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Arm movement often poorly taught

Arm movement… often poorly taught?

Sports physiotherapist

Moving quickly on a very slippery surface in boots that rest on blades around 3.2 mm wide is a daunting task. Skating is a difficult art to master, and teaching it seems just as complex. There is some controversy among power skaters as to which direction to swing the arms when skating forward (1-8). One school of thought has players swinging their arms back and forth (3-6), while the other has them swinging side to side (1,2,7,8). Let’s see what science has to say.

First of all, it’s imperative to remember Newton’s 3rd law, which states that action is always equal to reaction, i.e. the actions of two bodies on each other are always equal and in opposite directions. This is what happens when we push backwards on the ground with our legs to move forwards when we walk, and our arms move backwards and forwards to counterbalance the forces involved. In short, if the arm movement is effective during the skate, it will increase the reaction forces on the ground during the push, enabling the player to reach greater speed.

On the one hand, coaches who advocate swinging the arms back and forth when skating claim that this movement helps generate momentum in the same way as we use our arms when running, for example(4). This technique would therefore be used to help move the body forward, as when sprinting or walking. They even suggest that moving the arms from side to side leads to a loss of energy and power, and contributes to loss of balance(5). But skating is very different from running. The fact that the players are on blades in contact with a low-friction surface makes all the difference to racing as we know it. Indeed, if the field hockey player were to push directly backwards, in the same way as when walking or running, little movement would take place, which is why leg thrusts are performed more in a frontal plane.

On the other hand, there are more arguments and scientific evidence in favor of side-to-side arm swinging. In fact, this technique was the most effective in the only study comparing different arm movement techniques for ice skating. The three techniques compared were: side-to-side, front-to-back and 45°(2). In addition, it has been observed that this technique produces more force in the frontal plane, the plane in which the legs of fast skaters are predominantly directed. In short, this transfer of force during forward skidding would be associated with higher speeds (8). That’s why it’s widely used by speed skaters(1).

All in all, as seen in a previous article, apart from the first strides in the forward start, the thrust is not directed backwards, but more to the side (1,2,7,8). The arms should be directed in the same plane of movement as the legs. When skating forward, the legs will move in a predominantly frontal as well as sagittal plane, and the arms should swing in the same way. During the forward start, as our legs push backwards, it might be preferable for the arms to counterbalance this movement by swinging back and forth. For the rest of the skating cycle, the greater the skating speed, the more the pushes will be to the side, and the arm movement will have to adjust in the same way (1,2,7,8).

Finally, it’s important to remember that the efficiency of arm movement during skating depends not only on steering, but also on speed and coordination(8). Ultimately, the similarities between skaters and elite sprinters lie in the fact that the rapid movement of the right arm will go in the opposite direction to that of the right leg and vice versa.

Written by

Maxime Provencher

Sports physiotherapist at
Peps Clinic at Université Laval

References :
1. Alexander, M. J. L., Hayward, J. & Taylor, C. (2010). Arm action in field hockey skating – is it being taught incorrectly? Sport Biomechanics Laboratory, University of Manitoba, copyright, 2010
2. Bracko, M. R., Fellingham, G. W., & Lyons, R. D. (1996). Glenohumeral kinematics: A comparison of three techniques during an ice hockey acceleration test. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(S55)
3. Glantz, R. (2010). Skating tips from our videos. Retrieved Aug/15, 2015, from
4. Nauman, W. (2009). Ice hockey skating techniques. Retrieved Aug/15, 2015, from
5. Rhoads, R. (2010). Field hockey skating tips – 3 great tips to improve your skating speed and power. Retrieved Aug/15, 2015, from
6. Stamm, L. (2000). The arm swing. Retrieved Aug/15, 2015,from
7. Bracko MR. (2004) Biomechanics powers ice hockey performance. Sports Med Biomech. 2004 Sept:47-53.
8. Hayward, J & al. Ground reaction forces produced by two different field hockey skating arm swing techniques. A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies of The University of Manitoba In partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of MASTER OF SCIENCE Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management University of Manitoba Winnipeg Copyright© 2012 by Juliene Hayward

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