The Arm Swing Debate: Which Technique Improves Skating Performance?

By Michael Del Bel, PhD (c)
Assistant Director of Research and Development
Apex Skating

At a young age, athletes are often taught to “swing their arms” as they skate forward down the ice. That is about as much instruction as most athletes get on what they should be doing with their arms when learning the fundamentals of power skating. Without much guidance or thought, the initial instinct may be to mimic how we run and swing our arms forwards and backwards (in the sagittal plane). The problem with this is: is this the 
best way to swing your arms? That is what we’re going to discuss in this blog.

Movements that rely on the legs for most of the force production, such as running or vertical jumps, can be improved with contributions from proper arm motion. For example, when an athlete is running in a straight line the majority of the force is generated in the sagittal plane by the legs pushing backwards against the ground followed by the leg swinging forward to repeat the cycle. This means, if the arms are going to help the athlete’s performance and contribute to that forward momentum, they should also be moving in that sagittal plane. Makes sense.

So why doesn’t this directly translate to skating? There are a few differences (i.e. holding a stick, equipment restraints, opponents, ice surface, etc.), but we’ll just be focusing on the skating stride itself. The problem with having only arm motion in the sagittal plane, is that forward movement in skating is generated by push-offs in both the frontal plane (side-to-side) and sagittal plane. In other words, forward motion is not only from generating force directly backwards against the ice. Knowing this, we need to consider how the motion of the arms in the sagittal and/or frontal planes might affect the momentum of the skating stride and therefore overall skating performance. 

In an attempt to solve this problem, Hayward-Ellis and colleagues (2017) looked at the effects of the two arm swing techniques on the ground reaction forces generated by elite female hockey players while standing. A few interesting take-aways from this study are that when the athletes swung their arms in the frontal plane, they generated force in the main direction of the push-off in a skating stride. When they swung their arms in the sagittal plane, the generated forces were also in the sagittal plane and therefore not in the main direction of the push-off in a skating stride. Although the direction of the forces generated from the two arm swing techniques were different, the magnitude (or amount of total force) was not different. This is an important finding to highlight as a major criticism of swinging the arms in the frontal plane is that it can be a waste of energy or a reduction of power – which does not appear to be the case. Although this study was not done while the athletes were skating, these findings should certainly be taken into consideration in the arm swing debate for skating performance. One factor that was not discussed in this study, was the center of mass (CoM) of the athlete. Maintaining stability of the CoM is crucial to maintain proper posture and balance while skating – for a more visual example, try and think about how as the stride leg is pushing out and back, the upper body must rotate in response to maintain the CoM stability on the stance/support leg. This equal and opposite reaction is in line with one of the most basic principles in biomechanics – Newton’s second law.

With all that being said, it seems that the contribution of the arms in skating performance can be improved by using an arm swing technique that incorporates motion in the frontal plane – let’s take a look at Josh Anderson, known for his explosive skating speed, from the Montreal Canadiens and see what he thinks!

Research of Interest

Hayward-Ellis J, Alexander MJL, Glazebrook CM and Leiter J. Ground reaction forces produced by two different skating arm swing techniques. Euro J Sport Sci 2017; 17(9): 1153-1160.

De Koning JJ, De Groot G and Van Ingen Schenau GJ. Speed skating the curves: a study of muscle coordination and power production. Int J Sport Biomech 1991; 7: 344–358.