How much can you lift with just your fingers, hands? She can lift two gold medals’ worth.

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Dani Schwalbe brought home two golds and two silvers in the World Armlifting Championships in Russia. | Idaho Statesman

CALDWELL – There she was, an Idahoan, standing on the podium in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was bringing home two golds and two silvers in the world championships of a sport that many of us are oblivious to: Armlifting. Or grip strength, as it is slightly better known in the United States.

The competition is deceptively simple: How much can you lift with just your grip, which is to say, your hands and fingers?

Armlifting USA brought home eight gold medals, and two of them belong to Dani Schwalbe, a physical education teacher at Canyon Springs High School in Caldwell.

“I had no expectations. I didn’t know where I stood with anyone; I’m very new to the sport,” Schwalbe said with a grin. “I hit a couple of PRs (personal records) in a couple of events; I didn’t hit a PR on a couple. So just learning. A big learning curve.”

The medals make a satisfying jangle and the kids in her classes had a good time modeling them. “It’s cool that they look up up to me, and I get to compete, and (I get to) teach them,” she said. “Getting to represent what I do as a P.E. teacher. … And I feel like it really does motivate my kids, which is fun.”

Armlifting, with its awkward name, began in Russia as a side show at arm wrestling championships and has a big following there — the World Armlifting Championships that Schwalbe competed in, for instance, were televised.

“Grip strength is definitely on the radar (in Russia),” said Nick Collias, another Idahoan on Armlifting USA. “On Instagram and social media over there, people just tag #armlifting like you would tag #bodybuilding here.”

Armlifting features a half-dozen events with exotic and confusing names:

  • Silver Bullet: A spring-loaded gripper, tightly closed against a metal cylinder (the Silver Bullet), which releases when grip fails.
  • Rolling Thunder: A one-handed deadlift with a thick handle that rolls; it’s wide enough that fingers can’t close around it.
  • Axle deadlift: A two-handed double-overhand deadlift with a 2-inch-diameter round bar.
  • Saxon bar: A two-handed pinch-grip deadlift using a 3-inch-wide rectangular bar.
  • Excalibur: A wide-diameter cylinder lifted vertically.
  • Hub: A 2 7/8-inch-diameter hub picked up in a pinch grip with fingers and thumb only. It’s meant to replicate picking up a York barbell plate by the center hub.

The sport is gaining in popularity in the U.S. and shows up in bits and pieces at strength expos and powerlifting competitions.

“It’s not because there’s something magical about grip strength,” Collias said. “But your grip strength is a great sign of how strong your body actually is.”

Grip strength has been linked in research to both quality of life and longevity in aging populations.

“How you are able to get your hands to work — that’s a great sign of circulation,” Collias said. “It’s a great sign of just a healthy neurological system, too.”

Schwalbe, who loves to compete, has a short and impressive career in strength competitions. She won the national Strongman competition in 2015 as a middleweight, placed third in the Arnold Amateur Strongman Championships, won Strongest Woman in the World in 2016 — and then got injured.

“Very short-lived,” she said. “(But) it’s nice to be able to challenge myself again without hurting my back, since the weights are so much lighter than what my back can handle.

“My (axle) deadlift is less than 50 percent of what I can actually deadlift,” she said. “Because grip is incorporated, it is still completely challenging to me, but not in a way that’s risking injury.”

Dani Schwalbe trains on the Saxon bar, a 3-inch wide rectangular bar. Armlifting competitions differ from other strength competitions in that the challenge is the strength of her pinch grip, not her arms or legs. | Idaho Statesman

And it’s something new she can teach her kids at school.

“You show them a different event, they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks kind of fun, I’ll try it,’ ” she said. “And then they get endorphins, and then they get addicted to it, and then they want to keep doing it — and then they have a passion for leading a healthy, active life. Just because they wanted to try something new.”

Collias says that powerlifters and Crossfitters can sometimes “muscle” their way into lifting weights that perhaps they shouldn’t. “In this sport (of armlifting),” he said, “if you have no business lifting something, the weight just falls out of your hands. That’s all there is to it.

“It definitely feels a bit safer — but it also feels a lot more humbling. … We weren’t pushing our limits, necessarily (in Russia). The limits were there — and you have to deal with them.”

Amy Wattles, a special education teacher at Borah High and longtime Strongman heavyweight record-holder, qualified for the Russia competition but was unable to go. She helps Schwalbe train.

Wattles is ranked No. 1 in the country in a number of grip strength events and has a half-dozen world records. Collias calls her the “Michael Jordan of women’s grip.” In 2013, she set the record for axle deadlift with 289 pounds. “It took five years for that to be broken,” she said. (It’s now 303.)

Wattles had been looking forward to seeing how she ranked among European women in competition. “I always say, I don’t know if we’re really seeing all-time numbers here or we’re seeing a really small pool of competitors,” she said. “So the bigger the pool, the more we’re going to test that theory.”

Wattles organized a couple of Treasure Valley grip strength competitions last fall to qualify competitors for Armlifting USA. Wattles, Schwalbe, Collias and Matt Griffith qualified, along with two others. Three Idahoans were among the members of Team USA.

“This is something I didn’t know existed,” said Griffith, a rock climber and personal trainer. He qualified for Russia at his first grip competition in November. “I got the invite and I thought, what the hell. I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to represent Team USA, so I’m going to take it. I’m going to go all in.”

He just missed third place in the axle deadlift. “I chose a weight that was too heavy and I missed all three attempts,” he said. “If I had gone a little lighter, I could have been on the podium with what I can lift. It was a mistake. I’m owning it.”

However, grip strength is firmly a part of his workouts. “I don’t know about competing; we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “But grip training is going to stay in my program — probably forever — because I think it’s really fun.”

Schwalbe, though, is fired up. It’s flag football season right now, so her focus is on speed and agility. But in the fall: “My plan is to build up some strength, build up some endurance and see how I do next year. Depending on how my numbers are, hopefully go to Russia.”

There are more golds to win, more records to be broken.

After a morning of grip strength training, Dani Schwalbe and her gym partners Nick Collias, center, and Matt Griffith, have a different kind of workout by pulling Schwalbe’s truck around the block. | Katherine Jones KJONES@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

INCORPORATE GRIP STRENGTH INTO YOUR WORKOUT

Tips from Matt Griffith and Nick Collias:

The idea is to challenge the way you grip or squeeze. There are several types of grip strength to train:

  • Crush grip (bringing fingers to the palms). Squeeze grippers tightly, or do pull-ups or curls holding onto a towel.
  • Pinch grip (bringing fingers to the thumb). Train by picking up a weight plate by its side, or something like a 2×4 with a square edge.
  • Support grip (fighting a weight trying to open your fingers). Add fat grips to a barbell or dumbbell, or hang from a pull-up bar.

“You can just pick one of those every time you go to a gym and use them in between other sets of exercises,” Griffith said. “It doesn’t have to be anything too formal, but you will start seeing improvements pretty quickly.”

This story was first published by the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.

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