Carl Valle recently wrote an article on arm action that led me to unpack some of the research behind arm action and see how it matched with my own observations over the years.
There is still a debate about coaching correct arm action. Many coaches say they don’t bother to cue the arms. Others recognize the significance of doing so, even if it is some vague, half-hearted mumbling like “They serve to counterbalance the lower body.”
To be clear, I am not sure that the issue of “fixing arms” is an elite problem. Elite athletes and even those approaching that level almost always have the look down—that is, purposeful and contralaterally fused with the lower limbs. The goal of arm action should be to get them to not be an issue, as arms can be more of a hindrance than any sort of gateway to garnering All-State honors.Sprinting is mostly about the legs and feet; however, let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t some juice to squeeze out of the arms when dealing with our typical high school athlete. Click To Tweet
Sprinting is mostly about the legs and feet; however, let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t some juice to squeeze out of the arms if we are dealing with our typical high school athlete. A lot of the issues I see with arms stem from a lack of long-term development and a deficient skill base. The athlete simply works against themselves and resists that which should occur naturally.
My goal isn’t to dissect specific angles but to merely continue the conversation that perhaps the issue of arm action isn’t as simple as some make it out to be.
Arm Action During Acceleration
“During the start of the sprint, the body’s center of mass leans forward, suggesting that the relative momentum of the horizontal component of both arms may not be canceled.”
This quote originates from a research paper titled “Scapula behavior associates with fast sprinting in first accelerated running.” It points out that there is a distinction between what the arms may contribute during the athlete’s forward-leaning acceleration phase and when they’re upright running. The arms move more forward and backward during the acceleration phase, whereas in upright sprinting they move up and down. In the same study, subjects were restricted with tape at the scapula, thus limiting arm drive. As a result, the athletes were not able to achieve as deep of a forward lean. This tells me that limiting the arms compromised balance.
Another research article titled “Body position determines propulsive forces in accelerated running” states that this matters because “Higher accelerations were generated by lower, but more forward oriented forces. The orientation of the maximum force vector strongly correlated with the forward lean of the body at toe-off.” Good accelerators know how to apply force horizontally from deep body angles, and arms have quite a lot to do with it.
Still another study discovered that “Arms contributed 22% of the body’s kinetic energy, indicative of the importance of these segments during the pushing phase of the block start.”
So, whether or not you feel the need to have interventions related to the arms, we cannot ignore that they are important. I have seen many high school athletes who function as if they have taped scapulas.
If you remove the tape scenario from the equation, their passive and rigid arms are a major impediment to body angles and drive during initial acceleration. Of course, the legs are still the driver, but the general lack of motor skills causes the legs and arms to be nearly disengaged from each other.
We know that strength correlates to acceleration abilities; however, thinking strength work (especially purely upper body work) is the sole answer to anything sprint-related is where some coaches and athletes still run afoul. Carl remarked in his article that boosting strength numbers isn’t enough to guarantee improvements in pure arm action, but the force production capabilities and postural benefits of having a strong upper body don’t mean it isn’t a piece of the puzzle.
Admittedly, this is a lot to sort through. One of the mistakes I used to make more frequently was saying too much, too early. Armed with good intentions, I would force instructions onto a runner trying to learn the basics of sprinting and ultimately paralyze them. Cues for arms can work, but exactly who with and when is another story. It is not my goal to just give a list of cues here. A shy freshman might need to “Use more violence with your arms,” and this direction to increase the intent is nice, but it doesn’t mean it is a long-term fix.Cues for arms can work, but exactly who with and when is another story, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
“Split and rip” may be appropriate for someone who is too passive on the downstroke during acceleration, as long as they continue to build and don’t end up striking an acceleration pose for the camera. I am fine with any cue as long as it keeps the act of sprinting subconscious and hindbrain.
I do like continual drilling and using basic movements as reference points during specific sprint workouts. While no drill mirrors the range of motion and speed of the arms during true sprints, all drills require purposeful contributions from the arms to be considered “good drills.” Quantification of improvements with drills feels largely subjective, but one thing I look for on video is that when a foot first contacts the ground, the arms are nearly parallel to each other and ready to flex and extend with the contralateral leg.
It isn’t that any drill is a magic fix for arm action, it is more about making arm contribution a nonnegotiable habit for as many movements as possible. Certainly, a specific drill could be the starting point or the thing to revisit to make a change.
As far as more authentic sprinting solutions, I think hills and sleds are the way to go. These are both excellent means to provide an environment suitable for the athlete to make mistakes, refine the movement, and have a fighting chance to figure it out. The most obvious benefit of hills and sleds is that they make it necessary to use greater drive and arm action to complete the repetition. This makes it possible to maintain body position longer, and the speed of the run is technically submax. Athletes are usually less worried about artificial low heel recovery and mimicking the look of their favorite sprinter and instead can improve just by using natural strategies from experiencing the hill or the added weight behind them.
I am a fan of using one of these items per week early in the season and eventually progressing to a contrast workout with a flat ground rep in close proximity to the hill or resisted sprint, which serves as the reinforcement. I find hills and sleds pair well with cues in the form of analogies.If you want to improve limb synchronization, leave the strength exercises masquerading as sprints alone, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I do not particularly enjoy using sleds so heavy or hills so steep that the repetition becomes a laborious double-foot support sled pull or a hill trudge absent of motor skill learning. If you want to improve limb synchronization, leave the strength exercises masquerading as sprints alone.
Video 1. Hills and sleds can provide opportunities for an athlete to naturally use greater drive and arm action. Avoid going so steep and heavy that it negatively impacts limb synchronization.
Arms During Maximum Velocity
“The vertical range of motion of the body CM was increased by the action of the arms. The arms were found to make a small but important contribution to lift, roughly 5-10% of the total. This contribution increased with running speed.”
This quote comes from a study called “Upper Extremity Function in Running. I: Center of Mass and Propulsion Considerations.” It was done on a treadmill at running speeds of 3.8 m/s, 4.5 m/s, and 5.4 m/s. This is a far cry from sprint velocity, but as the speed increased, the vertical lift contributed by the arms also increased. It would not be farfetched to think that the arms also increase lift during a full sprint. This is different from the horizontal drive that the arms are thought to provide during acceleration. With no major forward lean, the arms move up and down relative to the trunk. The forward and back swinging cancels out any horizontal momentum.
Ralph Mann spent some time studying 200m Olympic finalists and found that the “faster sprinters had a greater arm displacement from the shoulder (135° versus 118°) and elbow (84° versus 67°), as well as joints with a greater average speed from the shoulder (525°/s versus 490°/s).”
As I said previously, I don’t think arm action is a problem for elites, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that arms are the deciding factor. However, it is clear that faster runners have the arms to match their lower body.
I have seen jumpers at the high school level truncate their flight and hurdlers flail due to some degree of arm issues. I am far from a biomechanist, but it does seem worthwhile, especially early in development, to provide long-term development opportunities with the arms. In acceleration the arms are about creating power, and during upright sprinting they are about matching and amplifying the reflexive “snap” in the lower body.
Most coaches are aware of stretch reflexes occurring in the lower body, at least on a general level. In my opinion, lots of high school sprinters make their arm action too deliberate. There must be some reflex in the upper body to match the rate of speed of the legs below. It isn’t about pumping the arms harder.
This is why it becomes crucial to relax, remain free of tension, and use an appropriate range of motion. When watching videos of my faster sprinters, you can see how the arms mirror and support the legs. When the arm is near max extension, so is the contralateral hip. It seems like the stretch placed on the pec at this point aids in creating an elastic and natural movement of the arms and spine. At foot strike the ground contact is brief, while the arms ideally are close to parallel and beginning to both move upward, working in concert with the legs/feet to perhaps amplify the vertical forces. The arm closes into max flexion as it passes the hip along with the opposite leg.
Arms are important to create balance and rhythm but without proper motor skills and limb synching, the athlete limits their velocity potential on any given day.
What to Do About It
As with arms during acceleration, the goal is to put the athlete in proper training scenarios to feel the contribution from their arms and kind of figure it out.
I do employ some arm cues as well, although I am trying to be more selective about when to speak on it. I have found cueing the athlete to get the arms or elbows “down” creates an athletic and more purposeful look. High school sprinters often drive their arms and hands “up,” which makes them appear robotic because the arm stays locked closer to 90 degrees throughout. The range of motion is often cut short, and they seem more likely to excessively cross over their midline.
Cueing them to “cross the hip with the hand” appears to yield a more reflexive and natural arm swing because of the stretch placed on the pec and shoulder. This strikes me as being similar to an athlete bench-pressing and bouncing the bar off their chest, which is of course dangerous but enables them to move more weight. An easy way to get an athlete or coach to understand this is to stand in place and do an arm swing both ways.
- Swing your arms upward.
- Swing your arms, focusing on getting the elbows down and hands across your hips.
Of course, arm swing speed from a stationary position is irrelevant for sprint speed but #2 should feel more elastic and natural.
Drills can be valuable in terms of impacting the sprinter from a development perspective, but it is the patience that is the payoff and not any one drill. There are certainly drills, like the strike drill and prance, that I feel strongly about in terms of their ability to impact an athlete quickly.
The best way to improve arm action is with sprint reps that focus on rhythm and motor learning. This goes beyond just tempo work, although surfing the whole sprint velocity curve is one way to avoid pace lock.The best way to improve arm action is with sprint reps that focus on rhythm and motor learning. This goes beyond just tempo work…, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Without going into too much detail on each sprint variation, these are the ones I like the most to encourage natural and productive arm movement during upright sprinting. Paired with the previously stated cues, these function as “super drills” that inform the sprinter of their arm and leg cohesiveness.
- Stair runs at different speeds
- Ins and outs variations
- Wickets at different spacings at or slightly shorter than current stride length
Another tool I have used is a cheap, homemade “WeckMethod pulser.” I am no expert in his methods, and I don’t try to be. The small Mentos gum containers are a good size, and I filled them halfway with BBs and then wrapped them in electrical tape. I have seen great results with some of my athletes during the last couple of seasons.
Kids often seem to run faster on relays, and I wonder if the baton does something to their arm that makes it a better lever. This goes beyond athletes merely getting electrified to run with their teammates. I have had conversations with John Garrish, who originated this idea. He says kids seem to run better with something in their hands. I would agree, although I can’t really say why.
I do know the sound of the “pulser” rattle provides another sensory cue for the athlete. During flight, the BBs shift to the other side of the container, and at foot strike they collide with the inside, providing the athlete with feedback on their range of motion, purpose, and reflexive snap. We must cue the athlete not to grip the container tightly, or the tension can flow upstream to other areas and dilute the effectiveness of the teaching tool. This is why something like an Exogen forearm sleeve could be a more suitable alternative, since the hand remains empty.
In a study titled “Effects of arm and leg loading on sprint performance,” subjects ran with lead rods in their hands weighing 0.2 kilograms, 0.4 kilograms, and 0.6 kilograms. It was discovered that “a) Arm loads of <0.6 kg do not seem to interrupt spatiotemporal variables and hence introduce technique breakdown, (b) preference would be to affix load to the lower area of the arms, which increases the rotational inertia and ensures that the hands are not gripping a load.”
These two tools may be another way to add variability to certain exercises without fear, as it does not change stride length, frequency, overall rhythm, or even velocity. Be cautious of tight grips or weights above 0.5 kilograms, as they could change things for the worse.
A Call to Arms
I am certainly no expert in this area, but I have seen lots of bad movement firsthand and can see how faulty arm action hinders my athletes. Merely getting it to not be a major issue can make a difference. Sprinting is still mostly about the legs, but arms that work in concert with them can be a game-changer or at least level the playing field.
Coaching the arms should be about using natural interventions and placing the athlete in a position to subconsciously get more purpose out of their arms. Arms play a huge role in balance and rhythm and increase drive during acceleration and vertical forces when upright.Coaching the arms should be about using natural interventions and placing the athlete in a position to subconsciously get more purpose out of their arms, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
While arms might not be an issue for elites, the fastest runners have more range of motion and speed at the arms than their slower counterparts.
Cues can help, but my preferred ways to address arms include drills, sprint tasks, and some outside-of-the-box tools that keep sprinting closer to fully hindbrain. This may be a long-term development goal rather than an instant fix, and I have seen coaches impatiently discard things before they have a chance to work. An athlete with terrific motor skills may not need any intervention, and it is best to say nothing to them at all and leave their arms alone.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anything related to training, so coaches should carefully explore and figure out what, if anything, their athletes need when it comes to arm action.
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