This post from 2010 was edited and expanded in 2022. 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, arms that swing right to left instead of front to back, and sometimes there’s one arm doing most of the swinging work while the other one hangs mostly down.
Arm swing is an extremely important part of a gait pattern, and when 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?
The arm-part of gait matters because arm motion helps stabilize your torso and spine. Unless you’re carrying something, your arms work in conjunction with your legs. When the left leg moves back, muscles in the back of the right arm contract to move the arm back too, then the right leg and left arm, repeat, repeat, repeat. The work is directed behind you, then the arms swing forward without much work to get into place for their next action. (P.S. Arms do something different when you’re going uphill, downhill, really fast, and really slow.)
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 exercise for strengthening, mobilizing, and coordinating walking arms:
- Stand and let your arms relax down by your sides.
- Without twisting your hips or shoulders, raise your right arm behind you to see how high you can get it. Hold for 3 seconds, then let it drop and swing forward passively.
- Repeat with the left arm.
Do this 20-30 times then do both arms at the same time in the same direction, then both arms at the same time in the opposite direction remembering the key here is to push your arms back actively but let them relax on the way forward.
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 lower 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...