Arm wrestling is well known for requiring a high degree of strength and technique, but just how effective is arm wrestling at developing muscle?
While arm wrestling will certainly help you build muscle, it’s not quite as effective as traditional bodybuilding methods because in arm wrestling the focus is primarily around developing maximum strength, not size.
In this article we’ll take a look at how arm wrestling develops the muscle fibers in a different way to bodybuilding as well as explore what things you can do to build more muscle as an arm wrestler.
Is Arm Wrestling An Effective Way To Build Muscle?
The simple reality is that if you’re training seriously for arm wrestling, you’re going to get big arms. In fact your entire upper body will probably grow quite a bit. It’s simply unavoidable.
But if you’re asking whether arm wrestling is optimal for gaining size, the answer is probably not.
If you spend 5-6 hours a week training for arm wrestling, you could probably get bigger arms by spending an equal (or possibly even lesser) amount of time following traditional bodybuilding methods.
Arm Wrestling Is Primarily About Strength, Not Size
Arm wrestlers care about being really strong. Strength is what wins an arm wrestling match, not size.
And no, they’re not the same thing either – the relationship between strength and size is definitely not linear.
Here’s an example: Cailer Woolam breaking the world record in the deadlift.
The guy weighs only 215lbs. You could put a business shirt on him and he could camouflage into almost any office environment without too many people thinking he can lift almost 1,000lbs off the ground.
Not a huge amount of size, but incredible amounts of strength.
How about this famous arm wrestling match between Thor and Devon Larratt…
Thor is not only a lot taller but also weighs almost twice as much as Devon, and yet Larratt is able to win without exerting much effort.
Clearly size doesn’t represent strength, but why is that?
Sarcoplasmic Vs Myofibrillar Hypertrophy In Arm Wrestling
The answer lies in the specific way we stimulate our muscle fibers during training.
Bodybuilders focus on increasing the amount of sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell. Think high reps, lower weights, going for the pump. This type of training doesn’t actually increase the density of functional muscle mass however.
Strength athletes like arm wrestlers are focusing instead on myofibrillar hypertrophy which increases the density of functional muscle. This type of training actually makes you stronger and requires a lower rep range with heavier weight to get this stimulus.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy doesn’t increase your overall size anywhere near as much as the sarcoplasmic equivalent, which is how we’re able to see smaller strength athletes consistently outperform bodybuilders in all kinds of lifts.
Does Arm Wrestling Make You Strong?
Arm wrestling a lot will make you really strong at arm wrestling.
You will get strong forearms, strong biceps, a strong back, and will probably have pretty good strength around the chest and shoulder area as well.
But this strength likely won’t carryover to all that many other activities or sports.
You may do fine when testing for grip strength or for certain aspects of rock climbing, but you probably won’t be great at fighting or shotput or many other sports.
Arm wrestling strength is extremely specific. In this sport we’re training muscles like our pronators and supinators using different grips and contraptions that don’t really feature in many other domains.
So yes, you’ll get strong in a very specific area, but no you’re not going to magically develop amazing overall strength just from arm wrestling.
Why Are Arm Wrestlers Arms So Big?
If arm wrestling is all about being strong, why then do arm wrestlers all seem to have huge arms?
Their Arms Aren’t Actually That Big
I don’t think it’s entirely true that all arm wrestlers have big arms. Perhaps most of the arm wrestling you’ve seen is from the super heavyweight category where, by definition, these guys are huge.
Those matches tend to draw the most attention and people seem to prefer watching the strongest pullers in the world as opposed to the guys in the 65kg category which might be as impressive, pound for pound.
The reality is there’s plenty of fairly normal looking, super strong guys competing successfully at lower weight classes.
It’s Hard For Them Not To Get Big
The reality is, when you’re training arms as frequently as most professional arm wrestlers do, it’s really hard not to get massive arms!
If you’re training biceps 2-3 times a week and doing table time once or twice a week, it’s going to be pretty tough to maintain small arms, even if you’re only doing myofibrillar hypertrophy exercises in the gym.
Table Time Is Decent For Building Size
Table time – essentially practice sparring with another arm wrestler – is often a lot more sarcoplasmic in nature as opposed to myofibrillar.
By this I mean that quite often the load is relatively low and the focus is on time under tension and getting blood flowing to the muscles in the arm.
Arm wrestlers who hit the table multiple times per week are going to get bigger arms just by gripping up and pulling regularly.
Arm Wrestlers Do Occasionally Train For Size
Although the vast majority of exercises performed in the weight room will be really heavy for lesser reps (strength), arm wrestlers do occasionally still train for size.
Oftentimes arm wrestlers will go through a hypertrophy phase after a competition before looking to focus back in on strength and speed development before their next tournament.
I recently wrote an article which looks at various ways in which arm wrestlers train biceps for both strength and size so be sure to check that out if you want deeper insight.
Tips To Build More Muscle Arm Wrestling
First understand that your success in the sport of arm wrestling will have very little to do with the size of your muscles. Prioritizing strength gains over size gains will always be a smart idea if you actually want to get better at the sport.
Still, beginners who are fairly new to arm wrestling or lifting in general might want to get bigger and stronger at the same time, so here’s some advice…
- Do hypertrophy workouts slightly more often – When in the gym, I’d estimate 75-80% of most arm wrestling exercises will prioritize strength. Some guys do virtually 100% strength exercises. If you want bigger arms, simply do more hypertrophy focused exercises. Maybe 65% strength focus and the rest on size. Be sure to check out my article which discusses the best bicep exercises for both strength and size!
- Prioritize table time – Getting more table time in each week is not only going to help your arms get bigger, but it’ll also make you a better arm wrestler quicker. By doing lots of volume on the table and keeping the intensity fairly low, you’ll get a good pump and promote that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
- Do blood flow exercises – Make sure you’re doing your high frequency, high volume blood flow work as often as possible. This is not only a great way to add size but it’ll also help your arms heal and recover quicker.
- Diet and sleep – Getting bigger generally requires A) lots of protein and B) a caloric surplus. Make sure you’re getting in enough food that your body can actually pack on some size. Don’t overlook the importance of sleep in this equation either!
Arm wrestling is definitely going to lead to bigger muscles, make no mistake about it.
But arm wrestling stimulates your muscles in a way that is very different to typical bodybuilding exercises that are (by definition) the quickest way to get bigger.
In arm wrestling you’re far more concerned about gaining strength and functional muscle mass than you are having great big arms.
As you arm wrestle more and more, your arms will have no option but to grow. I’d recommend focusing on what’s important, which is getting stronger, and not worrying too much about size.