The wrist curl is an isolation exercise targeting the forearm wrist flexor muscles. Despite being used primarily for hypertrophic purposes, wrist curls can also provide various other benefits, such as improved grip strength, increased wrist bone density, and strength carry-over to many other upper body exercises.
Wrist curls are a versatile exercise with many variations and can be performed with several different bits of equipment. Traditional wrist curls target the anterior muscles of the forearm, whereas reverse wrist curls build the posterior forearm muscles.
More commonly performed using lighter weight and for higher repetitions, wrist curls are frequently seen as a ‘finisher’ exercise for the forearms, following completion of heavier upper body compound and arm exercises.
Incorporating wrist curls into a training program ensures adequate training stimulus for the forearm muscles involved in wrist flexion and extension, a movement pattern neglected by most grip reliant exercises.
What is a wrist curl?
Wrist curls are an open kinetic chain isolation exercise performed through flexion of the wrist joints. This wrist flexion movement is significant activation of the anterior compartment of the forearm muscles, namely the flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor carpi radialis and pronator teres.
Given that forearm muscles are a muscle group often neglected in training programs, wrist curls are an excellent exercise for trainees at any experience level, especially given the minimal equipment required.
The wrist curl exercise allows for specific isolation of the forearm muscles, unlike other forearm dominant exercises such as farmer’s walks and hammer curls, which rely heavily on other upper body muscle groups.
As with all exercises, it is essential to understand the movement with proper form and appropriate weight to provide a more significant training stimulus for the forearm muscles and avoid potential injury.
What equipment is needed for wrist curls:
The wrist curl exercise can be performed using only a barbell, E-Z bar, a set of dumbbells, or even a resistance band. Such modest equipment can cover many wrist curl variations, including traditional wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, seated wrist curls, and unilateral wrist curls.
Since wrist curls are typically best used as a hypertrophic exercise, using a lighter weight is the best option to build forearm muscles effectively. Also, adjusting the weight over time will allow for progressive overload and a greater variety of repetition ranges.
How to do wrist curls?
The first step in performing the wrist curl is selecting an appropriate weight to work the forearm muscles and reduce injury risk. A lighter weight is more likely to be correct since the biomechanics of wrist flexion do not allow for heavy loading.
Once the correct resistance has been established, the trainee should sit on a level surface, such as a bench, with their knees extended forward and at approximately a 90° angle.
Seated wrist curls tend to be preferred, as there is reduced temptation to ‘cheat’ a repetition using momentum generated through swinging the torso.
With the weight in hand, the trainee should rest the posterior forearm on the knees, extending the point of resistance over the knee to allow space for wrist flexion. The palms should be supinated, with the anterior forearm facing upwards. The starting position of the movement will be the point at which the anterior forearm muscles are extended, with no muscle activation.
This starting position can also be achieved by resting the forearms on a flat surface, such as a flat or preacher curl bench.
In a slow and controlled manner, the trainee should perform wrist flexion to ‘curl’ at the point of resistance without moving the placement of the forearms. The finishing point of the movement should be when the palms are facing back towards the individual.
Since the wrist curl exercise aims to isolate the forearm muscles, it is vital to ensure a robust neuromuscular connection and to resist recruiting other muscle groups to move the weight, particularly on the final reps of each set.
A pause at the top of the movement increases the time under tension, providing greater activation of the forearm musculature and reinforcement of the ‘mind-muscle’ connection.
During the eccentric portion of the wrist curl movement, the resistance should be lowered slowly to the starting position. This will apply additional mechanical stress, invoking a more excellent hypertrophic response in the forearm muscles.
One repetition is completed once the wrist flexor muscles have performed a full contraction during the concentric portion of the movement and a full extension during the eccentric part.
What are the variations of the wrist curl?
The traditional wrist curl specifically targets the anterior forearm muscles detailed above. The reverse wrist curl is a variation targeting the posterior compartment of the forearm muscles.
As the name suggests, the reverse wrist curl is performed in a reverse grip, with the hands pronated. The pronation of the hands will mean that the palms will face downwards in the starting position and forwards in the final position. The same setup and dynamics can be used for the reverse wrist curl as for the traditional wrist curl.
Varying the resistance equipment used to perform wrist curls will offer different benefits. Using a barbell will allow for more acceptable weight increments than other equipment, allowing for more accurate resistance overload over time.
Many trainees prefer using an E-Z bar for wrist curls, mainly if using a straight bar causes wrist discomfort. The angle of the E-Z bar provides slightly less wrist supination than a straight bar, placing a greater emphasis on lateral forearm muscle activation.
Wrist curls performed with dumbbells provide unilateral isolation of each forearm, reducing potential muscle imbalance between the forearm muscles. Dumbbells also allow the wrists to supinate and pronate freely, allowing for more significant variation in the movement angle and recruitment of different muscle fibres.
A resistance band is a low-cost method to achieve practical forearm training. The band’s resistance can be changed by adjusting band length and thickness. Banded movements have been shown to have a more consistent resistance curve than free weight movements, particularly at the top of the movement when the free weight resistance drops off. A similar resistance curve can also be achieved using a cable pulley machine.
All these variations have various benefits and drawbacks, which will vary with the individual. Therefore, it is best to try different variations to establish the highest activation of anterior and posterior forearm muscles without incurring wrist discomfort. Excess discomfort at the wrist joint during, or following, performing wrist curls could lead to potential injury, so it may be worth consulting a physical therapist or other athletic professional when incorporating new exercises.
What are the muscles worked during the wrist curl?
The wrist curl is an exercise utilising wrist flexion. This movement is facilitated through the contraction of the forearm muscles making up the anterior compartment. The wrist curl’s primary movers are the flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, and the palmaris longus muscles.
These superficial muscles all originate at the medial epicondyle of the humerus and have an insertion point at the wrist. Since these muscles are relatively small, they work together to facilitate flexion and weight-bearing at the wrist when compared with other muscle groups.
Due to its stabilising role, wrist curls may provide a low level of activation in the pronator teres muscle, responsible for forearm pronation.
Reverse wrist curls work the posterior forearm muscles, mainly the extensor carpi radialis brevis, extensor carpi ulnaris, extensor digiti minimi and the extensor digitorum. These are the forearm muscles responsible for wrist extension.
The traditional wrist curl will induce a low activation level for the posterior forearm muscles since they will play a stabilising role during the movement and vice versa for the reverse wrist curl.
Given that the goal of wrist curls is to isolate the forearm muscles, it is essential to avoid ‘cheating’ using momentum or recruitment of other muscles. More significant mechanical stress will be applied by avoiding doing so, resulting in greater strength and hypertrophic response in the forearm muscles.
What are the benefits of performing wrist curls?
Regular wrist curls incur many beneficial health effects, including improved grip strength. Recent research has suggested high grip strength has a solid correlation to longevity and even to be a powerful predictor of all-cause mortality.
Other health benefits of wrist curls include improved wrist mobility and flexibility and increased bone density, reducing the risk of bone fractures.
Health benefits associated with wrist curls become even more pertinent as we age to mitigate osteoporosis risk and declining grip strength.
Wrist curls provide a strong hypertrophic stimulus for the forearm muscles, especially since they are typically performed for a high number of repetitions per set. As such, consistent wrist curl training will lead to an increase in forearm muscle size.
Increased forearm muscle size and adequately low body fat percentage will improve muscle definition, a desirable physical trait to many.
Wrist curls increase forearm muscle strength, in turn improving athletic performance across many strength-based exercises, such as deadlifts and pullups, and even sports such as climbing.
Increased forearm strength and more muscular grip strength allow more weight to be held in the hands. Should forearm training is neglected, forearm strength is often the limiting factor preventing further increases in weight lifted, particularly as trainees progress to lifting heavier weights.
Wrist curls are an easily implementable way to improve forearm strength and size. Many believe that adequate forearm muscle stimulation can be provided through movements reliant on grip strength, such as pull-ups, farmer’s walks, and hammer curls. However, incorporating traditional and reverse wrist curls works all forearm muscles involved in wrist flexion and extension, movement patterns which are mostly neglected with the exercises above.
As with all exercises, performing wrist curls carries an element of risk. Injury risk can be minimised by using the correct form on all repetitions, selecting a manageable weight, and conducting a warm-up before the exercise to elevate forearm muscle temperature.
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