Nail or spike bending is a true test of strength. You could bench press or squat a ton, and everyone will Monday morning quarter back your form, accuse you of heaving, cheating, not going low enough, using too much gear, using steroids, whatever. With a spike – the proof is right there. You bent it. End of conversation.
Every PR leaves a trophy. It is a truly manly activity, and it is in danger of being a lost art in today’s namby-pamby metrosexual American fitness scene. Rest assured there is nothing soft, weak or manicured about destroying steel. My goal is to stop the madness, and restore this destructive science to its proper place in strength and conditioning. Perhaps you believe this is too hardcore for you, the weekend warrior who just wants to be healthy? I hope after reading this you will see there is a place in the bending world for you.
Short bending is one of the greatest ways to build true power and endurance in the lower arms, but its effects are not just experienced in the arms. You will build your chest, shoulders, lats, traps and abs while bending. You will benefit across the whole spectrum from muscle hypertrophy to power to endurance. I will discuss this in detail.
First benefit is to your neural strength: Steel bending is an exceptional way to build your single unit application of tension. What I mean is this – you have to tense and load every muscle in your body, take out all “leakages”, brace everything together and direct it through you hands with a sniper’s precise angle. If you get sloppy punching on the nails ends, you will hurt yourself. You could possibly punch yourself in the face, roll your hands out of the groove, stab yourself, or any other combination of less desirable outcomes. This activity will turn your wrist to stone. Your ability to direct power will be significantly increased. This will directly carry over to any other strength-skill you currently have. The way I load up to bend a Huge Stainless Steel Bastard is exactly the same feeling as when I load up to pull a max dead, to press a 48kg bell, or to slam an axe through a log. It adds a critical power appliance to your “strength skill tool box“.
This increase in strength and power naturally will carry over to an increase in your endurance. Anyone who has bent a nail will tell you the first time they bent it was so tiring. I have watched people sweat bullets bending their first respectable nail. As time goes on you gain huge reserves of power. A personal testament to this level of power for me was October 2007 when I bent 150 60D nails in one hour using the double under (DU) grip. That represented a massive improvement from Jan 2007, when bending 10-15 nails left my hands extremely fatigued.
Let’s talk about the muscle growth. Bending is a high tension exercise. Forcing a steel bar to yield requires hundreds of pounds of force, applied for several seconds. A big bend often will take much longer than it would take for a dead lift or squat. Your muscle fibers will get much denser. If you have ever met some one who does a lot of bending, you can not help to notice the density of the forearms, chest, arms and back.
Steel bending builds real confidence. You are doing what should not be done. When you trash a piece that takes hundreds of pounds of force to bend, you can not help to feel good about the achievement. I promise you will tackle your other hobbies, sports and challenges with greater confidence and determination after going all out on a steel bar. Bending can become a powerful implement to develop an individual’s mental toughness and pain tolerance. I have witnessed this effect on people from both steel bending and kettlebell lifting.
What does it take to be a good bender?
Equipment: You must have proper hand pads. Use leather, suede, Cordura, or high strength Nylon. The key features of a hand pad are protection for the palms from a puncture injury and to spread the load from the pressure of the bend. Failure to use a durable, puncture resistant material will result in injury. Make sure the wrap is not too stiff, or it will act as a pipe and extend the leverage to the point where the bend requires minimal strength (bypassing the benefits of bending). I often am asked this question, so I will throw it out now: No, do not use denim wraps for anything other than occasional bending. For serious workouts or maximum bends you must use proper materials. Denim will work temporarily, but once it is punctured it will fail and you will sustain a serious, possibly permanent injury. I highly recommend having some chalk with you to put inside the wrap and on your hands before bending. It will add friction to decrease slippage and absorb any sweat on the wraps.
Bending Technique: There are three primary styles and about 5 secondary styles commonly used for un-braced bending. The primary styles are double overhand (DO), double underhand (DU) and reverse grip (Rv). Learn all three, find out what one works best for your structure. Failure to use solid technique will result in potential serious injury. I will cover each of the three styles in great detail in a future article.
Strength: Set yourself up for success and use the correct assistance drills. First you need to squat or dead lift. You need to use a big lift which stimulates every muscle in your body. You need to condition your connective tissues and build your wrist. Leveraging drills are of key importance. To some people’s surprise, crush grip drills are not of primary benefit. I also recommend some heavy duty abdominal work, and power breathing drills to strengthen the diaphragm.
Focus: If you can not concentrate on the task at hand, then this is not for you. Bending metal demands exacting attention to detail. There is a place you must go in your mind to tackle big steel. Find it and move in for the winter.
Time: Don’t rush. No need to. Bending requires tendons and connective tissue to toughen up. This is not an overnight process. I would not expect you to pick up a 48kg kettle bell and press it over head if you have never seen one, and just the same you must not push too far too fast. I recommend you spend three months preparing to bend before you ever pick up a piece of steel. Grip Sport Champion Jedd Johnson of the Diesel Crew has a first class bending Ebook that lays out a 12 week program that will take you from raw beginner to crushing steel the right way, the safe way.
“Are there disadvantages to steel bending?“
“I think that looks dangerous!“
Yes and yes. Steel bending is not a one stop shop for fitness. It does nothing for your cardio, it is not a high calorie burning activity and I doubt it contributes to something like fat loss. For grip it does help with the support grip, but adds little for your pinch grip or your crush grip. If you want to specialize in the bench press or over head lifts, it will affect your ability to recover from heavy press days and could increase over training.
As far as the danger – it is an inherently dangerous activity, but so is everything else in life. Even with all protective measures in place, and smart progression, you will suffer some level of injury. I get small cuts and scratches all the time. I chalk it up to the “Stuff happens” arena. A prior shoulder injury or chest injury could disqualify someone from bending double over hand and double underhand. If you have high blood pressure or heart conditions you should stay away until cleared by a medical professional. As in all fitness endeavors, seek your doctor’s approval before beginning a steel bending program. If you develop an inflammation in any of your joints or tissues, you need to step back and take it easy for a while.
Nails, Bolts and Bars…
Oh my! Start with the right size bar. Here is a solid progression based on my experiences. Start with 6″ or 7″ 3/16 of an inch piece of steel. You can buy these at either IronMind or Fat Bastard Barbell, a hardware store in long rods, or even pick up a box of 40D (D is “penny”) nails. Once you have bent 50-100 pieces, and you get a groove going, you are ready to step forward. Cut the 7″ piece down to 6″, or the 6″ down to 5″ if you are using 40D, move up to 50D. Once you are consistent in your form, move up to 1/4″x7″ – this may take some time. IronMind sells yellow nails which are 1/4×7″; a decent mark for a part time bender. You can buy some pretty soft 60Ds which will be about this strength, or maybe even easier. From there you can go to Grade 2 1/4X6″ bolts. Gr2 are not very difficult, and not too expensive. As you get better you find harder bolts, harder steel, or cut it shorter. The best general rule of thumb is this – once you have mastered a given piece of steel you can do one of several things. 1) Cut a piece off to make it shorter. 2) Change the style you bend with from your strongest style to a lesser method. 3) get a harder piece of the same size 4) get a thicker piece of the same material.
Like the tortoise, you must take bending one step at a time.
So what is a good goal to shoot for? I will say for the average weekend warrior bender, the IronMind Blue nail is an excellent mark. At 6″x1/4 inch, it will stop most people dead in their tracks. IronMind has described the Blue as a “medium hard 60D nail” – if you can bend a blue nail you are doing alright. If you want to become a great bender, then you must conquer the 1/4×6″ grade 5, the 1/4×6″ Grade 8 and move to 5/16″ cold rolled steel. Graded bolts are very strong, bending one is no small achievement. Once you start smashing 5/16 CRS, a whole new world of strength is open. The top bender in the world Gary “Gazza” Hunt is bending 3/8 Stainless steel cut to 6″ and oil hardened drill rod in all three styles. The limits of human potential run much deeper than most people think.
- Barbell deadlifts
- Kettlebell Bottoms-up Clean and Press.
- Leveraging work with a sledge hammer
- Plate curls
- Crush downs on a heavy gripper
- Barbell shrugs
- Kettle bell snatch
- Train smart, know what and why you’re doing this.
- Stay injury free, see #1. Pain is part of the game, constant pain is something different.
- Build up slowly and steadily. You cannot always be slamming PRs. The road to long term health is made of ups and downs.
- Use the correct assistance drills. Steel bending is always #1 to bend big steel, but you need to address your known weaknesses to make the total unit strong.