Is there anything worse than flying down a trail and having to slow down or stop because of arm pump? Your legs and lungs are fine, your bike is dialed and your skills are on point, you just can not take the burning and pain in your forearms. It seems that for a lot of riders their ability to ride faster and harder lies in not having their forearms give out first.
However, there are a lot of misconceptions and half truths when it comes to how to best address this problem. Not all grip strength is created equal and you have to be very specific about what type of “grip strength” you want to build. In a nutshell, you have wrist strength (the ability of the wrist to move against load), wrist stability (the ability of the wrist joint to resist movement) and pinch grip (the ability of the fingers and thumb to “pinch” together).
When you analyze what we need on the trail you see that pinch grip is the most important. This is where your braking comes from and your “grip”, i.e. your ability to keep the bars from getting ripped out of your hands. These two things make up the bulk of what our hands do on the trail.
Second on the list is wrist stability. This one is pretty obvious - you want to be able to take a hard hit and not have your wrists buckle.
Last on the list is wrist strength. You almost never need for your wrist joint to create movement. Instead, it is usually trying to resists movement and remain stable while your fingers pinch onto the handle bars and brake levers.
Now, let’s look at the usual cures for this problem – lots of wrist curls, wrist extensions and wrist rollers. This works on wrist strength but does little for the other two areas. I’m not saying that you should never do these types of exercises, simply pointing out that they are not as “functional” as they may seem.
Instead, you should incorporate exercises and strategies that attack your pinch grip and wrist stability needs. Here is a list of some of the things I use when specifically addressing grip strength and arm pump:
Take two of the same size weight plates, turn them so that they are facing each other and pinch them together. You can do these for time or use them as a substitute for a dumbbell on the Farmers Walk. I like to use 10 pound plates and if you can pick a pair of 25’s up off the ground the ground you’re doing pretty well.
Grab reasonably heavy dumbbell or kettle bell and walk for 100 feet. Switch hands and repeat. Try wrapping a towel around the dumbbell and grabbing the ends of the towel to increase grip demand.
Towel Chin Ups
Take a towel or old t-shirt and throw it over a chin up bar. Grab the ends and do some chin ups.
Elevated Push Ups/Plank Rows
Take a pair of dumbbells or kettle bells and get into a push up position with your hands on them. Now, do push ups. Or, bring your hands in a bit, spread your legs and alternate rowing each arm up for a plank row. Either way, keep your wrists straight and resist the temptation to let them bend.
Bottoms Up Kettle Clean and Press
This is one that you will need a kettle bell for. A bottoms up clean and press is where you “clean” a kettle bell up to the rack position but you catch it with the bottom of the kettle bell facing up. You have to really grip the handle hard and find a good balance point to keep a heavy kettle bell in this position. Once you clean it up you then press it overhead, keeping it in the Bottoms Up position.
Soft Tissue Work
One last thing to keep in mind…you may need some soft tissue work and recovery for the forearms. If the tissues of the forearm are inflamed and full of trigger points they will place extra pressure on the nerves leading into your hands. This will make arm pump much worse on the trail and no amount of exercise or riding will cure it.
I got a chance to talk with Aaron Gwin (Yeti/ Fox Racing Shox Factory Team) about arm pump when writing this article and he had some great advice as well. Aaron comes from a moto background where arm pump is also a problem so he has been dealing with it at a high level for many years now. Here are some things he mentioned that you should keep in mind:
- There is a lot more to it than simply doing some specialized “arm pump” exercises. The truth us that the stronger you are the less stress gets placed on the forearms during a ride. Having a strong upper body and a strong core is far more important than just grip strength.
- You have to ride your bike. The only real way to get used to arm pump is to ride the tough trails (the type that give you mean arm pump) on a consistent basis.
- You want to be careful with using aspirin as “supplement”. That stuff will put holes in your stomach if you take too much.
The take home message here is simple: arm pump can be addressed but you need to understand what type of grip strength you need to build and keep in mind that it is part of a bigger picture. Get strong, supplement your routine with these exercises and watch as everything you do on the trail becomes easier. Once this happens your forearms won’t be nearly as taxed and, as a result, you won’t be slowed down by arm pump.
James Wilson is the owner of MTB Strength Training Systems, the world’s only company dedicated to developing strength and conditioning programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. He has helped hundreds of mountain bikers around the world ride faster and longer and his current clients include National DH Champ Aaron Gwin and the Yeti/ Fox Racing Shox Factory Team. Riders interested in learning more about how strength training can help them have more fun on the trail can visit www.BikeJames.com.