One of the cornerstones of the Nordic walking technique is the arm swing. It is also the easiest to get wrong. So the arm swing is the next in my series of Nordic walking ‘what, why, how’ guides. The aim of these guides is to help you improve your health, strength and fitness through developing your Nordic walking technique. It assists those of you who are new to Nordic walking to learn and embed the technique into your action. It’s also a useful reminder for those of us who have been Nordic walking for a while as it’s all too easy to slip into bad habits!
What are we trying to achieve?
A good arm swing from the shoulder – powerful but relaxed. The basic movement is the same as for walking, just a little more pronounced. Importantly, this is a progressive action depending on how active you want to be with your arms.
Stage one is to ensure you have a good forward arm movement as most of the power generated from Nordic walking comes when the pole is in front of your body.
Stage two is to increase your back swing, pushing the pole behind your hips until ultimately you have a straight line from your shoulder to the tip of the pole as in the photo above. This is quite hard to achieve, as it demands both good technique and good muscular strength from your upper arm.
In my view stage one is the most important. Stage two is an optional.
Why should we care about achieving a good arm swing?
Shoulder strength and mobility: Our shoulder joint is the most complicated joint in our whole body, with the greatest range of motion. You can move it in ten different ways! It is no surprise therefore that shoulder injury or impingement is one of the biggest issues for those of you who walk with us (statistically three in ten adults will experience shoulder pain), outstripping even back ache.
One of the by-products of our Nordic walking classes is shoulder health. In particular the Nordic walking technique improves posture and strengthens the muscles between your shoulder blades, which in turn support and stabilise your shoulder (there is a high correlation between shoulder pain and poor posture). It also strengthens the shoulder muscles themselves. But you will only reap the full benefits if you have a good arm swing.
Circulation: One of the key benefits of Nordic walking for many of us is the way it improves our circulatory function. It’s not just about pumping oxygenated blood to our muscles and tissues, but about the efficient return of the blood (with all the waste product) through our veins and back to the heart. Particularly important for this function is the heel/toe roll; squeezing and releasing the hand round the pole handle; and the arm swing. If any of these aspects of your technique are poor it will impact on your circulatory benefits from Nordic walking.
Lymph drainage: Our lymphatic system is hugely important. It helps to protect us from infection and disease and is a vital part of our immune system. We have clusters of lymph nodes all over our body including under our armpits. The action of swinging your arm whilst Nordic walking in combination with good breathing (chest lifted, engaging your diaphragm to breath) helps with the lymph drainage and is especially good for those with lymphoedema. If you don’t swing your arm you won’t get this benefit.
Improved speed, rotation, core strength and tummy tone: Generally speaking, the more active your arm swing the faster you’ll go, the more rotation you’ll be able to achieve, and the greater your core workout.
How do we get a good arm swing?
1. It should feel natural
My number one piece of advice is constantly to remind yourself that Nordic walking should feel like a more active version of ordinary walking, especially the way in which you swing your arms. Next time you have an idle moment watch how people use their arms when they walk. Although the majority don’t actually swing their arms much you’ll barely ever see anyone:
- Clamp their shoulder tightly into the side of their body rather than let it move freely; and/or
- Hinge at the elbow rather than swing from the shoulder.
These are the most common Nordic walking arm swing mistakes.
2. Reach forwards (but don’t over-do it)
The textbook forward swing is a straight arm with a ‘soft’ elbow. As though you were reaching forwards for a low handshake. Be careful not to over-reach as this is likely to pull your shoulders forwards and out of alignment. Don’t worry if you don’t have the textbook soft elbow (you’ll see from the above photo that I have a quite a straight arm) so long as your arm movement comes mostly from your shoulder and not your elbow.
3. Improve your hand squeeze and release
A poor arm swing often comes about if you haven’t quite mastered the hand squeeze (which lifts the tip of the pole off the ground and stops it dragging/bouncing) and so are trying to compensate. Practice your hand control and you will probably find that your arm swing improves. Single arm poling is great for this.
4. Speed up your arm swing to push the pole behind you
You’ll have to quicken your arm swing to push the pole behind your body. It’s a great way to work your triceps (bingo wings) and tone your shoulders. To get the ultimate ‘A’ frame swing you also need to rotate your torso.
5. Stretch your chest muscles
It’s very easy in our daily lives to round our shoulders forwards. Eventually this leads to permanently tightened pectoral muscles pulling our posture out of alignment. Your arm swing will be compromised if your shoulders are pulled forwards as you won’t have the space to swing your arm freely. It’s well worth getting into the habit of stretching out your chest. It will benefit more than your Nordic walking. Here’s a link to a chest stretch Marion Averill from Clifton Physiotherapy highly recommends and which she showed us last summer.
Finally, you may remember in my blog last week I asked for mnemonic suggestions for a way to remember ‘Lift, Pull, Push, Twist Squeeze’. Graham came up with my favorite: LITTLE PINK PLUMS TASTE SWEET. Thanks Graham!
You can find our favourite Nordic walking poles here and if you’re looking for our advice on best walking kit here’s our recommendations: