| Speed 101: Arm Swing

Author / Carl Case


Speed is king

Thought only to be a gift, however if broken down correctly into chunks, speed can be developed. There are two limiting factors for developing speed: Flexibility and Mechanics. We can attack flexibility in our warm ups and cool down practices, but how do we go about fixing sprinting mechanics? Simple: begin with the Arm Swing. So hang tight as we dive balls deep.

The arm swing is a low hanging fruit for improving mechanics, with a big return on investment in the speed development of athletes at all levels. Thanks to Cali’s Sprinting 5 Fixes we know:

“The arm swing is the contralateral movement to the legs in a sprint.  That being said, the function of the arm swing is directly correlated to the action of the lower limbs.  The “punch” up phase controls stride frequency (how quickly or slowly you cycle your legs) while the “hammer” behind phase controls the stride length (hip, knee, and ankle extension).”    

There is this direct correlation between the arm swing and legs. Think of the arm swing drills as a magnifying glass that will expose and identify problems that will arise when you start having your athletes sprint. The arm swing allows you to work on faults in a very controlled environment, as opposed to trying to yell cues at them as they go sprinting by.

Arm Swing Expectations

  • Nice tall rigid torso -think of Dead Bugs.
  • Index finger and thumb lightly touching each other and relaxed, as if you’re holding saltine crackers or baby bird eggs
  • Arms approximately at 85 degrees during upswing “punch” and 100 degrees on the downswing “hammer” (Francis 182).   This is the starting point but this can vary based on individual anthropometric measurements. Simply start with one hand by the face cheek, and the other behind the butt cheek.
  • The hands should travel in a straight fluid line from the face cheek to behind the butt cheek with movement initiated from the humerus.

Common Faults

  • Little Drummer Boy: This is where the athlete is missing extension or the “hammer” phase of the arm swing. This results in a sprint with a high stride frequency rate but with very minimal stride length. Effectively the athlete is taking a whole lot of steps but not going anywhere. 
  • Side-to-Side Arm Swing: Your arms should swing in the direction that you are traveling. Any side-to-side arm swing will result in trunk rotation which is wasted lateral movement of the feet that will distract from the straight ahead speed.
  • Creating Unnecessary Stress/Tension: As we add stress (speed) to the arm swing there will be a tendency for the shoulders to go into elevation, hands to clench , and noticeable signs of visual stress in the face. These are all natural reactions to stress, but something we have to work to overcome.  The saying is: “Fast is smooth; smooth is fast.”
  • Break in Posture: Any deviation from perfection is simply wrong… Remember: perfect practice makes permanent; not practice makes perfect.


As we make our way through the arm swing progression one thing to take note of is that each swing variation changes the axis of the pelvis. By doing so we are training the neurological pathways and stressing the arm swing in each of the primal hip patterns X,Y, and Z. This is part of our global approach in creating an athlete that is competent throughout all of the lower body primals.

The Progressions


Seated Arm Swing

The Setup:
Start in a seated position, legs extended out in front with feet dorsiflexed, with tall posture and retracted/depressed shoulders.

The Execution:
Begin to exchange each hand position by rotating at the shoulder nice and steady. 
As the pattern sets in, continue to steadily increase the speed to challenge perfect forward backward exchange of the arms. Push the speed as hard and fast as you’re able to maintain perfect arm swing path and avoiding shoulder elevation, stressed hands or face.

There are a number of reasons why we are big fans of the Seated Arm Swing and start here. It gives us the opportunity  to work on two of the biggest limiting factors in speed development mechanics and flexibility. It allows us to coach in a window and amplifies any mechanical breakdowns that will result in force bleed. This  would otherwise be masked during the kneeling or staggered stance arm swings where there is a wider base of support with sturdier points of contact.

  1. Active Hamstring Stretch: “Most athletes could use some lengthening of their hamstrings. In general though, most athletes need lengthening of the hamstrings because their inflexibility limits their ability to reach optimal stride length. Additionally, they are more prone to injury (pulled hamstrings) if they are constantly tight.”
  2. Challenge dorsiflexion under stress: As we add speed to the arm swing we can identify the athlete’s ability, or lack thereof, to maintain dorsiflexion under stress. Failure to maintain dorsiflexion under stress will result in a force bleed.
  3. Challenge posture: Can they keep an upright torso? Is there any movement of the spine? We know that speed is a product of posture. If breakdown occurs we know that this will also lead to a force bleed.
  4. Teaches action of the humerus: We want to establish that there should be fluid movement in a straight line coming from the humerus as opposed to simply flexing and extending at the elbow. With an athlete in the seated position they have no choice but to initiate movement from the humerus. If they are simply just extending their elbows their hands will strike the ground. We can also see where there arms are pushing them.


Kneeling Arm Swing:

The Setup:
Get into a lazy lunge position with an active back foot, tall posture, and retracted/depressed shoulders. One thing to note on the set up is the back foot. If you are working with tactical athletes we want plantarflexion, however if you are working with field sport athletes we want dorsiflexion. The execution is the same as the Seated Arm Swing.

The Kneeling Arm Swing allows us to go after the hammer phase which the Seated Arm Swing doesn’t. Depending on the athlete’s torso and limb length there is a potential barrier in the Seated Arm Swing that won’t allow the athlete to maximize the hammer phase.

This is a good time to go over the three different types of cueing. Since all athletes will learn differently it is important go after all three, and not just after the technical side of things.  

  1. Mechanical: This is the technical side of the movement. Arms are at 85 degrees during the upswing and 100 degrees during the downswing, with action of the arm swing coming from the humerus, which our Seated Arm Swing teaches.
  2. Emotional: This is tapping into that raw emotion response of the athlete. This is our punch and hammer. “I want you to punch hand up to your face as if you were going to uppercut someone and then hammer it back like you’re trying to drive a nail into the wall.”  
  3. Tactile: This is taking advantage of the athlete’s sense of touch by getting in the athlete’s way or offering a target to hit. This can be done by standing behind the athlete and having hit your hands during their hammer phase.

It also allows us a chance to stress the arm swing through the Y-Axis.


Staggered Stance Arm Swing:

The Setup:
Feet in line with shoulders and slightly pigeon toed, find a distance between the back toe and front heel where the athlete feel the most explosive, drive the back heel to the ground then bend the knee, and weight evenly distributed between the front and back foot. It is important that your back heel is not touching the ground but is in max dorsiflexion. 
The execution is the same as the Seated Arm Swing.

This not only challenges that arm swing through the Z-Axis but also puts the athlete in a position to teach acceleration and be as explosive as possible. This position is know as our Rocket Start and teaches the athlete to drive off the rear leg. From there, we can teach the track start which is a big pull with the front leg. An athlete that can master both will be a force to reckon with on the field.

Chunking Method

Coaches may have their reason why they don’t think it is necessary to put much emphasis on the arm swing. One reason may be that they think force production is all that needs to be worried about. Force production is important but is not the full equation. Speed training should work towards creating optimal movement model. If there is a deficiency in the arm swing then force production will not be as efficient. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a trap to just focus on one component.

In our Crossfit Football seminars we discuss the Chunking Method, which is breaking down a complex movement into its basic elements, having the athlete learn each element, and then attempting to recreate the whole movement. It’s just like learning to read. You don’t start with novels. First you learn letters, then words, sentences, paragraphs, short stories, and finally novels. The same concept can be applied to sprinting and other complex tasks.

At the end of the day the chunking method is what it all boils down to. You now have the tools to go after the low hanging fruit in speed development and empower your performance.

And remember, “In all the world of sports speed is king.” Fred Hatfield

Stay speedy my friends.

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Carl Case

Carl Case has been an athlete his whole life, playing both football and rugby in high school. After high school, he directed his focus to rugby where he went on to become a collegiate Midwest All Star. Carl continues to play rugby on a mens team near South Bend, and was part of a National Runner Up team. He found CrossFit and then Power Athlete as a way to fuel his rugby performance. He has been following the Power Athlete methodology since it’s launch in 2009 and attended his first CrossFit Football seminar in August of 2009.

After an introduction to CrossFit in 2007, Carl became a certified coach in 2009 and co-owner of CrossFit South Bend in 2011. In addition to coaching CrossFit and Power Athlete inspired classes at the gym, Carl has been coaching high school rugby since 2009. He uses the CrossFit Football and Power Athlete concepts to help his young athletes identify their goals and provides pointed instruction to help achieve those goals.


  1. Ingo "Joey Swole" B on December 8, 2015 at 7:47 am

    The Setup:
    Get into a lazy lunge position with an active back foot, tall posture, and retracted/depressed shoulders. One thing to note on the set up is the back foot. If you are working with tactical athletes we want plantarflexion, however if you are working with field sport athletes we want dorsiflexion”

    Why is this a factor?

  2. mprice311 on December 8, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Ingo beat me to that question I was wondering the same thing @carlcase

    • Carl Case on December 8, 2015 at 12:42 pm

      @INGOB, @mprice311
      For field sport athletes we want to reinforce that dorsiflexed foot position so that it becomes their default position. This is the most advantageous position for force production.
      Now with tactical athletes imagine they are in a fire fight in that lazy lunge position. If someone were to step on an ankle in that dorsiflexed position there is a chance you could have a catastrophic injury on your hands. Now that person becomes a liability. With the foot in plantarflexion if the ankle were to get stepped on they’ll will probably just walk away with a sore calf. So plantarflexion is what we want to become their default position.
      It all comes back to the WAYTF, and you fall to the level of your training.

  3. mprice311 on December 9, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Excellent thanks for a great article.

  4. stevenzissou on December 16, 2015 at 9:46 am

    One of the coaches in my gym trains Carlin Isles when he’s in town. He’s a pretty amazing athlete.

  5. helmsman20 on December 19, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Great explanation for the initial question I was wondering the exact same thing. Thanks

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