Members of Bradford arm wrestling group build each other up

Matt Bush, left, and Mike Benson, right, establish their grip before a match at a practice of Iron Link Arms at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. The group will host an open competition on Saturday Nov. 18. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Matt Bush, left, and Mike Benson, right, establish their grip before a match at a practice of Iron Link Arms at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. The group will host an open competition on Saturday Nov. 18. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

With no open tables during arm wrestling practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., Andrew Laferriere, of St. Johnsbury, left, and Matt Bush, of Littleton, right, grip hands in a static hold on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Iron Link Arms will host an open, double elimination competition on Saturday Nov. 18.

With no open tables during arm wrestling practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., Andrew Laferriere, of St. Johnsbury, left, and Matt Bush, of Littleton, right, grip hands in a static hold on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Iron Link Arms will host an open, double elimination competition on Saturday Nov. 18. "It's a pretty fine-tuned sport," said Bush, who has been learning with the group since May. "It's almost a martial art." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Andrew Laferriere, of St. Johnsbury, right, resists the pull of both arms of Orford resident Larry Hanley's arms during an Iron Link Arms training session at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. The technique isolates the arm with maximum power to help strengthen tendons and ligaments without taxing the hand and wrist. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Andrew Laferriere, of St. Johnsbury, right, resists the pull of both arms of Orford resident Larry Hanley's arms during an Iron Link Arms training session at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. The technique isolates the arm with maximum power to help strengthen tendons and ligaments without taxing the hand and wrist. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Max Holt, 20, of West Barnet, left, talks with Michael Farrance, of Lower Waterford, right, about strengthening and recovery in his forearm during Iron Link Arms practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Farrance is new to the sport and learning how to prepare his arms for its stresses.

Max Holt, 20, of West Barnet, left, talks with Michael Farrance, of Lower Waterford, right, about strengthening and recovery in his forearm during Iron Link Arms practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Farrance is new to the sport and learning how to prepare his arms for its stresses. "There's a lot of teamwork involved when it comes to recovery," said Larry Hanley, of Orford, who has taken on a coaching role withing the group. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Todd Holt, of West Barnet, Vt., middle, puts Kaleb Johnson, 15, of Lisbon, left, N.H., and Wyatt Cassidy, 14, of Pike, N.H., into a grip for a training match during arm wrestling practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Holt, a physical therapist and weight lifter, started training in the sport with a small group at his physical therapy practice, which became Iron Link Arms when the room became too small for the growing number of participants. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Todd Holt, of West Barnet, Vt., middle, puts Kaleb Johnson, 15, of Lisbon, left, N.H., and Wyatt Cassidy, 14, of Pike, N.H., into a grip for a training match during arm wrestling practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Holt, a physical therapist and weight lifter, started training in the sport with a small group at his physical therapy practice, which became Iron Link Arms when the room became too small for the growing number of participants. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris Couch, of East Corinth, uses a resistance band during a workout with the Iron Link Arms arm wrestling club as Cephas, the dog of Running Water Recreation owner Michael Morrissette, watches in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris Couch, of East Corinth, uses a resistance band during a workout with the Iron Link Arms arm wrestling club as Cephas, the dog of Running Water Recreation owner Michael Morrissette, watches in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Ethan Sherratt, of Lyndonville, right, braces against the table while pulling with Mike Benson, of Piermont, left, during an Iron Link Arms practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Ethan Sherratt, of Lyndonville, right, braces against the table while pulling with Mike Benson, of Piermont, left, during an Iron Link Arms practice at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-13-2023 3:04 AM

BRADFORD, Vt. — Mike Benson and Andrew Laferriere approached opposite sides of a high-top table, positioned their elbows in their preferred places on foam pads and gripped hands.

Rock music played in the overhead speakers at Running Water Recreation in Bradford, Vt., where Benson, Laferriere and other members of Iron Link Arms meet to practice.

Four arm wrestling tables were spread out in the bright space and the arm wrestlers — referred to as pullers — gathered around them, many wearing Iron Link Arms shirts.

Those who weren’t engaged in a match used resistance bands or gathered to talk about their training methods and other techniques.

After positioning themselves, Benson and Andrew Laferriere started their match.

As they pulled back and forth, the two talked about different techniques.

“You have to have a plan,” Benson, 30, said to Laferriere, who concurred. After a few minutes, they stopped their struggle and shook hands before welcoming new competitors to the table.

It was a Friday night at Running Water Recreation, where the members of Iron Link Arms gather each week to work on skills.

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Started about six months ago, the arm wrestling group has grown to include more than a dozen members, with a new competitor showing up nearly every week.

On Saturday, Iron Link Arms is scheduled to host its first tournament at Running Water Recreation. The tournament is open to the public and includes multiple weight classes and divisions for men and women.

There is a stereotype that exists about arm wrestling that’s played out in pop culture: Two inebriated men (most of the time they’re men and most of the time they’re inebriated) get into a heated discussion in a bar (its usually a bar). They decide to settle their differences with an arm wrestling match. The men compete, showcasing exaggerated facial expressions and displays of strength. A victor emerges and the loser slinks off.

It is a scene that makes the dedicated athletes of Iron Link Arms cringe.

“Everything you see on TV is probably the most dangerous way you can do it,” said Laferriere, of St. Johnsbury, Vt.

Arm wrestling is not simply about brute strength, though raw power is important. There is plenty of game planning and technique as well, with numerous Iron Link Arms members comparing it to chess.

“You have different ways to victory and they all counter each other,” Laferriere said. “It’s like investing all of yourself into 10 seconds. I love the strategy. I think all of us do.”

Now 35, he has been arm wrestling since he was 8 years old. He tried to start a club in St. Johnsbury, but couldn’t find enough people who were interested. Instead, he started making the drive south to practice in Bradford.

The group’s beginning

Before there was Iron Link Arms, there was Benson, who lives in Piermont, and Chris Couch and Todd Holt. Couch, of East Corinth, had stumbled across professional arm wrestling on YouTube and was intrigued.

“I guess I caught the bug,” he said. “I didn’t just want to stand by and spectate. I wanted to be part of it.”

Couch, 38, was training on his own when he mentioned his new hobby to Holt.

“Slowly, I convinced Todd to get into it too,” he said. “I was surprised how much was involved.”

The duo started arm wrestling around two years ago in an upstairs room at Holt’s physical therapy practice, along with Holt’s son, Max, 20. Then, they connected with Benson and the group started to gain more members. Couch, Holt and Benson, who are all weightlifters, were looking for a new challenge.

“You get to a point in lifting and you reach a plateau,” said Holt, 48, of West Barnet, Vt.

Couch said egos and bragging can be common around the weight racks, and it wasn’t always an environment he enjoyed. So far, he hasn’t encountered those dynamics in the arm wrestling community.

“It’s refreshing to have it not be like that at all,” he said.

As time went on, the group grew.

Larry Hanley connected with Benson through an arm wrestling app called Arm Bet, which links arm wrestlers in the same geographic area.

Hanley, 37, who grew up in Burlington and now lives in Orford, started arm wrestling as a sophomore in high school when he noticed a group of classmates arm wrestling in the cafeteria. He also was partly inspired by 1987’s “Over the Top” starring Sylvester Stallone, a film he watched with relatives. As a youth, Hanley was part of a group in Middlebury, Vt. It’s something that he’s dropped and picked back up over the years as he’s moved around. After landing in Orford, he started to search for fellow arm wrestlers.

“The open door hospitality culture is really amazing,” Hanley said. “It’s one giant community.”

The size the of group and members’ dedication came as a surprise to Holt and Couch.

“We didn’t expect this,” Holt said.

“I knew there were other enthusiasts out there,” Couch added. “I just didn’t think they were all local.”

After the group outgrew their space at Holt’s office, Iron Link Arms members approached Running Water Recreation owners Mike and Kelly Morrissette about holding practice there.

Admittedly, the couple was a little skeptical at first. Mike Morrissette was also familiar with barroom brawler stereotype. After talking with Hanley, his perspective changed.

“I like his attitude,” Morissette said while watching the group practice one Friday night in October.

Morrisette said he has noticed how the members put effort into “learning each other’s strengths, helping with their weaknesses so everyone gets better together.”

He’s seen firsthand how the more experienced members work with novices to “learn correctly so no one gets hurt.” He confirmed how welcoming Iron Link Arms members were to new participants.

“It wasn’t about ego,” Morrissette said.

Training and techniques

To put it simply, arm wrestling styles are a numerous given a seemingly a simple contest to pin an opponent’s hand.

There’s the top roll, the low hand top roll, the high hook, the low hook, the defensive drag hook, the triceps press, the shoulder press and the flop wrist press, among other techniques.

The most dedicated pullers try to learn them all. In competition, pullers must be prepared for dozens of potential combinations.

“Every single one of these has an offense, defense and a counter,” said Hanley, who has taken on a coaching role within the group. “We work on all those things.”

There are nuances, such as how pullers can better angle their bodies for leverage, that would be lost on most observers. Practice matches often ended with a conversation between opponents about how the victor had gotten the upper hand.

“We all communicate,” Hanley said. “You’re really trying to broaden the range of your arsenal.”

As soon as two opponents grip hands, they’re immediately trying to figure out their strategy and technique.

“It only takes a fraction of an inch to pull someone out of their (grip),” Hanley said.

That’s where the different grips come in. Pullers often make changes to try to throw off a challenger.

“Some people are very good at disguising what they do as well,” Hanley said.

Members often stop a practice match to point out poor technique, particularly unsafe arm twisting which could lead to broken arms.

“Bones don’t twist,” Benson said, repeating a common safety refrain for beginners. “We teach them: Don’t put yourself in that position.”

Dedicated pullers train daily, including light weightlifting, other resistance exercises and stretching. One of the goals is to improve blood flow and circulation in tendons and ligaments, in addition to building strength.

“You’re trying to make your tendons steel cables from the tip of your fingers to your shoulders,” Hanley said.

Among the most promising rookies is Kaleb Johnson, of Lisbon, N.H. The 15-year-old got interested in arm wrestling after he watched online videos and overheard Holt talk about it at the gym.

“I love being strong,” he said. “You get addicted to it. Once you see yourself getting stronger, you just want more.”

Kaleb has placed in every tournament he’s attended, including first place in his age class and top four finishes in adult weight classes.

“I was so surprised,” he said.

He is one of handful of teenagers who are part of Iron Link Arms.

While men are currently the only members, Hanley and others stressed that the sport is open to women as well.

Age also doesn’t matter, Laferriere said, recalling competitors who were in their 80s.

The members of Iron Link Arms are planning for continued growth and to host more competitions. But beyond all, they’re grateful that they found each other.

“It really turns a lot of stereotypes on its head,” Laferriere said. “Before we compete, we build each other up. There are no losers in this sport because every week you get stronger.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.