Healthy for Men, January 2012

HFM TRIES…Arm Wrestling

DUNCAN CRAIG rolls up his sleeves and enters a world of pain

I AM IN in a tough East End boozer holding hands with a muscular man called Stephen. We stare at one another, unblinkingly, across the table, oblivious to the locals’ stares. It’s a fair bet this situation is going to kick off but, when it does, it’s with a ferocity that nearly knocks me off my chair.

‘Go,’ says Stephen, his forearm stiffening like the limb of an activated cyborg. I tense and try to channel all my power through my cocked arm. For a wildly optimistic nanosecond I think I might be able to hold him, but then I’m propelled sideways as the back of my hand smashes into the table. My pint, and my self-esteem, wobble furiously.

As a compeitive sport, arm wrestling is niche at best but as a pastime, particularly undertaken in pubs after upwards of five pints, it’s mass participation. Locking arms in the King’s Arms is something few men escape on their protracted path to maturity. It boosts egos, settles grudges and facilitates bets – and then is quickly forgotten.

Not for some. Champion Stephen Kirlew, 30, first developed a prowess for it as a schoolboy in Milton Keynes and soon he was circumnavigating the world in pursuit of global domination. Five consecutive British titles were capped with a world crown in 2007.

So, the perfect man to help me bolster my own arm wrestling stats which this year read a distinctly mediocre: played 7; won 4; lost 2; 1 DNR (Do Not Remember).

We start by talking physical preparation. Surely it’s a case of biggest gym monkey wins? ‘Far from it,’ says Kirlew. ‘You’re divided into weight categories and often you can’t tell how good someone is until you take them on.’

You’re divided into weight categories and often you can’t tell how good someone is until you take them on

That’s because training the ligaments and tendons (the arms’ unglamorous inner wiring) can boost strength by around 30-40 per cent. For this, Kirlew does static weight training and half-training – holding the dumbbell at 90 degrees with a supported elbow, for example, or only doing the first or second half of a curl.

He combines this with standard weight training and dozens of pull-ups, often one-armed. Rope climbing and rock climbing are also beneficial for strengthening fingers, hands, wrists and forearms.

What about technique? My entire frame of reference for competitive arm wrestling, I confess, is the Oscar-free 1987 movie Over The Top, starring Sylvester Stallone. Had Kirlew seen it, I wonder…

‘About 50 times,’ he says. ‘I love it. The fights and techniques are exaggerated, but I find it inspirational.’ The main difference between big screen and reality is in duration of matches, or ‘pulls’. At tournaments, each pull lasts a rather uncinematic few seconds. ‘If you have the edge, it quickly becomes apparent.’

Competitors stand at a table with two seven-inch-square pads with which the elbow must remain in contact. The other hand clasps a peg. The win – or ‘pin’ – is achieved when the wrist (not the back of hand) hits a three-inch-high cushioned ‘pin pad’.

Kirlew, a teetotaller, offers a few tips and I feel myself growing in confidence. Time for the left arm – my stronger arm – and some ill-advised sledging. ‘I own you, little man,’ I whisper as our hands lock. I can see I’ve touched a nerve. I continue: ‘You’re entering a world of p…’

Slam. Turns out the world title was with his left.

WELL ARMED: five steps to domination
1. Knuckle down: Take a high grip on your opponent’s hand. If you can get your knuckles to face the sky, then theirs will be cocked forward, breaking the alignment of forearm and wrist, and dissipating power.
2. On the pull: Pushing uses just the tricep, while pulling utilises bicep, back and forearm. Focus on trying to get their wrist to touch the patch of table nearest you.
3. Close encounter: Get your body as close to the table as possible, thereby reducing the distance between shoulder
and hand.
4. Better late than never: Keep your hand and shoulder aligned (but not touching, which is a foul) all the way down.
5. Quick on the draw: Come fast out of the blocks – on the B of Bang, as Linford Christie used to put it. Most ‘pulls’ are over in a few seconds. Start slow and you’ll regret it.