Debbie Banaian - Arm Wrestling Champion

Author: Jonathan. L - Owner, Models Observer
September 2015

1. Debbie, how are you? Thank you for joining me.

Jonathan, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to have the opportunities afforded me by arm wrestling. Thank you for this privilege.

2. When did you compete in arm wrestling for the first time? Do you remember what tournament it was?

My first tournament was in Portland, Maine at the end of 2011. I remember it clearly. I was so incredibly excited to actually have found a tournament. It was only about a month before that I tripped over something that clued me in to this hidden world. I had no idea what to expect, but without knowing it, had jumped in and there was no turning back.

3. How was your mindset at that time and how would you say it has evolved up to today?

Great question! I remember the day like it was yesterday. I walked in without much thought about strategy because I knew nothing about arm wrestling. I had previously broken several world records in power lifting and I knew I was strong. I'd always known I was strong but I spent most of my years trying to hide it. I also remember being preoccupied with grading that I had to do before I returned to work the next day, so while I waited for my turn, I didn't even watch much of what was going on. I graded papers. I do remember the energy in the room, it was crazy. It still keeps me coming back. I didn't even realize there were “ways” to arm wrestle. I didn't know the rules, or that there were rules until the refs gave their opening speech. Then that was it. I take things at face value. I went back to grading and couldn't wait for my turn. Immediately after that tournament I knew I'd do another as soon as I could. My next tournament was in NH. I think it was the first Ronny Bean Memorial Tournament. It was there that I met people who actually practiced right in my home town.

From then, everything changed and progressively got more serious. However, I really didn't consider being a “great arm wrestler.” There were two pivotal tournaments for me. The first was the NYC Apple Grapple. Unannounced to me, my class had been moved up with the heavy weights and the first I heard of it was when they called me to arm wrestle with Joyce Boone. JOYCE BOONE! It was an awesome match but I lost. Notice I said, I lost. Joyce is an amazing arm wrestler but she didn't win that match as much as I lost it. Back to back I then arm wrestled Anna Kenah. Anna is another crazy powerhouse and I was so desperate to just get out of the match that I never really considered I could win the match until after the tournament was over. It was only then that I asked both of the ladies if I could arm wrestle with them again. I beat Joyce and had a great match with Anna. This was when I realized I needed to have confidence and no matter the person connected to the arm, I had to only worry about the arm. Then came UAL9 in Canada. I remember sitting down after arm wrestling with Chris the Brazilian thinking damn I have to win my next match just so I can match up with her again. Here was a global figure in women arm wrestling and I thought I actually had a chance with her. I felt like if I had more hand control... This was the beginning to my improving. Until then, I hadn't even begun, really. Workouts and practices got serious.

Deb Banaian and Valerie Beach UAL10 Left finals.

4. How do you build and maintain your overwhelming strength? Could you share your Biceps, Triceps, and Forearms training routine?

Again, I come from a power lifting background. So until sometime after Canada that was all that I knew and did. I am very competitive even with myself so every single workout I would go for a new personal record be it bench, deadlift, or # of chin ups. I really struggled and still struggle with finding balance with arm wrestling practice and workouts. What I mean is I find that my workouts hinder my being able to practice fully, and vice versa. I don't know that there is a good or perfect way to balance it. Weirdly I think that all arm wrestler's arms will always be sore most of the time. So I TRY to listen to my body. When I'm too sore to do arms, I fall back on doing chest and back. It isn't so much for my arm wrestling as much as I just love to do them. Ideally I'd love to do arms three times a week and presently am just doing a workout I found on the internet @

I want to be clear that I am not advocating what I do is the right routine for anyone else. I am simply sharing what I do. On days that I do back, it might include 3 sets of 10 – 15 chin ups (assorted grips), Deadlifts (5 or 6 sets pyramiding to a personal record), rows (either low rows on a cable machine or a flat back, dumb bell row), Lat pull downs or standing lat push downs. Typically I'd do 3 – 4 sets of each working my way from 10 to 6 reps, weight progressively heavier. For chest, even though most arm wrestlers think it's crazy, I start with flat bench, mostly because I love to flat bench. I typically start with the bar, jump to 95 for 10 – 12, and then progress with too many sets until my reps are minimal and weight is ridiculous, to a personal record with one or two reps. I pyramid the weight. I would typically do incline bench for 4 sets of a moderate pyramid of weight but keeping the reps to at least 8 – 12. I would then do either a dumb bell fly or a cable fly. I really like to do a standing cable fly but sometimes mix it up and do them on the ball, again I typically do 3 to 4 sets of pyramid weight to about 8 – 12 reps. And that's it in a nut shell. I try to find a time to throw in farmer walks for grip and traps, and I use a gripper during the week, in the car, on the way to and from work. I stretch LOTS. My children and husband laugh at me because sometimes I stretch longer than I work out.

5. What is your nutrition plan?

My WHAT plan? Seriously, I'm the last person to take nutritional advice from. I typically am a sugar-holic and eat a lunch consisting of double stuffs and salty chips, and wash it down with diet coke. Although in the last 4 – 6 months I've trained harder than ever and have changed to high protein to gain muscle. Now I'm scrambling to cut my weight before worlds and will probably be cutting right up until the minute I step on the scale. I have cut out any alcohol which has never been much anyways, and have stopped any sweets. Thank God it isn't for a long period of time.

6. Who do you feel are your toughest opponents?

Honestly, every time I get up to the table I assume that opponent is my toughest. One of my greatest lessons was realizing I could beat the person I thought I couldn't and those that I was sure I could beat, have flashed me and taken me down. So I try to go to the table and be ready for anything. As for specific competitors, I think that in addition to her raw strength, obvious by her sculpted upper torso, Sue Fischer is probably the smartest, kinestetically aware female arm wrestler in the U.S. Of course in speaking of raw strength I have to include Christy Resendes. As well, I would be remiss not to remark on the lethal hit of Valerie Beach, it's crazy-powerful and fast.

7. How would you describe the match with Christy Resendes at the USAA Nationals? She is strong as hell! You really sweated blood there, didn't you?

Christy is strong, indeed. I've competed against her two other times. At the Rhode Island State I beat her in both matches. At the Mass qualifier, I competed injured and pulled out after my first match, with Christy. She flashed me like a light switch. I definitely better be on my game if I intend to be competitive with Christy. She not only has the advantage of weight, she has a LOT of arm. Both matches were very similar, she gained the advantage from the hit. Once I was able to lock her in, I knew I could hold her all day and that she would wear herself out trying to break the lock. I waited her out and each time was able to slowly gain the advantage until she had to break. Fortunately for me, she is strongest on the winning side. On our first match we ended up in straps after she elbowed, and that actually was a little easier than not being in straps.

2015 USAA Left Open Lightweight Debbie Banaian & Heavyweight Christy Resendes.

8. What do you think about the study "Women in Wrestling: Stereotypes, Gender Bias and Inequality"

I think the study has some merit. However, I don't think that looking at WWE is fair or comparable because its very premise is the background story. The background story of two men fighting for his woman has dominated all forums, because it is all too real. If anything I think the WWE example only weakens a very serious argument much better served by using examples from serious strength sports. As for arm wrestling, inarguably there is a vast inequality between the men and women in the sport but I believe we are making headway. I think that we women have to expect equality to every other athlete. We need to support tournaments where promoters offer more classes, and make an effort to offer women similar prizes as men. I always point toward Rhonda Rousey and Danica Patrick. Both of these females are paving the way for all others. They are serious athletes who demand their talent be spotlighted and paid for equally. They are proof that women can draw at least as good or better ratings than their male counterparts.

9. Tell me a little about the structure of Womens Armwrestling Workshops that you are offering. How long are they, what do attendees learn, and what do they walk away with at the end of the day?

I am so glad you asked because this year I founded Female Arm Wrestlers United and have been supported immensely by right hand woman, Kelly Jean Scanlon. It is a face book page open to all. The intention is to bring more women into the sport and to hopefully create a level playing field for all women. Unfortunately in the past, the only place that one might hear about a tournament or arm wrestling event would be on an arm wrestling forum. If you don't know that such a competitive sport exist there would be no reason to be on that forum. The goal of these 2 hour, Free workshops is: a) to bring the sport to the mainstream by providing access and resources. b) teach women how to prevent injuries when arm wrestling competitively or practice; c) teach the basic stance, grip, and hit; and d) to give women resources to continue the journey should they choose to (help them find a place to practice, forums, exercises to assist, etc.) Hopefully one of these women will decide to also grow the sport and begin workshops. The workshop agenda is available on the Female Arm Wrestlers United page for anyone wishing or considering growing the sport in their area.

10. What is the most requested topic you get asked to talk about?

Most often people want to know how I got started. Honestly, this was supposed to be just a resume builder for the CBS reality show SURVIVOR. I have spent the last 15 years, applying and flying all over the country auditioning 49 times to get on the show. About 10 or so years into it, I decided I was getting to an age where I really couldn't compete with the appearance of the 20 year olds. I had to offer something more. I tried demonstrating my gymnastic skills, sky diving, scuba diving, trapezing, climbing all 48, 4000 footers in NH and I was stumped. For the first time I decided to embrace my strength. Prior to this time, I was embarrassed that my muscular development was weirdly more obvious than it was on other women. I already knew I could lift a LOT of weight without doing much training, so I decided to see what training would bring. In a matter of months I broke my first RAW World record. After a couple more competitions I broke three world records but nobody at CBS was impressed, and I still didn't get on SURVIVOR. Don't get me wrong, I was close many times. I have received many calls from Survivor recruiters but at the end, I didn't cut the mustard. Somehow, I tripped over arm wrestling and decided to see if I could find local events. At my first event I took second place to Ashley Mason in Maine. I then won the Connecticut States, and then the Reggie Ward Annual Championships. After about 18 months (June 2012) I won my first Nationals in Hartford where I beat Valerie Beach for the first time and not again until May 2015. I still try out for SURVIVOR, but I've learned a lot about my self. I would be sad if I never got the chance to prove that I am the greatest SURVIVOR of all times, but I realize there are things I can control and things I cannot. I know I can't ever get on if I quit trying so I won't ever quit, but while obsessed about getting on I lost direction in so many other areas. Since arm wrestling I've rediscovered a balance. From Feb until June, I was fortunate enough to be granted a sabbatical and I finally completed my Masters degree. It allowed me to spend more time studying, working out, and exploring life, including taking advantage of opportunities presented. In just over 2 weeks, I'm heading to the 2015 Malaysia World Arm Wrestling Championships. My focus is to take one match at a time and know someone has to win that match, why not me?

11. How often do you defeat men?

Haha this is the second most asked question. It's kind of funny to me when one of my students, and funnier when an adult asks if I can beat one of the male teachers in the building. There is an anatomical difference in muscle mass between men and women. Although I may be weirdly more developed then other women, I do not have male muscle. So yes I sometimes can beat men but that is usually if they don't know anything about arm wrestling. When new guys start arm wrestling I may have a chance with them for a few weeks, a month, maybe a little longer but unless he has less than average muscular development, it's not likely that I'll continue to beat him once he has leveled out the playing field in hand manipulation. However, if a student wishes to, and signs up, I do arm wrestle my male and female students when they have earned free time at the end of the class. If you can remember, it is usually the summer after 8th grade that boys begin to develop more masculine muscle mass. They do however have the weight advantage even in 8th grade. However, yes, I have a long list spanning 11 plus years of the 8th grade boys and girls that I have beat. There is however, at least one above average muscular boy that will keep arm wrestling right then left, working out like a mad man the months between, until he is victorious in a match. My other students LOVE to find those on the list. Although I've yet been beat both right and left by any student, male or female. Last, I did beat several men at the pool in Vegas this past summer while out there for USAA Nationals.

12. How would you compare the two venues in which you teach: Science and Arm Wrestling?

That's easy. For me, teaching something I love just happens whether I plan it or not. The hardest part about teaching either subject is getting willing learners. I'd say there are two things that have to happen for a learner to learn. They have to believe they can learn the subject matter, and they have to see value in learning the subject matter. Once a student believes in themselves and finds value in the material, they are hooked! Your only job is to keep the info flowing. Keep every student engaged in the learning. An instructor never want to have them cooling off. That's sometimes difficult in both situations so I would plan on having several stations that people can learn at when they are not working with the instructor directly. If individual instruction is needed, plan on the others being able to learn on their own. In arm wrestling this might mean having clear directions about what they can be working on (i.e. working with a partner on stance lunges and arm position in winning and losing position, or hitting with a resistance band, trying out hand grippers, or a motion ball, identifying good and bad positions in videos, etc.) In Science class, it may be a flipped video lesson on the computer, a self paced lab, or working on vocabulary with flash cards and a partner.) In addition, I try to find future teachers in either situation. If we want to educate and grow the # of women in arm-wrestling we need more teachers. I try to find newbies who are excited about the sport to also attend my workshops. They get a little more information then they might at a practice where everyone else has been doing it for a while, yet they will be able to catch on quicker and then be an extra set of hands for the newest members. I do the same thing when teaching Science. Those who have caught on quicker, learn better when they have to be able to explain it to others. It frees me up to give someone my attention, and it allows my students to take ownership of their learning.

13. What does your family think of your arm wrestling, power lifting, or other strength sport endeavors?

They have always been supportive for my crazy adventures as if holding me back might prove impossible anyways. Lately however, their support is different. It use to be supportive as in if you have to do that then fine, it has changed to a source of pride. It's gone from this crazy thing I do to this thing their mom or wife is REALLY good. They are no longer embarrassed by it. It use to hurt me because I knew it was embarrassing to them but then I remembered that it was embarrassing to me too. When my kids were younger they use to ask me how I could ever become a grammy because I don't knit and typically do the things a grammy does. I would respond that I'd take my grandchildren out for treats, hike, teach them gymnastics, and explore the world. I think they're coming to accept the value of differences. Both of my daughters, and husband, Holly, Hannah, and Dean helped me pull off an incredible tournament on August 1st. My daughters have both played curiously, a little bit on the table. Although I don't think either really believe they could be competitive, I know they could. My husband has gone from the side lines to competitor. He joined rank and started competing about 8 months ago. My entire family including my in-laws have embraced my passion and celebrated my wins. They share my excitement about the upcoming journey to Worlds.

14. What are your hobbies and interests outside of the sport?

In August I took a motorcycle course with my youngest daughter. Since we have both bought bikes. I am loving the ride. I love to hike the beautiful mountains of New England. I NEED the sun and appreciate the ocean's serenity. Although it has been too long, I enjoy writing and hearing poetry. Although I'd rather not workout if I'm not competing, I do love to bench press and dead lift.

15. Future plans?

I typically conquer and move on, see no need for longevity once the victor. I don't know how I'll feel after Worlds but right now I plan on arm wrestling until my body won't let me anymore. Outside of arm wrestling I've a few things left on my bucket list:
• I want to hike the Appalachian Trail before 60
• I want to write a book about my childhood but more-so about the miracles of children without a chance in Hell. “A Rocky Beginning”
• I would love to find or identify my biological father.
• I'd like to help level the playing field for women arm wrestlers, bringing equality to the sport.

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Debbie Banaian

Debbie Banaian