This post from 2010 was edited and expanded in 2020. This is one of a handful of our favorite articles on walking, including topics covering what various “walking parts” do as well as other whole-body considerations. Find the rest of them in the walking section of Our Favorite Feet, Footwear, and Walking Resources.
Ahhhh, moving the clocks forward gives us that extra hour of light at the end of the day. A perfect hour for an evening walk. That's what I thought as I went for my first week-night walk in the sun-lit evening. I walked instead of blogging. You can give me grief when you see me next, but, I really don't feel that badly, I hate to admit. It's hard to feel bad when walking gives me all those endorphins.
When I walk more, I notice more, especially when there's more people out walking with me. Which is how I decided on today's topic: arm swing. There are arms that don't move at all, and arms that swing right to left instead of front to back. There can be one tight arm that moves less than the other, and my favorite: arms working extra hard by holding weights. It's an arm swing buffet, I tell you.
Arm swing is an extremely important part of a gait pattern, and when digitally analyzing gait, you can tell a lot about shoulder and spine mobility (and potential overuse/underuse injuries) just by watching what the arms are doing.
Why do our arms swing when we walk?
Your arm movements work with your leg movements to help stabilize the entire body. When you walk forward on flat and level ground, ideally it's due to your stance leg pushing off behind you (vs. lifting a leg out in front of you and falling forward, but that's a different article). So, imagine you have your right leg pushing back behind you. That large quantity of mass (our legs make up quite a bit of our body weight) tends to twist one side of your pelvis around too. There needs to be something to balance out the twisting tendency leg swing creates, so the arm swinging back on the opposite side of the body, helps balance the twist. That arm motion is called reciprocal arm swing.
A backward-reaching arm is not only great for reducing overuse of the spine, it is a nature-designed workout for the backs of the upper arm. Awesome! If you thought three sets of 12 tricep exercises with a 5-pound weight were effective, just wait until you get your reciprocal arm swing on.
Here is an arm-swing exercise to try:
Stand and let your arms relax down by your sides. Lift one arm behind you, one at a time, to see how high you can get it (don't twist the hips or shoulders). Let it drop down and swing forward. It will swing out a little in front as you drop it, but don't do any extra work to get it up higher, i.e. don't lift your arms out in front, let them move forward by swinging, passively. Do this 20-30 times, trying to get the opposite arms swinging front to back as they do when walking (just make sure they're working on the way back, and relax-swinging forward.
When you're not carrying anything and walking on flat and level ground, the work of your arms while walking is directed behind you.
What about pumping our arms out in front of us while we walk?
Because we move so little, when we do move, we want to move harder, which is probably where holding arms weights while walking came from. Or what about bending and lifting the arms up in front as seen in the sport of race-walking? How do these affect the balancing mechanism now that reciprocal arm swing is missing? In short, changing how you move your arms when you walk changes movements throughout the body.
If you want to work on moving the oft-neglected rear parts of your upper arms, Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your arms! If your low back and waist hold lots of tension, let your arms relax and swing naturally while walking (your torso might have to be locking up to stabilize that leg backswing because your arms aren't doing their part).
Improving your arm swing is going to change everything about your daily walk. And although the clocks might be springing forward, our arms shouldn't be. Unless you're walking downhill, but that's for a different article...