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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 69 – October 2001
The attainment of uprightness was a decisive factor in the evolution of the hominids, the family to which we belong. Walking upright freed the hands and the arms from their former locomotor functions. The ’emancipation of the upper limb’ was great progress. But have you ever wondered how you assume this freedom?
It has often been said that people don’t know what to do with their hands and arms. They may be free from the menial locomotor function but they are rarely quiet and at rest. This is why Man has invented pockets, worry beads, handbags and straitjackets. Since the arms in a true state of repose are a rare occurrence, we must establish the natural position of rest for the upper limb.
In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, F M Alexander addresses the question and says that one “curious and interesting” test to judge the state of co-ordination in an individual is to observe “…his hands when they fall to his sides in the position which comes naturally to him”. He goes on to say that there are “…three main stages to be observed in man’s development in this particular…”.
In the so-called first and early stage of development, the person stands, according to Alexander, “…with the palms of the hands forward, the elbows bent into the sides, the thumbs sticking out away from the body”. In the second stage, found in “the average civilized man of to-day” the palms of the hands are directed towards the sides of the body, the elbows to the back, the thumbs forwards.
In the third stage, which is supposed to correspond to “the properly co-ordinated person”, the backs of the hands are facing forward, “the thumbs inwards, and the elbows slightly bent outwards”.
Nowadays, teachers of the Alexander Technique do not seem to be much interested in the question of shape. So it’s not surprising that in the recent books written about this technique, no reference is made to the normal position of the resting arm. There is one exception though. In his well-written book Indirect Procedures, A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, Pedro De Alcantara, says that “Alexander wrote about three distinct ways of using the arms…”. Then, Pedro goes on repeating uncritically the description given by Alexander that I’ve just quoted above. I don’t want to be a stickler for detail but Alexander was not, in this instance, writing “about three distinct ways of using the arms”. He was, rather, describing three positions that the arms can take when they are idle.
he distinction is important: there is a great difference between idle arms and active ones. Even more important is to question the soundness of Alexander’s judgement regarding the diverse positions that our dependent arms can adopt. Does the third kind of position described by Alexander really represent the acme of “the properly co-ordinated person”? I think, pace Alexander and Pedro, that it does not.
According to F Mézières, the middle finger should fall in the middle of the lateral part of the thigh when the arm is hanging down freely. It rarely does. Owing to shortened muscles, the majority of people present rounded shoulders and other defects in the upper limb and shoulder girdle which affect the position of the arms and hands. It is common, for example, to see people whose hands fall in front of the thighs. Another example of departure from normal shape is the position with the back of the hands facing forward with “…thumbs inwards, and …elbows slightly bent outwards”, the very position that was thought by Alexander to represent the ne plus ultra of co-ordination.
Before you take sides or take up arms, let’s briefly look at the anatomy of the upper limb. It is made of three segments: the arm, the forearm, and the hand or functional extremity. The forearm is made of two parallel bones – the ulna, on the little-finger side, and the radius, on the thumb side. The two bones of the forearm can move upon each other so that the hand can be turned. These movements of the forearm are called pronation and supination. To distinguish between the two, put your elbow to your side and flex it at a right angle. Then, twist your forearm so that the palm of your hand faces the floor – you’ve achieved the position of pronation. In this position the two bones of the forearm are crossed. Now, turn your forearm in the opposite direction so that the palm of your hand faces the ceiling – this is the position of supination. The position of neutral rotation is obtained when you position your hand as when you give a handshake, thumb pointing upwards and palm facing medially.
When the arm is hanging down along the body, the elbow joint is not fully extended and the forearm is in a position close to mid-pronation, known as the functional position of the forearm. According to IA Kapandji, this position “corresponds to a state of natural equilibrium between the antagonistic muscle groups so that expenditure of muscular energy is at a minimum”. This indicates clearly that the position of the hand in a semi-proned position corresponds to its position of rest.
But why should the elbow be slightly flexed and the hand semi-pronated? The answer lies in the existence of a muscular chain, which runs from the shoulder down to the palmar side of the fingers. A muscular chain is always stronger than non-concatenated muscles.
As the muscles belonging to the brachial (pertaining to the arm) muscular chain are all flexors and, except one, pronators, these actions predominate, which explains the typical position taken naturally by the hanging arm.
Now, I invite you to stand up and check what position your upper limb is adopting when you leave it alone. Have you got happy arms or twisted ones? Anyway, since you are twisting mine, I will anatomize the upper limb a bit more in the next issue.
1. Alexander FM. Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Chaterson. London. 1946.
2. De Alcantara Pedro. Indirect Procedures, A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1997.
3. Kapandji IA. The Physiology of the Joints. Vol. 1. Churchill Livingstone. 1982.