towards your thighs by flexing your wrists.
- Fully extend your wrist by reversing the curl.
- Your arms should be stationary, the only movement should come from your wrist.
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By performing both curls and extension, you will target both sides of your forearm, maximizing growth and thickness.
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