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Bend It Like Big Hands

Once a turn-of-the-century strongman feat, a new generation of men is discovering the power — and pleasure — of greater grip strength.

On first turn, short steel bending doesn’t seem all that exciting. Or that difficult. Folding a spike of cold-rolled metal, about the diameter and length of a pencil, into a horseshoe doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment. But something happens when metallurgists mix manganese, sulfur, oxygen phosphorus, and silicon in an arc furnace and cool the molten rods. Steel emerges tough as the hell it came from. 

Metal resists. Mettle persists.

First comes the “kink,” or initial bend, from straight line to obtuse angle. The bender grasps the bar by its suede-wrapped extremes. Tendons strain. The dimple between the radial and carpal tendons deepens. The chest lights up. Then there’s the “sweep”: The fold accelerates, deepens into a right angle as abdominals pull the glutes toward the navel. Shoulders, triceps, and quadriceps strain. Jaw muscles bare down. Finally, the crush. The metal is reoriented for a final smush. The two sides come together reluctant. Knuckles and palms ache. The trapezius rears up like a charley horse. 

Only 30 or 40 seconds after it started, it’s over. This rod is now an arrow. The musculoskeletal system. What seemed unimpressive and simple suddenly demands reconsideration. There’s nuance there and something else, a specific kind of challenge that invites repetition. 

There’s an echo after, blood rushing to all the spot it’s left. Three questions follow: Can I do it better? Can I do it faster? Can I do it again?

To call short steel bending a craze would be to overstate a point. But all trends are cyclical and strongman feats like folding a 60-penny nail – six inches long, a quarter-inch thick – got antique without getting old. 

Matt Armiger, owner of The Short Steel Bending Company, which now markets and sells kits, was flipping through archival footage during the pandemic when he found images of 19th- and early-20th-century strongmen bending metal bars around their necks, knees, and even in their teeth. He was bored. Ready to  drop his 45-pound kettlebell off a cliff. He did what you do. He googled. He learned something: “Short steel bending makes you really, really strong.” He found IronMind and the Bag of Nails

“It was kind of like the first guy to invent the dumbbell,” he says. “There was nothing in between, so the jumps were impossible.” Some practitioners advised him on which nails to buy from Lowe’s or Home Depot to fill the gaps, but there had to be a better way. And so he decided to do it himself. 

”It was in the middle of COVID,” he says, “and I needed something to do with all that cash.”

Armiger sourced cold-rolled steel in set diameters and lengths based on calculated tables available online. Fabricated to bend, rather than break, they progressed in 20- or 30-pound increments, the same way most free weights would, starting at 100 pounds and topping out at 1,100 pounds of resistance. He ended up with his own kit that built upon what IronMind had created, and made it easier to progress. 

He bulked up. His hands felt different.

Steel bending strengthens the grip, building forearm muscles, wrists, and palms, while secondarily recruiting the pectorals, the back, triceps, and many other far-flung muscles. Because a strong grip is a prerequisite for power lifting, gym rats know this. But novice squatters sometimes don’t.

“It doesn’t matter how strong your legs and back are,” IronMind founder Randall Strossen, 71, says. “Lifts go up immediately if your crushing grip improves.”

As a lifelong advocate for grip strength, as well as the inventor of the legendary Captains of Crush Grippers, Strossen says that focusing on building grip strength also helps injury-proof the body. 

“Most of the stuff that people do in the gym and out in the world is flexor-related,” he explains. “If that’s all you do all day long, that’s how you end up with elbow problems: golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, little league elbow. Pre-habbing through grip training, helps lifters avoid injuries in the elbow that would set back training.”

So it’s not just compelling as an activity. Short steel bending is practical. And then there’s the other thing. The thing everyone who does it seems to say.

“It gives you a freaky confidence.” 

Brian Stines, a 45-year-old medical worker in Logansport, Indiana, stumbled onto short steel bending in the summer of 2021, and he echoes Amiger. “You just look at things,” Stines says, “and know you’re going to be able to pick it up, no problem.”

Stines has since lost count of the number of bars he’s bent. He sits down twice a week, bending between five and 10, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. “I know I’ve recycled 120 pounds. That’s the best I can do,” he says, laughing. 

What started as an off-the-beaten-path workout to accompany kettlebells and other traditional lifts has become more. 

“It’s an addiction or obsession or whatever,” he adds. “You always want that next bar. After two, three days, it’s almost like an itch. It doesn’t go away until you do it again.”

How to Start Steel Bending 

Beginners to steel bending should set down the metal rods and start with a warm-up using conventional gym equipment. Stines uses kettlebells, but any number of exercises with grip-activating equipment will suffice.


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These basic coated kettlebells come in weight sizes starting at five pounds all the way up to 50 pounds. They have a flat base for stable storage and the wide, smooth handles are easy to grip.


These basic neoprene weights from Amazon are also a safe bet for warming up your hands and grip strength before steel bending. This set comes with three small weights and a storage tree for keeping them organized.

Form, as with any other movement, is critical, and Amiger and others provide resources that lay out a variety of methods, depending on what feels best for you. 

Bend thinner, easier bars first, working up to thicker bars in the same way you would with a powerlifting routine.

Steel Bending Kit and Guide
A Short Steel Bending


This kit has everything one needs to start steel bending — including six sets of three steel bars ranging in resistance from 100 to 220 pounds. It also comes with protective cordura hand wraps and suede wraps, and a chalk ball for adequate grip as well.

Gym Bag and Nails
IronMind Store


As previously described, this Bag of Nails kit is for a more advanced tier of steel benders, with 103 different steel bars in total, 25 of each level 1-4 and three “Red” nails for those who can nudge a semi-truck out of a ditch. The kit also comes with a bending pad and instructions for those who prefer to play by the rules no matter the activity.

But then again, the beauty of short steel bending is that you don’t have to take it so seriously. 

For every CrossFit stud and powerlifting juggernaut bending bars to increase performance, there’s at least one everyday guy sitting down in his home or garage, doing it out of enjoyment and few other ulterior motives. It’s a perfect example of anti-gym culture: no earbuds or athleisure, traffic congestion, mirrors, or fluorescent lights.

“Some guys, they’ll have a few brews, pull out some steel, and just go to town,” Amiger says. “It’s a solitary 30 minutes to an hour, blasting music, having fun, and then they’re done.” 

Instead of proving anything to others, it’s an addictive self-experiment in brawn, eternally re-commenced with each fresh grasp of burnished alloy.