Why Understanding Arm Action Is a Critical Factor in Teaching Speed

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As a coach with over a decade of experience in the realms of track and field and sports performance, I’ve noticed a common trend when it comes to the arms: people think arms aren’t that big of a factor in how we sprint. 

Now, clearly the arms are much smaller than the legs, and of course, not in direct contact with the ground during running, so it’s easy to dismiss them as a factor in sprinting.  

Maybe part of the reason that teaching the arms is underrated is we often don’t coach or teach it well. I know some people might get offended by this, but we really don’t! Very few really observe and think about what the arms are doing in sport movement.

I’ve written about this before on TrainHeroic, that the industry’s idea of training arms in running is elbows at 90 degrees and hands to hip pockets. Seated arm swinging is still a thing. I’ll again post this video I’ve linked previously to demonstrate that elite sprinters don’t run with their arms fixed at 90 degrees on the backswing…not even close! 

 

 

Since 90 degree fixed arms and hands to hip pockets violate many rules of biomechanics, including matching the timing of the contralateral leg and tapping into the fascial system, it is no wonder we don’t count on the arms and hands for much in running. What we are coaching doesn’t make an impact (not a positive one at least), so without good feedback on performance improvement, we are quick to abandon arm drills, outside of making running “pretty looking” (i.e. symmetrical and everything straight front to back).  

The thing is...good sprinting isn’t really pretty and straight front to back…the body tends to work from "out to in,” and the arms are no exception to this. 

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 Chris Johnson’s 4.24 definitely wasn’t a “straight front to back” venture

Why Arms?

For every 10 “knees up” cues (and that isn’t even a good cue), we tend to get 1 regarding what the arms and hands are doing.

Here is the big kicker that should get you interested in coaching the hands and arms in running:

  1. An athlete’s stride length isn’t nearly as trainable as their stride frequency
  2. The hands control what the feet are doing when an athlete is in flight phase (both feet off the ground).  
  3. The hands are an important factor in creating a better stride frequency, as well as in controlling the manner in which the foot strikes the ground to create a better impact. 

Races are won in the air; the athlete who can reposition their limbs more quickly will be faster. Despite some misleading research in this direction from the early 2000s, we see it in practice that better stride frequency, as a result of better repositioning strategies, will make you faster.

Check out the anchor leg of the 4x100 in the video below to see an athlete who can reposition his arms and legs far faster than his competitor (scroll to 2:05).

 

 

Marcellus Moore (left) repositions his swinging leg and arms faster than the runner he is about to overtake. You can also see that his fingers are “splayed” to prepare for the stiff impact of the foot that is about to happen.  

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We're in an industry that equates success with getting stronger in the sagittal plane, when internal and external rotation of joints is a key player in allowing energy to be recycled. Sprinting, and especially lateral sport movement, relies heavily on motions in the frontal and transverse planes. Check out this NFL combine start, one of the fastest ever, in the frame below. 

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This athlete has tremendous frontal (side to side) and transverse plane capacities, and you can see that the left arm is swinging off and to the side to counter the movement of the hips. This is the athlete’s first step. As he gains momentum, his movement straightens out, but this first step represents the need to pass force along joints in a twisting motion to give the system more speed.

If you are going to run without twisting at all, especially off the line, then you are really going to need that big barbell back squat to make it happen. If you can twist and pass energy, then you tap into the fascial transport system and make better use of the joints. Get strong in this manner, and you have it made. 

Coaching the Arms: Natural Movements

The first rule of coaching arms is to understand what they do before you start to coach them.

Doing nothing is, in many cases, better than telling athletes what to do with their arms. The best runners have learned to use their arms appropriately over time, and have been in a number of sport situations that have taught them how to do so well.  

Exposure to sports that involve throwing and swinging are great ways to give the athlete more situations that put a premium on the arms moving in a “wide to narrow” manner (just as we see in the first step or two of acceleration and especially in change of direction situations). I have coach Adarian Barr to thank for keying me into this trend that has continued to change the way I see and coach athletic movement. 

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 Baseball follows the trend of using “wide to narrow” as the elbow hits the ribs to create a better impact. This trend is similar across many sport movements, including acceleration.

In a nutshell, athletes need exposure to multiple sports early on. They need to run, chase, throw, swing, and do everything else a kid should generally do. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for progressive coaches like Jeremy Frisch at Achieve Performance Training who will have kids come in and more or less play and run through obstacle courses, rather than do “speed training” at young ages.  

This diversified spectrum of activity tends to build in the right trends of arm movement, so we don’t have to coach absolutely everything (as seems to be a trend in early sport specialization/early sports performance coaching situations).

The human body and brain is smart. Very smart. It’s a better coach than you (and me) 99% of the time when you give it what it needs. 

Coaching the Arms: Downforce

Secondly, we can put athletes in situations that don’t tell them what to do with their arms, but rather, help them feel what good arms are supposed to do. The first check-off on what to feel is down-force. Downforce helps balance forces between the arms and legs and repositions swing legs faster.

A very simple method that I’ve found to work incredibly well with athletes whose arms are all over the place, is to use pulsers created by David Weck. (I’m not getting paid to mention these, and you can also pretty easily make them yourself with small pipes and shot or nuts and bolts.)

 

 

These simple devices are small shot filled canisters that athletes hold in their hands to allow them to create and feel better down-force in sprinting (more on this in a bit). This down-force can tap into the fascial system to really knit the body together. I’ve seen it take athletes who are very “sloppy” with the arms and trunk to connected. And it improves their sprint times considerably.  

We don’t need to strength train absolutely everything that appears weak. Instead, applying the sensory means to let the body accomplish what it is designed for is the first step that should be taken.  

On another simple level, having athletes do straight leg/straight arm running can help athletes understand what it means for the arms to create down-force without applying any external resistance. Taking a straight leg bound into a sprint can help to blend skills. 

 

 

Coaching the Arms: Hand Position

If we do choose to coach the arms, what do we coach? We first make sure an athlete understands down-force. Keep in mind, the longer the run, the less straight the arm will end up at the bottom, but the hand will still pulse downwards regardless of distance.  

If an athlete understands how to create down-force, I find it helpful to then look at how the hands move. Realize to have a good horizontal push to sprint fast (yes, sprinting is more about horizontal forces than vertical), the arm driving high to the front must reciprocate this.  

To get the swing leg to recover faster, the arms just have to move faster. They do this through pulsing and twisting. Looking at birds in nature, Adarian Barr would call this a “flap.” To twist, the hands must pronate and supinate. 

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I can always remember what supination is by thinking “palm up to hold a cup of soup.”

The pronation and supination of the hands will help assist the pronation and supination of the feet. Although this can get a little complex, athletes who aren’t hitting the ground with enough stiffness can check in with the way they are supinating the hand to assist in supinating the foot as the hand comes through.

I’ve had great success with this, particularly on an asymmetrical level, by using one pulser and a focus on one-hand supinating. Our bodies are naturally spiraling (to the left) due to the action of the organs moving inside the thorax during running, which steers us left (this is why tracks turn left). To steer “back to the front,” we need to maximize the left hand in many situations. This doesn’t work for all athletes, but I’ve had athletes hit sprint PRs by “burying the right hand” with a pulser and working supination in the left hand.

See the video below of a fellow coach and friend of mine who we got to achieve a .03 second PR in the 10-meter fly by going asymmetrical with his arms.

 

 

 

 

Recap

On a simple level, just realize that in many cases, the arms, and the timing within, are a huge key to success in building the best possible athlete. The brain is often smarter than we are, and athletes exposed to a number of movements in youth often put together pretty good arm motions naturally.

When we do need to step in, rule #1 is to teach down-force, and beyond that, pronation and supination, as well as knowing “wide to narrow.” These can really make a difference in getting athletes to the next level.  

Finally, if you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my new book Speed Strength which will be up for pre-sale in mid-September. It takes an integrated approach to getting athletes fast and strong.  

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About The Author

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. You can connect with Joel on his website.

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