Old school Anti-Arm Pump Exercises video with Aaron Gwin

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.

Get strong, supplement your routine with these exercises and watch as everything you do on the trail becomes easier.

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:

Plate Pinches

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.

Farmer’s Walk

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.

Check out this video to see these exercises in action, demonstrated by current world champ and former client Aaron Gwin:

I got a chance to talk with Aaron Gwin (he was a client of mine at the time) 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-

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  1. neil says:

    great video. thanks once again. It would be (will be) fabulous to have more grip / wrist strength.

    Interestingly, I had to go to Firefox to watch it on Mac, Safari and Chrome didn’t see the video at all, just left a gap in the text.

    I have a few questions, if that’s OK:-

    1: On the plate grip, I see your plates are totally flat each side, my plates have a recess in the face that the fingers tend to go into [ e.g. http://tinyurl.com/attqq8j ] – this makes them easier to grip – I guess that’s OK, bit safer maybe?

    2: Bottoms up press,
    Do you remember what KB weight Aaron is using there – looks like a 12?
    I see he keeps his elbow quite well forward on the press, but is it good to also press with the elbow arcing out more [or fully] to the side too [Military Press?] as an alternative – would that be activating the outer deltoids – I spotted a clip of Aaron looking like he was doing just that online so I wanted to ask, please?

    3: Renegade row / DB pushup,
    I hope it’s OK to do that on dumbells with loose round plates, they want to roll, unlike those rather nice “pro” hex ones you demonstrated?

    as always, thanks, neil

    Reply • January 21 at 4:20 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      1 – Those plates had lips too, I just turned the lips in so that they were facing in instead of our. Gripping this lips reduces the benefits.

      2 – The short answer is no. Don’t worry about activating particular muscles, focus on creating strong, fluid movement. The Bottoms Up Press is hard to do wrong and it is a great way to groove your optimal press pattern.

      3 – You can place one hand on a phone book or something similar and do all your reps with the other arm before switching sides.

      Hope this helps…

      Reply • January 21 at 11:01 am
  2. neil says:

    Thanks James
    great to have your comments.
    1: my plates have lips both sides, but I’ll work on it anyway.
    2: I think I am lifting quite elbow forward, so I’ll try make it look a bit more like your video, seems less stable with elbow a bit more out, which is good I guess. I’ll just use a ligher weight.
    3: good idea, thanks.
    all best
    have a good weekend

    Reply • January 24 at 4:48 pm

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