The Importance of Proper Arm Action

Posted: October 8, 2010 in Training Tips
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Coach this feels stupid, I hate this drill!!!!!”     I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that over the years when I start training a session with an athlete sitting on their butts pumping their arms and “makin’ their booty bounce!”  However, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate how important arm action to running faster.   The arms play a significant, yet often overlooked, role in sprinting and speed development.   An athlete, regardless of skill level, can never realize their full speed potential without specifically and regularly addressing proper arm mechanics within their speed training program.

Simply stated, the role of the arms is to stabilize the torso so that power can continue to be efficiently transferred through the hips. It is this ability to transfer power effectively through the center of mass that not only improves rate of acceleration, but also facilitates reaching maximum velocity, maintaining those top speeds and reducing the rate of deceleration.

The arms both directly and indirectly influence the ability to run fast.  As I often tell my athletes – you run on your legs but run with your arms!

Now how does an athlete improve their arm action?

First when running, it’s very important to keep your hands relaxed.  I’ve heard coaches suggest that you think about holding a potato chip in each hand.  And no matter how hard you run, or how tired you get, you can’t clench your hands so that the potato chip breaks. This is a good way to visualize how lose your hands should be at all times when running.  Once you start to clench your fists tightly, that tightness spreads up your forearms, biceps, shoulders, neck and face. Once you tighten up and loose range of motion in your arms, it reduces stride length, which is difficult to get back without burning a lot of energy.

Maintaining that full range of motion with your arms is important while sprinting.  Remember, speed is a product of stride length and stride frequency.  Stride length and frequency are determined, in part, by the motion of the arms. If you are lazy or passive with your arm action, you are limiting your potential for speed.

The proper angle of the front arm should be between 60-90 degrees at the elbow and your back arm should be between 90-120 degrees, also at the elbow.  If the arm angles fall outside of this range, your running mechanics will be negatively affected.  In short, you’ll run slower and get tired faster. When running, the arm swing should pivot at and through the shoulders with your elbow locked in place.

The elbow angle should only change slightly, as a result of elastic response and the range of motion with the arms should generally be hip to cheek.  That is, the hand clears the hip in the back and comes up to about cheek height in front.  Any more than that, in either direction, will result in over striding which causes breaking and can lead to strains, pulls and tears in the muscle.

When running, emphasis should be to aggressively drive the elbows down and back. When runners fire their arms straight back, without first driving them down, it often leads to bunched up shoulders, which again causes tightness and limits range of motion. It is important to focus on driving the arms back as they are recovered elastically by the stretch of muscles in the shoulder. So, don’t drive your arms up and forward because stretch reflex is going to bring them forward anyway.

Another aspect of arm action is to avoid what’s called lateral deviation beyond the saggital plane. In simpler terms the arms should never swing across the midline of your body. Your right arm should stay on the right half of your body and your left arm should stay on the left side.  Moving your arms laterally, across the midline of your body, cause you rotate your hips which basically burns more energy and makes you run slower and get tired faster.  Remember, you compete like you practice, so if you don’t correct these technical issues and train to run more efficiently in practice it will translate to better performances in competition.

As I mentioned previously, one of the drills I use a lot is to have my athletes sit on the ground facing each other and perform proper arm swings starting at a jog pace and progressing to a to sprint pace at intervals of 10-15 seconds.  By performing the drill while sitting, they actually get to experience the effect of how the arms actually raise the hips ever so slightly off the ground when the drill is performed correctly.  By “makin’ their booty bounce” they are reinforcing the importance of how the “arms make the legs go!”

There is a device on the market designed to help improve arm action called the Sprint Trainer that we recently added to our training.  The device has resistance tubing that connects the upper arm with the hand to encourage a correct bend in the elbow.  During backward movement, the tubing provides moderate tension to develop a more powerful back swing while it helps to accelerate the arm during forward propulsion.  Although some experts aren’t sold on the Sprint Trainer, many of the athletes we’ve used it swear by it.  Particularly those athletes who find it difficult to break bad habits when it comes to arm action.   We use a number of drills to help athletes improve their arm action mechanics.  Some drills with the Sprint Trainer, some with dumb bells, some seated or kneeling and some standing.  However, if you want to practice arm action mechanics, the best piece of equipment is a mirror.

Here is one of the of that drills we often use can be practiced either in a group setting, or alone while standing in front of mirror.

Stand with the feet between hip and shoulder width apart. Bring your weight forward on to the balls of the feet. You should be far enough forward that your heels are slightly off the ground, but not so far forward that your toes curl to maintain balance.  It is this slight, 2- 4 degree lean, which is ideal for simulating sprinting.  I refer to this position as “the Jamaican Lean.” I’m not sure where I got the term but it does seem appropriate since the Usain Bolt, the world record holder in the 100m and 200m dashes, hails from that small island country.

Now, starting with one arm forward, 90 degrees at the elbow and one arm back (also 90          degrees at the elbow), you perform the drill as follows.

· Arm action at 50% intensity

· 2 sets of 30 seconds

· 15 second rest between sets

· Arm action at 80% intensity

· 2 sets of 20 seconds

· 20 seconds rest between sets

· Arm action at 100% intensity

· 4-5 sets of 10 seconds

· 25-30 seconds rest between sets

Again, remember – how you practice is how you perform.  By correcting minor technical problems like arm action in practice, you can make major improvements in your performance in competition.  If you have questions or need more info feel free to contact me at

  1. […] height without crossing the mid-line of the body. For more information on proper arm drive see The Importance of Arm Action in a previous […]

  2. […] of technique training.  Important enough that we devoted an entire article on just that subject.  (See Training Tip October 8, 2010 The Importance of Arm Action) During sprinting, the arms act in opposition to the legs serving to prevent upper body rotation, […]

  3. […] The Importance of Proper Arm Action ( […]

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  5. […] held in a soft fist with the thumb on the outside lightly pressing on the forefinger (Jay Murdock relates how some coaches recommend imagining a holding a crisp in each hand. You don’t want […]

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