Do you run like the Incredible Hulk? How to move your arms like an athlete

January 23, 2013

The easiest way to differentiate athletes is the use of their arms in movement. Are you too tense like the incredible hulk? Do your arms move across your body side to side, while your legs move straight ahead? Can you time your opposite arm and leg drive? Your arms are perhaps the single most defining image of efficiency.

Last week I was interviewed and asked if I could change the way I used to coached what exactly would differ. I immediately answered I would stop using 1 repetition maximum (1 RM) testing because it interferes with the main focus of all movement, which is efficiency (see Sparta Point). Efficiency, being able to perform explosive movements with minimal effort, not only allows us to stay healthy, but also repeat such endeavors without fatigue. Realizing the role of arm action in this process is just the first step.

It all starts with jumping

My second response to this interview was I would have told my younger coaching self to jump more. Jumping emphasizes the stretch shortening cycle (SSC), which is the essence of any explosive movement. It allows energy to be stored and release through the tendons, a more economical approach, as well as as a higher utilization of the central nervous system for greater performance (see Sparta Point). The arms and upper body play a huge role in the SSC process and jumping, accentuating the process by enhancing the timing.

Why Arm Swing Helps

A January 2013 out of Lyon, France found the use of an arm swing increases vertical jump height by 20%. This process occurs because more work is done by the body. A third of this greater work is due to the shoulder muscles, the “pull theory” where these upper body muscles impart energy to the rest of the body (see Sparta Point).

The other 2/3 of this increased total body work was due to the increased work at the pelvis, particularly the biceps femoris (BF). The first reason the biceps femoris muscle was more involved is due to a greater force from a slower velocity. More force is easy to create if you are moving slower, mainly because the muscles have a greater active state (see Sparta Point) enabling the muscles to produce force at a more favorable part of the force–velocity relationship. Using the arms makes movements longer as a a whole and this case resulted in a longer jump time.

The observation of greater force production was also seen in the gluteus maximus and erector spinae. This indicates that the trunk extensors produced more work and greater force due to slower contraction velocity when an arm swing was used.

More DRIVE from more arms

When we are talking about more force from moving slower, what we really mean is more DRIVE to put force into the ground (GRF). Our best athletes, and our best jumpers, use their arms to a greater extent. As a result, they generally produce a swing movement signatureTM shown the right (see Sparta Point).

These athletes generate substantial EXPLODE initially and use their arms to prolong the force production for more explosive, graceful, and overall more efficient movement.

Emphasis in Training

The best way to improve the use of your arms for more efficiency is simple; jump more. Jumping is slower than sprinting and lateral quickness drills so you can develop the awareness of where the arms should be, particularly at the most important phase; ground contact.

When you are not jumping, an awareness of your arms is critical, especially if you need DRIVE.

Some quick cues for horizontal and lateral movements

  • Keeping your elbow angle close to 90 degrees to drive from the shoulder (SSC!)
  • Stay upright to emphasize arm action, dropping your chest negates your arms
  • Coordinate opposite leg's ground contact with opposite arm drive

Or just focus on 1 RM, efficiency is overrated.

Blache Y, Monteil K. Effect of arm swing on effective energy during vertical jumping: Experimental and simulation study. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2013 Jan 10.

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