Biceps and buddies: Kiwi arm-wrestlers share their secrets

New Zealand arm-wrestlers are stepping out from behind the pub table and hoping to raise awareness of the sport. Vicki Anderson reports.

The strong men stand across the table from each other and lock eyes, mentally sizing each other up.

Observers nudge each other knowingly. Some flex their biceps awaiting their turn at the table.

A few days earlier, Christchurch medical student Mark Makel had met a stranger on an app and invited him to this “super match”, held at a suburban football clubrooms on a warm Saturday morning.

With all eyes on the table, the arm-wrestling begins. Faces contort from smiles to grimaces as forearms teeter back and forth before a winner is declared.

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Referee Makel has enthusiastically been helping to organise events for the 40-odd members of the Christchurch Arm-Wrestling Club.

The sport is growing in popularity in New Zealand. At this event competitors from Dunedin compete alongside their Christchurch counterparts.

For training, arm-wrestlers use custom equipment – towels, karate belts and more. The exercises range from strength and conditioning to table sparring time and specifically targeted exercises – fingers, forearms, biceps and pronation.

These exercises consist of small movements.

“There’s an app, Armbet,” explains Makel. “You can look up people in your area who are serious arm-wrestlers and connect that way. This year there was a point where we were getting a new member every week, and now we’re up around 30 to 40.”

Having just finished his first year in the sport, Makel is considered a “newbie”.

“It’s a cool sport to get into,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn on the technical side. I enjoy the combination of the fact you can use technique to outsmart and beat people who are stronger than you. I also enjoy the community.”

Mark Makel, centre, referees at an arm-wrestling event held by the Christchurch Arm-Wrestling Club.

Mark Makel, centre, referees at an arm-wrestling event held by the Christchurch Arm-Wrestling Club.

Arm-wrestling is something of a hobby for Makel as he finishes his hospital placements, recently working in both the intensive care unit and emergency departments.

“The club has a varied demographic,” he said. “Our oldest club member is around 50 and our youngest is Felix who just turned 18. He started at 15 or 16.”

Left arm or right?

“Most people train with both.”

Josh Roussel, a member of the Christchurch club for four years, said the sport had been “underground for a while” in New Zealand but had recently experienced a surge in popularity.

“It’s a good year for the sport. It’s a sport rather than just something you do with your mates on a Friday night when you’re having a few beers,” Roussel said.

Competitive arm-wrestling is increasing in popularity.


Competitive arm-wrestling is increasing in popularity.

On the world arm-wrestling stage, New Zealand is a ‘’baby’’.

“Other countries have been arm-wrestling a lot longer and have quite a storied history, whereas New Zealand is just scratching the surface.’’

Anton van der Westhuizen, president of the New Zealand Arm-Wrestling Federation, founded in 2013, said there are clubs throughout the country.

New Zealand belongs to WAF (World Arm-Wrestling Federation) and a world championship event is held each year. New Zealand could not attend the championships in Romania this year because of Covid-19.

“There has been a recent boom due to social media and YouTubers creating content with high-profile matches,” said van der Westhuizen.

“This year there has been an increase in club members from the Polynesian community and university students.”

Pulling – as arm-wrestling is also known – is one sport where age is an advantage.

“You can continue arm-wrestling until you are quite old. We call it ‘old man strength’,” said Roussel.

“You get a build-up of strength in your tendons, so you get a lot stronger as you get older. To really reach your peak with that it takes up to six years of training to really get that arm-wrestling strength.”

New Zealand’s oldest arm-wrestler, Levan Kavtaradze, is in his 70s.

“Levan is the first New Zealander to have won a medal at the World Championships,” said van der Westhuizen.

“He achieved this in 2019, Romania, for the senior grand master, category right arm, bronze.”

Western countries tend to associate arm-wrestling as a pub sport, he said, whereas in the Eastern Block you can become a “household name”.

He describes John Brzenk as the “G.O.A.T. of arm-wrestling”. There’s even a movie about him – it’s called Pulling John.

New Zealand has only “a handful” of female arm wrestlers.

“Our best female arm wrestlers are Ngareta Barbarich and Tracy Barbarich,” said van der Westhuizen.

“They come from a Tug Of War background – both have represented New Zealand in the battle against Australia and walked away with the gold.”

Te Kāea

Maateiwarangi Heta-Morris has claimed his eighth straight New Zealand heavy weight championship at the National Arm Wrestling Competition held in Gisborne, the first time the competition has been outside of Auckland. (First published July 2018).

Top arm-wrestlers have “hands, wrists, and arms like steel – once it is set, it will not bend”, van der Westhuizen said.

But good technique can beat pure strength.

“Any strong athlete will know the name Larry Wheels – he is a powerhouse, and he has thrown himself into arm-wrestling for the last two years,” said van der Westuizen.

“It was an eye-opener for novices and viewers to see this powerhouse of a mountain getting beaten by an experienced arm-wrestler weighing up to 50kg lighter than him. The point is you have to be well-rounded.”

At the Christchurch club meeting on this particular Saturday morning, as the arm-wrestlers compete on specially designed tables, there are many high-fives of joy and some handshakes of defeat.

‘’Win or lose, you shake hands, and it’s a lot of fun,’’ said Makel.

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