Off the kitchen table and out of the local tavern, arm wrestling has grappled its way to the big leagues of internationally organized sports.

The American Arm Wrestling Association has 15,000 members, publishes a national newsletter appropriately titled The Armbender, and holds tournaments in all 50 states and Canada. (No tournaments have been held in D.C. to date, but the Maryland contests usually draw D.C. residents.) Each year, state champions compete for national titles in two tournaments in sit-down and stand-up divisions. The World Arm Wrestling Association, the AAWA's parent organization, has affiliations in more than 40 countries and holds annual world championships in such diverse spots as Syracuse (New York) and Calcutta.

Then there's the World Professional Arm Wrestling Association, with 10,000 members in 40 different cities in North America. In spite of its name, this organization specializes in conducting all-comer tournaments in shopping malls. Most of its members are amateurs who enjoy competing.

Maryland seems to be a particular hotbed of wrestling interest. Over the past few months the WPAA in conjunction with the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation has sponsored 50 local tournaments in taverns throughout the state. Under the motto "Lend an Arm to Cerebral Palsy," more than 600 competitors have strained their biceps in local and regional competitions that led to a state tournament.

"Arm wrestling is a sport anyone can get into," says Jerry Herson, 46, president of Herson's Honda in Rockville and the AAWA's 1981 "Man of the Year." "You don't need any special equipment or fancy coaches or a team; all you need is a good strong right arm and the desire to compete." (Lefties also compete in special left-handed competitions, but they're fewer and farther between.)

Staff Sergeant Ed Czarnecki, 30, of Andrews Air Force Base, is an ex-Maryland state champ in the 135-and-below weight class. He agrees with Herson about the sport's mass appeal. "One of the reasons I love this sport is that it's open to everybody. There's no age limit -- heck, that guy Al Turner's a national champion at 54 -- no size limits. Both men and women compete and even the handicapped can take part."

Dick Kruse, 34, a lobbyist who lives in McLean, is known as "the Tower of Power" in local arm-wrestling circles. He's 6f8i, weighs 270 pounds and has an artificial leg.

Arm wrestling can also be a family affair. Maryland's heavyweight champ, weighing in at 284, is Carl Dees, 39, of Gaithersburg. Daughter Tanya, 17, a senior at Peary High School, has already been the Maryland champion in her weight class.

So just what goes into an arm-wrestling match? Here's Tanya Dees' description of what it's like to pin another person's arm against the table:

"The first thing I try to do is get psyched to win. But actually, when they call my name, my heart starts beating really fast and I get so excited that I usually have to pace around the table to calm down a little bit," she says. "I don't want to be real calm, though, because then I won't do as good.

"Then I try to get a real firm grip; you can't let the other girl have an advantage -- our shoulders have to be square at the beginning; both people have to be even -- well, then I really try to concentrate.

"What everybody does is they try to get the jump like right at the second the referee gives the signal, I pull her in close so she's spread out. If I can get my shoulder over the top, that's even better. Then I try not to let her up for even a second and I bring her on down to the peg."

All this concentration goes into a match that seldom lasts more than 10 seconds.

Most fans who've watched an occasional arm-wrestling competition on TV probably never realize what's involved. For example, Super Bowl heroes Dexter Manley and Otis Wonsley of the Washington Redskins both attended the Super Classic Pro Football Arm Wrestling Tournament in Las Vegas last month. Even though both men have excellent upper-body strength, neither lasted very long in the competition. Manley, who can bench press 505 pounds and curl 145, simply says, "Hey listen, it was my first time and I have no experience. But it was fun."

Carl Dees, who has faced the best, understands what the Skins were up against: "Most people try to get by on just strength, but really, technique is more important. What you have to do is out-position your opponent in terms of leverage, dominating him by bending his wrist, which is then to your advantage in the pull.

"I'm still learning technique," he admits. "Heck, a smaller person can win by being faster."

Ken Lewis, 26, a Coca-Cola salesman from Baltimore, is a past national seated middleweight champion. Tall and lanky, not at all bulky, he's the quick type Dees is talking about. Here's how Lewis does it: "I don't lift weights that much but I practice a lot. It's absolutely essential to start fast and get your opponent's wrist bent back. Then I lock my arm and pump him down. I stay calm and watch the other guy; when he takes a breath or tries to change, I pop him."

Arm wrestling's a family affair for Lewis, too: His mother, Mickey, 46, and his youthful uncle, Mike Engles, a 27- year-old mechanic from Elkridge, have both competed and qualified in the WPAA events and are now planning, as many other local arm wrestlers are, to compete in coming AAWA championships as well.

Anyone who'd like to try his or her hand at competitive arm wrestling has at least three opportunities this summer in the Maryland State Stand-up Arm Wrestling Championships sponsored by the AAWA.

The competition's open to everyone except lefties -- you don't have to be a member -- from the curious novice to the experienced champ, at three regional preliminary tournaments scheduled in this area. There are only three weight classes for the women -- under 120 pounds, 121 to 140 and 141 and up -- while there are eight divisions for the men's side of the contest starting at under 135 pounds and going up by approximately 15-pound increments until you get into the 240-and-over category.

If you want to give it a try, at Glen Burnie Mall this Saturday there'll be a health and fitness fair. Or take your arm to the Athletic Express, a raquetball and fitness club in Gaithersburg, on August 6, or to the Hideaway Restaurant, a real sportsman's bar in Clinton, on August 13. The top four trophy winners in each weight class at each site will qualify for the state championship to be held at Mears Point Marina, five miles east of the Bay Bridge on Kent Island, on August 21. There's also something called a Spectator Class Tournament being held that Sunday for people who stop by on their way back from the beach. Juniors -- boys and girls 15 and under -- and seniors -- men and women 45 and over -- can compete in their own tournament with no prior qualification required. And there's going to be a competition to find Mister and Miss Mears Point, which is basically a "beautiful bodies by the Bay" contest for those who think they qualify in that area.

A helpful hint to the neophyte: Your best bet will probably be at the Hideaway on the 13th, since most of the major competitors will be up in Vermont competing in a national stand-up meet. But whichever preliminary tournament you decide to try, you'll receive an official AAWA T-shirt and a certificate of participation. Spectators get in free to all these events, which start at 1 at all three locations, while each puller has to pay a $6 entrance fee and should report to the site between 10 and noon for weigh- ins.

"I think it's important for people to know that proceeds from all the tournaments will be donated to the Special Olympics," says Herson. "But more importantly to the participants, this tournament, in terms of trophies and prizes and hopefully in terms of competitors and spectators, will be one of the biggest events in the history of arm wrestling." GETTING A GRIP ON WRESTLING For information about the Maryland Stand-Up Arm Wrestling Championship and the American Arm Wrestling Association, call Jerry Herson, 301/770-3200 or Kenny Lewis, 301/944-1074. For information about the World Professional Arm Wrestling Association, call Neil Goldberg, 301/526-6633. For information about arm wrestling in the northern Virginia area, call Dave Patton, 968-7110.