Two Nights in the Brooklyn Arm-Wrestling Scene

You may think you could be good at arm wrestling, but you would probably be really bad at arm wrestling.

A man wearing a New York City Armwrestling Association t-shirt, a woman and man arm wrestling.
The Atlantic

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Lizzie: Despite not being very good at most things, I’m really competitive. I’m not talking about professional sports, because those have nothing to do with me. I’m talking about real-people athletics like mini golf, or Monopoly, or betting someone $10 that the guy from The Princess Diaries is also in Brink!. If I’m playing a yard game, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If I’m doing a scratch-off, it’s pointless unless I get at least $500. Even in hypothetical scenarios, I’m playing to win: If the Academy Awards decided to randomly select one civilian to win an Oscar, I’d be pissed if I didn’t get it. This competitive side flared again last week because Kaitlyn and I decided to attend two back-to-back arm-wrestling events in Brooklyn.

The first, at the pop-up restaurant and wine bar Kit in Prospect Heights, was a very casual “tournament” seemingly conceived by a very strong visiting winemaker. It was more of a warm-up for the main event: crashing a weekly practice of dedicated amateur, semiprofessional, and all-the-way professional arm wrestlers at a garage in Greenpoint. Kit’s tournament was what I thought arm wrestling was; by the time we were three minutes into the practice in Greenpoint, I realized that everything I thought I knew about arm wrestling was wrong.

Kaitlyn: This was such an exciting week for me. My loved ones know this: For months and months, I’ve been fixated on the idea of getting into New York’s arm-wrestling scene. I’m not competitive like Liz; I just want to be involved in everything. I’m also curious about what men do and all the kinds of guy that might exist.

When I asked Nathan if he wanted to come with Lizzie and me to two arm-wrestling events in two days, he said sure. He also said, “I’ve seen so many videos of people’s arms, like, snapping at the elbow.” If someone else had told me that, I might have found it alarming, but Nathan has seen at least a little bit of basically everything that has ever been on YouTube. Sometimes he’ll use my laptop and when I open it later, there will be a video still playing—night-vision footage of some mountain lions, a chess game from 1972, “What is THERMAL TIME HYPOTHESIS?” At Easter brunch, someone joked that we should play a specific scene from The Passion of the Christ on the TV, and when we looked it up on Nathan’s YouTube account, the thumbnail had that little red bar underneath it indicating that it had already been watched.

So when he said this, I just figured: Well, if someone’s arm ends up snapping at the elbow on either night, one of us will be somewhat prepared.

Lizzie: When we got to Kit on Wednesday, nothing had really kicked off yet. We sat outside, carb-loaded with wine and fries, and put down the $5 buy-in to compete (all donations were going to The Trevor Project). “Do you have to be good at arm wrestling?” I asked the organizer, as if the obvious answer wasn’t “The other competitors would actually prefer if you weren’t.”

About 12 people had signed up to compete. Because it was for a good cause and everyone was glugging natural wine, spirits were high … until we started. My match lasted maybe 10 seconds? I lost. Due to a warped sense of self that makes me believe things like I might secretly be an arm-wrestling prodigy and not even know it yet, it hurt to lose so fast. Kaitlyn also lost, but she did it with much more dignity.

After Kait’s match she said, “My pride can take it. I’m good at other things.” How stable she seemed then! Meanwhile, I wondered all night if somehow my loss had been a fluke, thinking that maybe if I could just get a rematch, I could redeem myself.

Kaitlyn: Lizzie lost in a few seconds while I lost in less than one, so I understand why her loss might have been harder to take. She wasn’t batted away like a fruit fly. She was a real contender. A housefly at least.

Our sense was that it was all in the timing—if you move even a tiny bit slower than the other wrestler, you’re screwed; you get stuck trying to push back up to zero, and it’s never going to happen. We barely watched the rest of the tournament; we mostly read the Wikipedia page for arm wrestling on Nathan’s phone and talked about how it doesn’t matter if you do a lot of home workouts and consider yourself stronger than at least some other people—if you move even a tiny bit slower than the other wrestler, you’re screwed.

The visiting winemaker came in second place and was defeated by someone she knew, who appeared to be her friend or girlfriend. “She always beats me,” the winemaker said as the championship match began. I was like, “Okay, so let me get this straight … These women with very strong arms, who apparently arm-wrestle often in their free time, came into town and said, ‘Oh, hey, you know what would be fun for the neighborhood? A classic, fair-and-square arm-wrestling tournament and we just see who wins.’” I am glad the event was for a good cause, or I would have to add something rude here. (“Music Man vibes.”)

In short, the wine was delicious and everyone was nice, but the pressure on our upcoming second arm-wrestling experience to be more edifying and inspiring than the first was now significant.

A large sign hanging on the wall of a garage: "When a man raises a weight from the ground, the law of gravity is neither suspended nor violated, but counteracted by a stronger force."
An inspiring backdrop. (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Lizzie: We showed up to our second arm-wrestling event of the week with bruised egos (me), a lot of questions about form (both of us), and a stomach full of oatmeal (Kaitlyn). Inside the garage, there were maybe about 30 guys, one woman (who we would later find out was a Queen of Arms, and had “one of the best lefts in New York City”), and three arm-wrestling tables (the regulation kind, with a wooden pole for your nondominant hand to grip and a cushion for your elbow).

Rich, the owner of the garage, told us that this whole thing had started a few months before the pandemic when he bought a table and posted on the arm-wrestling app Armbet (“like Grindr for arm wrestling”) looking for people in the area who might want to practice with him. Turns out, a lot of people did. Every Thursday, guys from across the city, Long Island, Connecticut, and maybe a few other places meet up in the garage to “pull,” drink beer, and maybe injure themselves, just a little bit.

Kaitlyn: The garage was absolutely packed. Space was tight because it was Rich and his girlfriend Deborah’s actual garage where they were storing their garage stuff, including an enormous cardboard box labeled “Giant-Sized Skeleton with Life eyes LCD eyes.” (Jealous.) The temperature was quite extreme from all the body heat, and the smell of sweat was so powerful, it was like an additional character in the story. Yes! We loved it.

We were invited to the garage by a wrestler named Mikhail, but he was running late. (“More people are coming,” he texted, and we couldn’t believe it. “It’s going to be fun!”) Luckily, there was still plenty we could learn in his absence. The guys at the tables were throwing their entire bodies behind them, for example, often wrapping a leg or two around the table and pushing on it for extra leverage. Previously, we would not have guessed that was allowed. “Pretty much anything is allowed,” Rich told us. “You just can’t jump off of the ground.” Some of the guys were also tying their hands together with thick straps to prevent them from sliding out of each other’s grip during the match. This looked a little painful, and I couldn’t decide if it seemed safer or less safe than just letting them fly suddenly apart with hundreds of pounds of force behind them.

Lizzie: I started talking to Josh, an actor who has recently played a serial killer on Blue Bloods and another type of criminal on FBI. (He told me you tend to get cast as a villain when you’re “a bigger guy with a beard,” but the typecasting doesn’t bother him.) He found out about the Thursday practice sessions from Jack Arias, the president of the New York Arm Wrestling Association and a kind of stoic figurehead, also in attendance that night. (Jack has his own Hollywood connection—he was an extra in the 1987 arm-wrestling movie Over the Top starring Sylvester Stallone, which came up several times over the course of the night).

I asked Josh about the correct pulling technique, and he gripped my hand in the air to demonstrate. See, arm wrestling isn’t just about moving your forearm up and down like the needle on a speedometer. Josh taught me “Bend your wrist, check your watch,” a kind of mantra for proper form—at least when you’re a beginner and have no idea what you’re doing. Try this: Take your dominant arm and bend it at the elbow, keeping your forearm vertical and inside the width of your body. Now bend your wrist so that your palm is parallel to the ground, turn your wrist toward your body as if you were checking the time, and pull your hand back at an angle. If it feels uncomfortable, that probably means you’re doing it right.

Here are some other things we learned about arm wrestling:

  • Strength matters, but it’s not just a game of strength. Basically everyone there told us that a smaller competitor with good technique could easily beat a newbie with giant, inflated biceps.

  • If you’re a beginner, sometimes it’s best to just give up before you break an arm (which did actually happen once during a Thursday-night practice). A few guys told us that they’ve seen big egos get in the way of basic safety more than once.

  • Most arm wrestlers don’t practice every week, because even a casual practice session can take a lot of time to recover from. It seems like if you’re going to get into arm wrestling, you should be ready to be in pain a decent amount of the time.

Kaitlyn: I could see the wheels turning in Lizzie’s mind. She was taking it all in. She’s about to start training the specific tendon that Jack Arias informed us is crucial and takes seven years to perfect.

Obviously, we had a great time. Everyone talked to us. Every wrestler knew his limitations and was at peace with them. A guy named Mike shook our hands and apologized that his were covered in chalk and explained why: They were small, and he didn’t want to lose just because his fist ended up slipping around inside some other guy’s giant paw. All the guys pointed at other guys around the room and confided in us, “He’s really strong,” or, “That’s one of the strongest guys here.” (“You know how deadly he is?”) When Mikhail finally arrived, he waved me over to one of the tables so he could show me some guy’s forearm. “Just by touching his wrist, I know I have no chance,” he said. He told me to poke the wrist, which indeed felt like a concrete pylon.

Lizzie: And arm wrestling wasn’t even all we talked about! Mike told us about how he recently went full Moneyball and wrote a new baseball metric (something about weighted averages, strikeouts, and home runs). If you asked Nathan, he could probably tell you more specifics, because he was really interested in this new metric. Mike promised to email the details to Nathan—he wasn’t precious about his potentially life-changing IP!

Kaitlyn: Around 10 p.m. it seemed like things were winding down. Some of the guys were using an expensive-looking massage gun to vibrate the lactic acid out of their muscles (haven’t checked the science), while others were just smacking their biceps with their open palms—like you might an empty bottle of shampoo—and diagnosing them as drained. Somebody’s kid was wearing a thick length of chain he’d found on the floor, wrapped around his neck like a boa. He had also picked up an open beer. He was engaged in the reckless attention-seeking behavior of a person who wants to go home and go to bed. (Familiar.)

When we said our goodbyes, Mikhail told us we hadn’t gotten enough information and would need to watch more arm wrestling. Now that it is almost summer, we will be able to find him and his friends holding outdoor practice in the street by Brighton Beach, he said. He gave us the specific block. I was so hoping he would do that!

Lizzie: I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re arm-wrestling people now, even if we might not actually do any arm wrestling. As we waited on the corner for a car to pick me up, we talked about being a little jealous of this group’s ability to build and grow a community, with its weekly hangouts, niche podcast, and active group chat—is this what church is like?