I searched Google using the exact title of this article, and you know what I found? I found a lot of articles claiming the wrist roller was the number one best exercise for developing the forearms. I used to agree. I used to swear by the wrist roller. My views have changed somewhat. One curious thing I noticed, though, is that most people saying the wrist roller is the absolute best way to get freaky forearms do not advocate using it alone, but as part of a more comprehensive forearm routine. Curious, indeed!
Logically, if the wrist roller were so great for growing your forearms, you wouldn’t need anything else, but many advise using it as an addition to your existing forearm routine. There are only two reasons I can think of for this. Or, perhaps three. One, these people are failing to think through their claims. Two, these people are just trying to get you to buy into what they are saying by over-selling it. And, three, these people are engaging in clickbait. You may be more likely to click on an article that says, “The Wrist Roller is the BEST Forearm Exercise Known to Man!”
What is a Wrist Roller?
First, let’s review what a wrist roller is. It’s a short handle to which a rope is attached in the middle. You hang a weight on the free end of the rope. To use the wrist roller, you wind the rope up the handle using either wrist flexion or wrist extension movements. The resistance the weight provides means the movements you use to wind the rope are somewhat like doing weighted wrist curls or wrist extensions. Plus, in order to keep winding the rope, you have to squeeze the handle very hard to provide enough friction so that it does not twist back in the other direction. Therefore, it also works the grip, specifically crushing grip but, due to the almost continuous nature of the exercise, it will work supporting grip as well although you are not really supporting significant weight. It’s a very simple piece of equipment to use and it’s very easy to make at home, although you need a round wooden dowel that is at least one inch or more in diameter to make one. Below is one of the bestselling wrist rollers on Amazon.
And here is the simple homemade wrist roller I made myself with minimal skills. Even I can drill a hole and tie a knot. That piece of rope, if you’re wondering, is clothesline, or more accurately, the type of rope sold as clothesline. You’ll find this to be very handy in your home gym and around the house. It’s strong and cheap. I use it even on my lat pulldown machine when I need an extension. Doubled or tripled it can handle plenty of weight. If that is not manly enough for you, you can use Paracord, which comes in lots of pretty colors. To use my homemade wrist roller I just pass the end of the rope through the hole in the weights I want to use and tie them off. Then I start winding.
Is the Wrist Roller a Good Forearm Exercise?
Is the wrist roller a good forearm exercise? I’d say it’s an excellent one. How effective an exercise is, however, depends on our exercise goals. The question is whether it is a great forearm developer. In other words, will it grow the muscles in your forearms? While many seem to think the wrist roller is the greatest forearm developers, none of them seem to be able to articulate why this is so.
First, let’s watch a video of the wrist roller exercise, using both directions, or flexion and extension. I chose a video from BB.com because it is a simple instructional video without extra commentary. Keep in mind that you do not have to hold the roller up in front of you with your shoulders flexed. This will tend to limit how much you can do because your shoulder flexors will give out before your forearms do. There is some advantage to having the forearms parallel to the floor, however, but you can use a mounted barbell or other apparatus for support. Or, you can hold your arms lower with your elbows pinned to your sides.
Notice a few things about the actual movements taking place. One way it differs from the way we usually target our muscles in bodybuilding is that it is almost a continuous motion, somewhat like running. In this way, the wrist roller becomes a general muscular endurance or conditioning tool than a muscle builder. While you are winding the weight up, the eccentric is eliminated. And while you wind it down (which some people skip), the concentric is eliminated.
Note something else. Supposing you were doing wrist curst or wrist extension., would you have to use one weight continuously throughout your entire routine? No, you could do dropped sets, you could vary the weights and the reps used. You could raise the weight with each subsequent set. What’s more, you could pause at the top of the movement and try to use slow negatives. And, instead of having your grip give out while you are actually trying to target your wrist flexors and extensors, you could work until those muscles were absolutely torched. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t have a problem that always tended to occur for me, and for others, your shoulders won’t be burning even if you keep your arms lowered! Yes, the wrist roller is not an isolated movement. The shoulders get involved and for some, it is uncomfortable and even aggravating to the shoulder.
The other problem is that flexion and extension of the wrist are not the only parts of a comprehensive forearm routine. You want elbow flexion with pronation. You want wrist abduction and adduction (radial and ulnar deviation). You want to work pronation and supination (i.e. the pronator and supinator muscles). And, you want to be able to do it all using varied stimulus. That is, you want to be able to sometimes use more weight with lower reps, and sometimes lighter weights with higher reps. You may want to sometimes do the exercises very slow. And sometimes very powerfully.
In order to advance, the wrist roller locks you into the same number of “reps” each time, which is whatever it takes to wind the weight all the way up unless you want to wind it halfway up and then add more weight, etc. And, once you realize all the stuff I just mentioned, you may feel that is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s a bit odd in that, ordinarily, we view endless repetitions with relatively light weights to be an endurance exercise, not strength training or muscle building. Sure, you can advance up in weight using the roller, but are you really adding strength and muscle all that quickly? No, you’re building endurance over strength and muscle.
Why Is It So Popular?
Given all this, do you wonder why people keep saying the wrist roller is the best forearms developer? There may be no other reason for this than that the apparatus has been around for so long and it is so simple that it can be made for a few bucks at home. All you need is a round piece of wood about 10 inches long with a hole drilled into the middle of it and a rope tied through the hole.
Wrist Roller Variations
There are variations on the classic wrist roller. For instance, IronMind makes a hub-like roller that looks like a big yo-yo, the IronMind Twist Yo’ Wrist. wind this device, you use the aforementioned radial and ulnar deviation (wrist abduction and adduction) not to mention a lot of gripping strength. But the basic problems are still there. Another type of wrist rolling device is a fixed one. Instead of holding a small handle in your hands, you use a bar that is mounted in some way but free to rotate. Some people use the bar catches (safety pins) on their power cages for this but placing a foam handle in the middle and tying a line to it. Others use a barbell mounted on a power rack, as in the video below. You can even wind your barbell using the weight loading sleeves so that the grip challenge is more intense. While this can help eliminate the challenge to the shoulders and may have some advantages, most of the basic problems still exist. As well, it is easy to cheat and use the arms and shoulder instead of the wrists to twist the bar.
Another way to make the exercise more comfortable and focused on the forearms is to use an extra long rope on your homemade wrist roller and pass the rope through the top pulley of your pulley apparatus if you have access to one. This makes it feel much better on the shoulders as you are using the internal rotators to keep the weight pushed down at the level you want to use it, instead of engaging your shoulder flexors. Another solution is the Pellor Wrist Roller with Pulley. It comes with a pulley attached to a strap so you can hand it anywhere that is convenient, such as off a power cage or a barbell on a squat rack. It is a little more trouble to set up but it makes the exercise much better, in my opinion. You will probably need more weight than you otherwise would need.
Use the Wrist Roller as a Finisher or a Warmup
So what do we do with the wrist roller? Call it useless. No. It is not useless. I think that it is a good adjunct to general gripping strength. And, it makes a great finisher to a more complete forearm building routine. But if you want to use it as your sole forearm builder, think again. The wrist roller is a very inefficient way to build forearm musculature and wrist strength. I’ve done months of wrist roller work and gotten little result, then turned around and went back to a conventional forearm routine and started getting results almost immediately. Some folks will say that’s all fine because the wrist roller is ‘actually a grip exercise.’ These shifting goal posts and definitions are always something we have to deal with in strength training and fitness. People can get positively precious about their favorite exercises. In reality, even if you view the roller as a grip exercise it’s not very effective! If you want to use it for grip, I would advise using a barbell with very heavy weights, without the aim of rolling the weight all the way up. Using a mounted barbell will allow you to use more weight in general. You can use a heavy resistance band, like in the video above,
For my own training, I prefer wrist curls, extensions, and reverse curls using the low pulley and a preacher curl attachment, along with adduction and abduction exercises using various implements such as mauls or even a shovel. I use the wrist roller as a finisher to exhaust the muscles, and only when I feel I really need it. It also makes a good warmup at the beginning of a forearm routine or when you feel your forearms need to be warmed up prior to upper body exercises, for whatever reason.