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Forearm Specific Strength Training

by Coach Seiji

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If you are doing hand/forearm exercises like the popular one shown above, read and understand why this is NOT recommended for motocross.

Forearm specific strength training – do it, don’t do it, what to do, what devices to use, etc. Especially for beginners, questions and concerns about forearm specific strength training can be pretty common. My personal recommendations follow and they might surprise you.

For both elite level riders and weekend warrior types, I don’t recommend forearm specific strength training at all. Before you start to stammer “Why not,” let me provide some explanation.

The first reason I don’t prescribe forearm specific strength training has to do with work load. Work is defined by the simplest of physics equations:

W (work) = F (force) x D (distance)

The amount of force a muscle can produce is dependent on its cross sectional area,  basically the size of the muscle. Of all the muscles utilized at a high rate during motocross riding, the forearm muscles are amongst the smallest. This means that the forearm muscles can handle a relatively small amount of total work compared to say the quadriceps muscles of the thigh or the gluteus muscles of the hip.

Say the elite level rider rides 3 to 4 days per week and does strength training and cardio on top of that. Training produces positive results when the stress of training overloads the system and then recovery allows it to build up to stronger levels to accommodate the repeated stresses. The most important aspect of training for any motocross competitor is the actual motorcycle riding. So the elite rider, whom we can assume has a rather large base of motocross specific training, stresses the forearm muscles 3 to 4 times per week while riding and during weight lifting. This is a high frequency of forearm specific stress and the rider manages to partially recover between these stresses and fully recovers during planned recovery periods. Basically, his or her forearm muscles are stressed at high frequency, at high loads, but the elite rider has the base, training background, and recovery capacity to not have any negative effects on the actual motocross riding.  The forearm muscles receive adequate stress loads and recovery periods to keep positive changes coming consistently.

The weekend warrior is strangely in a similar situation, but in a much different way. This rider has a regular job and probably only gets to go out and ride 1 to 2 days per week on the weekends only. Of course, he or she is going to ride as much as possible during these sessions. This is a high forearm specific load, but at a lower frequency. He or she may also lift weights during the week, adding another forearm specific stress. Unfortunately, this rider doesn’t have the same huge base of motocross specific training and fitness as an elite level rider. His or her overall fitness level is lower, thus reducing the recovery capacity. The weekend riding plus the possible weekday strength training provides a forearm specific training load that is barely manageable in recovery in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the weekend’s riding. Remember that all of this is regarding the musculature that has about the smallest capacity for workload of all the muscles being used while riding.


The same principle applies to the forearm muscle. If the wrist or hand is moving - Isotonic. If the wrist or hand is stationary (gripping) - Isometric

Another reason that I don’t recommend forearm specific training has to do with the nature of forearm muscle contractions during actual riding. The forearm muscles are used in a static length. The muscle fibers stay at the same length while they generate various amounts of force. This is called an isometric contraction. Both the wrist and fingers are used in fixed positions. You would have to mimic this isometric contraction at the identical muscle fiber length to specifically train these muscles for motocross. Any training that causes shortening of the muscles (as in “regular” strength training where you move a joint) is not specifically addressing the way these muscles are used while riding. Gains on the bike would be very limited if you had any gains at all. Most forearm devices involve shortening of the muscles while force is being applied (isotonic contractions) which isn’t how they are used on the bike. However, this is the way these muscles are used during strength training exercises that involve free weights where you have to hold the weights (barbells, dumbbells). In other words, when lifting weights, the forearm muscle is put in a condition of isometric contraction due to the nature of grasping the bar, dumbbell, or handle to move the load.

The only time that I prescribe isometric forearm exercises is when a seasoned rider who usually rides 3 to 4 days per week misses out on riding for say a week due to some reason. A session of strength training that involves forearm specific training is simply replacing the forearm stress load of a motocross riding session. It isn’t adding to the weekly frequency, intensity, or total weekly workload compared to a regular training week. Recovery would be adequate to prevent negative effects on the next motocross riding session.

In conclusion the fundamental reasons behind not prescribing forearm specific strength training have to do with:

  1. The total amount of work load these muscles can accommodate without negatively affecting the actual motocross riding.
  2. The specific nature of the muscle contraction of these muscles while riding.
Thanks for reading and keep up the hard (and smart) work out there!

About the Author: Seiji Ishii is the head coach of www.coachseiji.com. Coachseiji.com provides online coaching and personal training services to motorsports athletes. Coach Seiji has worked with both pros and elite amateurs including: Heath Voss, Ryan Clark, Austin Stroupe, PJ Larsen, Hunter Hewitt, Drew Yenerich, Rusty Potter, Jason Anderson, and Andrew Short. Learn more at coachseiji.com or contact Coach Seiji directly.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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Discussion

  1. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins November 17, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Very good read! Glad to see him write an article for riders; think this will clear up some misconceptions.

  2. Gravatar
    253 November 17, 2011 at 9:03 am

    That's a great article, good explanation

  3. Gravatar
    627 November 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

    I agree with these recommendations, however, the term strength is the wrong term to use in this instance. The proper term would be forearm specific endurance.

  4. Gravatar
    Davie November 17, 2011 at 10:38 am

    So if an individual is not able to ride every week, what is the best way to minimize arm pump?

    I do mostly cardio, 1 hour bike rides at moderate speeds, then higher intensity (like wind sprints and shuttle runs). I really hate weight training, so i mostly do cardio, is that ideal?

    I get to ride maybe once a month now, and my arms pump up like balloons. Must be doing something wrong. haha.

  5. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 17, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Davie - The main thing you are dong wrong is not riding enough. Almost all riders (pros included) will get arm pump if they are not riding on a regular basis. Regardless of what they are doing off the bike! Off the bike training will reduce and eliminate arm pump only if you ride on a somewhat consistent basis. If you don't ride you WILL get arm pump. Period!

    And, no absolutely not; doing mostly cardio and no weight training is not ideal. Like the article said, your forearms are getting quite the isometric workout from lifting weights. If you are doing all cardio, then your forearms are never getting trained. I would fully expect for a rider in your situation to get arm pump within the first lap. I'll bet you don't warmup and stretch before you ride either, right? :)

  6. Gravatar
    Tony Wenck November 17, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I think one of the most important things you can do is stretch your forearms. I do it at my desk, steering wheel, when I wake up, go to bed, whenever. If I dont stretch multiple times a day I can tell when I ride. I also have a wooden dowel with a 5 pound weight on a string. I roll it up and back down for 20 minutes or so at a time. Initially it pumps my arms up a little but I push through it, similiar to riding. Im way out of shape but do fine racing moto or 2 hour harescrambles. Or at least I dont get arm pump.

  7. Gravatar
    dean halvorson November 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    yes i believe the dowel with the weight hanging from the string works excellently to help prevent arm pump i use to do that and push through it until i could barely hold onto it and i never got arm pump and the second i quit doing that workout now i can barely hang onto my bike. i stretch my forearms as well it doesn't seem to really do anything.

  8. Gravatar
    Davie November 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    @Tim

    Thanks for the response,

    Like I said, I do mostly cardio, I do hit the weights twice a week, but I guess its simply not enough. Its pretty frustrating when you put in considerable amounts of time into training and receive negligible results. Guess its time to rework my program. Wish i could ride three times a week!

  9. Gravatar
    Marty November 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    What if I do not get to ride in the winter? All I do is lift weights and do cardio.. Should I perform forearm workouts over the winter until the snow melts and I can ride again, or will all the other lifts I do work my forearms enough? Thanks

  10. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji November 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    627: you are correct, actually the most specific would be wrist and finger flexor specific local muscular endurance or something like that. I used the term strength training because most people associate specific muscular endurance training to the gym. The best muscular endurance training happens doing the actual sport activity but this article was targeting a question regarding training the forearm muscles in the gym so I defaulted to calling it "strength training."

  11. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji November 17, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Marty

    If you cannot ride at all during the winters, you have to best mimic the loads that the motorcycle gives you. I have some riders up in the great white north and ice riding, snowmobiling are alternatives. Outside of that think about what you are asking your forearms to do while riding: a submaximal, isometric contraction interspersed with slightly varying wrist positions and muscle tensions (which sometimes change at high speed). That is what you want to try to do in the gym (if you cannot ride at all) and yes, some of this will occur just lifting weights. Since you are not riding, you can go higher on the volume and intensity of your weight workouts which will also up the workload on your forearm muscles. Something else to think about during the off season: higher absolute strength means lower relative work load at submaximal contractions. So the stronger your forearms can get over in terms of absolute strength, the lower the relative workload that the riding will be. This means in the off season you can do forearm specific work designed to increase the actual force producing capacity.

  12. Gravatar
    John Cash November 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    I also totally endorse the 'weight on a rope roll-up' training. If you can't ride more than 1 or 2 times a week, this method most closely simulates riding in my opinion, and made a huge difference in arm pump for me.

  13. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins November 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    One thing to keep in mind about arm pump in motocross is that it is a fairly new discussion in the training aspect of mx...There is not enough extensive research done in this area, so everything as of now is just theory. I don't know if anyone has that true answer to reducing arm pump 100% every time you ride your bike at this moment. So that's why various things may work for various racers/riders and why so many people still have questions about it.
    One problem with racing and training is there are so many variables within the sport. There will always be a constant battle of training and science in regards of which is always the best. The sport is still new in regards to training. The Russians did not spend any time trying to develop the perfect mx racer so we are left to come up with how to do it. That's why this website is so cool :)

  14. Gravatar
    Filthyanimal November 19, 2011 at 10:53 am

    The best way to eliminate forearm pump is to ride the bike correctly. That is with the lower body doing the "power movements" and "driving" the movements of the bike, and allowing your body to do what its good at doing: supporting the upper body with the lower, being balanced at all times. Too many riders use too much upper body to "muscle" or "hang on to" the bike. Use the big, powerful muscle systems to do the big powerful movements. The handlebars are for positioning (manipulating) the bike into position so you can "drive it" with the lower body. Do it backwards and you get arm pump.

  15. Gravatar
    Vic November 21, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Still confused. Coach S. says not to use the traditional wrist grippers and two Guests recommend the stick, string, and weights. So what is the best type of exerciser to use when unable to get much seat time in...the stick, string, weight or something else? Thanks.

  16. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 22, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Well, you can either listen to Coach Seiji (a professional trainer with 15 years experience), comments from users (real world results), or experiment for yourself and see what works for you. I tend to do what the experts say and listen closely what others say worked/did not work for them.

  17. Gravatar
    fiveseven November 24, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    your riding technic has a lot to say to... tray to be in balance when you ride is important

  18. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji November 29, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Vic:

    from article: "The only time that I prescribe isometric forearm exercises is when a seasoned rider who usually rides 3 to 4 days per week misses out on riding for say a week due to some reason."

    If you think about the device in question it's isometric for the finger flexors but not isometric for the wrist extensors/flexors.

  19. Gravatar
    motok December 01, 2011 at 11:31 am

    @joel Y arm pump and motocross training has been happening since inception. I have a book (how to win motocross with ake johnson) where they talk about training and using the broom handle and weight, and this was in 1972 or so...

  20. Gravatar
    Sean Casey December 02, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    @motok

    Not sure if this is the exercise you are talking about, but the broomstick and weight sounds like wrist curls. Like Seiji said, your forearms are in an isometric contraction. The muscle fibers aren't shortening so using the broomstick and weight would put them in concentric contractions (shortening of the muscle fiber) which is something you don't want. Not sure if I could recommend using that in a rider's program.

  21. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins December 02, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    @motok

    I am not oblivious to arm pump in motocross and how long it has been an issue and the different training philosophies for it. As much as I agree with Coach Seiji's article, other training philosophies, and other great comments on here, there has not been extensive research done on the subject matter. In other sports, there has been research done by Russian Communists who had taken coaches, psychologists, other doctors etc to perform research on engineering the best athletes. My point was saying that in motocross with arm pump and other areas of concern, we have not had the extensive research ever done like that, so everything we do for the sport is relatively new when regards to special sports training in motocross. If there is research to that level please let me know because I would love to get my hands on it :) ...sorry for the misunderstanding.

  22. Gravatar
    Paul December 09, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I found the exercises interesting in the following article. They seem to follow the suggestions in the article. The plate pinches really work the forearms and fingers.

    http://www.vitalmtb.com/features/MTB-Strength-Training-The-Cure-for-Arm-Pump,70

  23. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji February 25, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Great video above, just saw it. Agree with everything in it, note:

    His grip exercises are all isometric. They address the "there is no replacement for actual riding" and they don't do much grip specific training because of the actual riding and other training that would help more (core, general conditioning, etc.). They do address wrist stability which is another isometric but this time it's an isometric contraction of the wrist flexors and extensors and the exercises they cover are isometric.

    Good find.

  24. Gravatar
    Jericksa July 21, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    I keep hoping that mags will recgnoize their unique position and utilize it. Punk kids on the internet can provide the latest and greatest news. They do not, however, have easy access to a wide variety of equipment for testing. Magazines could go so much further here. Another major shortcoming is gear reviews. They hardly exist outside of product announcements and/or marketing overviews. I've seen Motorcyclist attempt to get more active with their gear reviews, but one or two items a month receiving a half-page section is a freakin' joke. There are so many things to choose from out there, whether you're talking about accessories, tires or protective equipment. There's such an opportunity to provide insight that very few blogs are able to.For the life of me, I can't see why it's so tough to look at the big picture and focus on your strengths. As it stands, Cycle World and Motorcycle Consumer News are the only mags I subscribe to, and Cycle World may be next on the chopping block.

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