Tom Rutlin – a pioneer of Nordic walking, which in 1988 he termed “Exerstriding” advocates the straight arm “plant” technique.
David Downer – links to whose websites you can find right here at Nordic Walking US, also uses and teaches this method.
The International Nordic Walking Association (INWA) in turn teaches the bent arm plant. I have heard that Exel reps (INWA=Exel) have been teaching the straight arm technique, although their website still shows graphics, where models have radically bent arms…
The American Nordic Walking Association (ANWA) also teaches the flexible arm, European technique.
There was I time, when I too used and advocated the bent arm plant, but that has changed a bit. Despite Gottfried Kürmer’s – one of the best Master Nordic Walking coaches suggestion to actually bend the arm, I am continuing the relatively (but not completely) straight arm technique. I must say though that Gottfried’s teaching did transform my arm plant into a more flexible one than before.
I would like to emphasize that the arm should not be rigid, but be allowed to bend to a limited degree at the elbow, in order to maintain the fluidity of the stroke.
Let me try to explain why I believe that a modified straight-arm technique works best.
Straight arm technique definitely works. All you have to do is look at Tom Rutlin and at David Downer. Both are obviously in excellent shape – gained, I am told – largely by Nordic walking.
It bears to note that Tom Rutlin’s Exerstrider poles do not have straps, so it is quite understandable, why the technique advocated by him is a bit different. Both David Downer and I, in turn do emphasize the efficient use of straps.
Needless to say, the straight arm plant works remarkably well. In my opinion though, the arm should NOT BE RIGID, in order to make the whole movement more effective and dynamic.
Why? Because it provides additional, serious amount of exercise to the back muscles and the triceps – the group of muscles, populating the back of everyone’s arm.
Considering the fact that the triceps constitutes about 2/3 of the mass of the upper arm and the biceps only 1/3, giving the triceps a proper workout is a truly important issue. Isn’t it?
As Bob Moon, a registered user of this site says, and I quote:”By keeping the arm straight or slightly bent the primary driver becomes the shoulder joint, which involves far more muscle groups( including the triceps) causing greater caloric burn and much better overall strength conditioning by involving the larger muscles of the back and other stabilizing muscles. ”
I couldn’t agree more. Being a kayaker, I realize that most of of the paddling power is generated by keeping the arms relatively (but not completely) straight and using the large muscles of the back and shoulders for propulsion, rather than just the arms.
I also advocate following the arm push backwards way beyond your body line. In effect, you should push the pole all the way back, as far as you can comfortably go, followed by a full hand release of the grip.
This exercises the back muscles to an amazing degree, providing a nice workout to the entire back area, from the waist, all the way up to the neck. It also increases torso rotation, not only providing additional exercise to the waist area, but helping resolve existing lower back problems and avoiding new ones.
The entire, long arm movement, with hand and grips starting the stroke well forward, all the way to the rear is also a very efficient one as far as propulsion is concerned. The pole tips in practically all cases should stay behind your heels at all times.
You can make the movement as smooth as you want and still get a good, thorough workout. For those already in pretty good shape it should provide a better than ever exercise, incorporating a good stretching motion of most of the torso and the very important triceps muscle.
In July of 2003 I got my first INWA Nordic walking instruction at ISPO in Munich, Germany. By that time I had been utilizing my arm extended, “handshake” technique for more than a decade. In my early years of Exerstriding/Nordic walking, I too had used a bent arm technique, but I had long since discovered that by extending the arm as if it was being offered for a friendly handshake, the arm became a “lever” which really activated the larger muscles of the trunk as well as core muscle vital to high leverl functional fitness.
When I extended my arm to this position out of habit, the Nordic walking instructor “corrected” me by saying that my arm should be bent, but after my INWA Nordic walking lesson I offered to teach the entire instructor group my technique. When I instructed them to extend their arms out into my “handshake” position they immediately acknowledged the noticeable effect on their powerful trunk and core muscles.
Now only a few years later it seems most Nordic walkers have agree on the advantage of a straighter arm extension. You may have noticed that I said straighter…NOT straight! I believe the arm should always have a slight bend in the elbow. That’s why I don’t really like to call it the “straight arm” technique and continue to call it the handshake technique.
With a slight bend in the elbow the triceps still get more than enough of a workout. Certainly if you wish to concentrate more work on the triceps for some reason, bending the elbow will work the triceps more, but in order to get the greatest metabolic effect and build the greatest functional muscle fitness, I recommend a handshake like extension and a fixed (not straight or rigid) arm position .
The greatest debate that remains when it comes to Nordic walking equipment and technique is regarding straps vs. strapless grips and the range of motion of the arms. Like you, David Downer and most Nordic walking instructors still advocate pushing the arms back beyond the torso and opening the hand allowing the pole to form a line with the arm much as in classic Nordic skiing. This release is what makes the strap essential to this techique. But the long range of motion that results from a “straight arm” extension combined with a release at the end of the push requires a correspondingly long stride length. I continue to advocate a “natural”, comfortable stride length because it is less stressful on the joints. This also results in a shorter range of motion of the arms which does not require a complete release of the grip (thus my strapless grip design). The longer your stride, the greater the ground force reaction, and the greater the resulting impact forces on the joints of the hips, knees and feet.
The “European”/INWA Nordic walking style and philosophy has more of a “sport, or what I call “performance” orientation. My good use philosophy of exercise is not sports or performance oriented. I have what I call a “functional” orientation. My techniques have evolved with the aim of improving physical function rather than sports performance.
My instruction to maintain a natural and comfortable stride length and to increase intensity of effort with the upper body instead of increasing pace and stride length is aimed at making fitness walking with poles the safest (low-injury/easy on the joints), most effective (greatest metabolic effect and greatest functional muscle fitness), and most widely popular and beneficial exercise possible.
INWA style Nordic walking is reported to be “20% on average (and up to 46%) more efficient than ordinary walking. Recent research done using my Exerstride method Nordic walking techniques showed that it was 36% on average (and up to 94%!) more efficient than ordinary walking! Don’t write it off until you’ve tried it!
When it comes to both Nordic walking equipment and technique, I encourage all those within the growing Nordic walking community to explore all the options available to them as well as make their own individual contributions to the future evolution of Nordic walking. I’ve tried most of the equipment out there, and every technique I’ve been able to imagine or ferret out. There will of course always be differences of opinion on matters of equipment design and technique, but I encourage Nordic walkers everywhere to look at all the available options with an open mind rather than (as too many have done) dismiss as inferior equipment and technique options before they’ve actually tried them. Nordic walkers should be encouraged to choose from the entire menu of available equipment and technique options and so that each of them can discover what works best for them and best helps them reach their goals and most importantly – enjoy the process of doing so!