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Name the parts

If you ask most people to name the parts of the arm they will probably list the following:

  1. Hand/fingers and thumb

  2. Wrist

  3. Forearm

  4. Upper arm

There won't be any mention of the collarbone or the shoulder blade - both of which are part of the arm. Do some research. Type "parts of the arm" into Google.

Learn more

A student
should take the time to learn a little more about the arm. Understand the role of the ulna and the radius, how the collarbone works and why the scapula are very important.
Any good tai chi teacher will educate their students in these matters.


Muscular tension is the biggest factor when it comes to healthy use of the arm. This can be caused by any number of things. Typically poor usage is the reason.
Most people force their arms to perform activities in a manner that causes strain on the joints and leads to compensation by other muscle groups such as the shoulders and the neck.
Headaches ensue. e.g. raised shoulders immediately confirms a shortening of the muscles as a consequence of exertion.

Stretching whilst tense

Often people seek to overcome tension by stretching. This is not the solution. Relaxing the muscle and then lengthening it is the solution.
The problem with trying to stretch whilst tense is that the muscles are contracted throughout. They cannot reasonably relax and lengthen.
Instead of stretching the soft tissues, the individual puts strain on the joints. Pulling/separating the joints is clearly not healthy.


In qigong and tai chi we keep the arms in a rounded shape throughout. This serves to allow the collarbone to settle into an 'open' position which is conducive to strength and health.
Closing the upper chest or the shoulder joint impedes the collarbone and affects breathing.


A number of the most basic qigong exercises are designed to activate the scapula. The scapula are usually neglected and offer little functional support for the arm.
Re-awakening the scapula and teaching the student how and why to use it is a preliminary concern in every qigong syllabus.

Common mistakes

It is quite common to see tai chi people stretching way too far from their body.
This may look aesthetically pleasing but prevents both the collarbone and scapula from achieving optimal functionality.
Another error is 'pinching the salt' when performing single whip. That practice causes an immense amount of hand, wrist and forearm tension.
And for what? Only a fool would use a pinching the salt position for striking. A fist or palm is way more effective and sensible. Single whip is about hooking or striking with the knuckles.
Some tai chi styles don't actually flex the wrists fully during form practice; denying the arm crucial exercise by neglecting to work the wrist joint.


Technologies such as mobile phone, computer keyboard, mouse and video game controllers all require people to use the hands and wrist in an unnatural manner.
This is why people get repetitive strain injuries.
e.g. simply holding a mobile phone requires some degree of muscular effort but all too often people use far too much strength; promoting tension.


If you look at most people's forearms the muscles are usually under-developed and weak. The obvious exception being people who use their arms to lift heavy objects as part of their job.
It is rare to encounter somebody who has strong, flexible forearms and no unwanted muscle tension...


Unfortunately, the elbow tends to really get abused. Most people have exceedingly restricted elbow movement. This is caused by habitual, regular misuse of the arm.
Your elbow should be relaxed, heavy and dropped. There is absolutely no health benefit in having tense arm muscles and immobile elbows.

From car seats to constrictive clothing, from chairs to shoes that distort posture,
many features of modern life curtail our natural movement patterns.

(Liz Koch)

Crook of the elbow

Many women carry bags in the crook of the elbow. This is particularly bad for the health.
The elbow is not a weight bearing joint. Hanging a bag from the elbow promotes a very high degree of physical stress in the body.


Poor use of the arms means that the body is under major duress. And for no real reason. Since the elbow is not supposed to bear weight, the muscles of the arm, shoulder, back and neck must compensate.
This is a fast track method for headache.

Hand luggage

Carrying too much in the hands is pretty much the same as using the crook of the elbow. Somewhere else has to compensate for the weight.

6 balanced pairs

Elbows & knees are one of the 3 external harmonies. Elbows and knees must both be naturally relaxed and in line. Elbows and knees store and release together.

Pumping up

A lot of people like to pump up their arms. If you look at a gorilla, it appears to have short legs and long arms. This is not true. Humans have small, weak arms and long, powerful legs.
Instead of trying to pump up the arm muscles, humans should work on strengthening their lower body, core and back.


It is common to see people favouring one side of their body, usually the right hand side. The left arm is relegated to a supporting role and does far less work than the right.
Failure to use both arms equally leads to muscular imbalance, poor motor skills, reduced coordination, poor biomechanical understanding and the inability to employ the left or right side without needing to think about it.

Physical awareness

You may or may not notice the muscle tension yourself. It all depends - not on strength - but on what you are used to, along with physical awareness and sensitivity.
If you have poor bodily awareness, then the chances are that much of what you do day-to-day causes minor strain. Tension in the upper back, neck and head is likely.

Ignorance is not bliss

Not noticing a problem indicates that your awareness is poor. It does not mean that the problem doesn't exist.

Using your arm badly involves poor stabilisation of the scapula through under-activity. At the same time, there is over-activity of the upper trapezius. When lifting, the scapula fails to stay glued to the back of the chest wall. It puts the small muscles of the rotator cuff to greater effort but, by making the neck muscles contribute, it causes chronic neck strain.

(Sarah Key)

The source

Most people's arms are extremely tense and they don't even realise it. Why? Why are people's arms tense?
Your hand is the primary tool employed by the mind for the exploration of reality. You touch, you hold, you press, you pull, you manipulate most things using your hands.
Jacob Bronowski wrote "The hand is the cutting edge of the mind." There's your answer. A tense arm is the by-product of a mind that is not in any way relaxed and at ease.

Staying tense

There is a direct correlation between mental tension - over-thinking, anxiety, frustration, worrying, anger, stress - and physical tension in the body.
Indeed, students who are actively sharing news snippets and regurgitating political views on Facebook are inevitably the most tense in class, have the most trouble concentrating and subsequently make little or no progress through the syllabus. Their brains have been hijacked by the mass media. If you want to stop being tense, you need to switch it all off.

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Page created 18 April 2005
Last updated 16 June 2023