Monday, October 31, 2005


'Straps' versus 'Strapless'

With increasing frequency I being asked about the merits of Nordic Walking poles with straps versus poles without straps. Rather than continuing to reply individually I thought I would make this posting for all to see.

Whilst most Nordic Walking poles have a specially designed wrist strap, there is one notable exception (there may be others although I am not aware of them). That is the poles manufactured by Exerstrider in the USA.

Exerstrider poles are marketed by their creator - Tom Rutlin, as the 'original fitness walking poles in 1988' - A claim that can be fully substantiated - (see my posting 'The History of Nordic Walking - A Clarification' on September 30th).

I have a lot of time and respect for Tom not only for his pioneering work in the field of fitness walking with poles back in the 1980's but for his continuing efforts over the years and to this very day to promote this wonderful activity in every way that he can.

Ok - At Nordic Walking News I do my very best to offer an 'independent' view in the world of Nordic Walking. So what is my view on this subject?

Whatever poles you use and whether they have wrist straps or not there are fantastic benefits to be experienced.

However, I have had the opportunity to try both options - I personally own both Exel & Leki poles with straps and a pair of Tom Rutlin's 'strapless' Exerstrider poles.

As much as I have every respect for Tom Rutlin (who incidently gives me much encouragement with my own Nordic Walking ventures) and I value his opinion, I have to come down firmly in favour of poles with straps for the following reasons (and the first one is a biggy in my opinion).

1) In Nordic Walking (but not in Exerstriding) there is a phase during the polling action called 'open hand', This comes after the phase 'pushed past hip' and increases the range of movement (ROM) the shoulder works through. The larger the ROM the greater the potential for the associated muscles to do more work.

As the Exerstrider poles do not have straps there is not the opportunity to 'open hand' and achieve the full ROM. The handle design on the Exerstrider poles also limit how far you can 'push behind the hip'.

The ROM is in my opinion a really important point. The Exerstrider technique requires that you push only to the hip anyway. Now as one of my own clients pointed out to me - that is not a natural walking action ! If you walk correctly (without poles) your arms will swing ahead of you and behind you. Using the Exerstrider technique and or poles you are only completing half of the natural action. However, with the Nordic Walking technique using poles with straps you are able to complete the full natural swing just the same as if you were walking without poles.

In my opinion, in order for people to experence the full 'health' benefits of walking, one of the things they have to do is swing their arms through the full natural range and not limit the range by stopping the swing at the hips.

As the old saying goes - 'Use it or lose it' - In other words if you persistently work joints and muscles through a reduced or limited range you will eventually lose the ability to work them through the full range.

A natural walking action with a backward and forward arm swing promotes a fuller (natural) range of movement in the shoulders and shoulder girdle and also rotational movement in the thoracic spine (the part of the spine the ribs stick to) - Again this free movement is really important if you are to obtain the full health benefits of walking and not suffer in the future from reduced range of joint movement.

2) In my opinion it is a clear advantage to be able to let go of the handles and work the poles via the straps. The further you walk the greater the advantage. I have to say I found it a disadvantage having to hold onto the handles (albeit lightly) when using the Exerstrider poles.

3) With all poles you should avoid gripping the pole handles too hard (particularly if you suffer with high blood pressure) . Think of the handle as a baby bird - Don't let it fly away but don't squeeze too hard either! However, in practice it is all too easy to squeeze too hard. With straps you will not be holding the handles all the time so that will be an advantage to you if you suffer from high blood pressure.

Ok - So there you have my opinion and findings - I have read many fantastic testimonials from users of Exerstrider poles. Please do not think I am saying that Exerstrider poles are no good - I am not - They are very good - It's just that having had the opportunity to try the different options I have come down in favour of poles with the strap option for the reasons I have stated in this posting. If you are a user of Exerstrider poles I am sure you will have many more years of great enjoyment and benefit out of them.

One final point: This is to do with technique not the actual poles. I whole heartedly endorse Tom Rutlin's straight arm (versus the more commonly used bent arm) 'plant' during the polling action - Tom calls this his 'pump handle' technique. I have previously written at length in Nordic Walking News as to why Tom's 'pump handle' gets my vote. But, simply put - When you plant your poles do so with a straight arm (in practice this will be very slightly flexed). As you push down keep the arm straight.

I love a good debate. And a good debate calls for the expression of not only opinions, but also the basis for those opinions. Your "'Straps' versus 'Strapless'" posting states your opinions and the basis for your opinions very thoroughly, while it states only my opinion, but not the basis for my opinions. So please let me state those in order to facilitate a real debate so that those who read this blog can be more fully informed about both sides of this issue.

Obviously, I favor a strapless grip. For many years my Exerstrider poles did, in fact, have straps. Being a long time Nordic skier, it took me a good long time to let go of the notion that poles "must" have straps.

The reasons that my poles do not have straps are many. First of all I have never found straps to be at all comfortable. In the late 1970s I disliked the design and function of Nordic ski poles straps so much that I designed and fabricated my own strap design which was very similar to the strap design on most Nordic walking poles today. I went to this trouble at the time because straps are essential to Nordic skiing.

Then and now, I found any strapping system of any design to be uncomfortable, stressful on the wrists, circulation inhibiting and inconvenient. When I began fitness walking with poles back in 1985, I also found that straps chafed and were especially hot and uncomfortable in warm weather. Finally, I am convinced that being strapped to the poles creates a greater likelihood of serious injury in the (albeit unlikely) event of a fall.

It was for these reasons that I originally set out to design a strapless grip that would be ideally suited to fitness walking with poles. At the same time I attempted to develop techniques that I believed would deliver the maximum health and fitness benefits.

Despite the fact that Nordic walking is very similar to Nordic walking in many ways, it is dissimilar in other ways. The greatest dissimilarity is that is Nordic walking there is no glide phase to the activity.

I divide the arm action of Nordic skiing into three phases. The fully extended "preparation phase", the "power phase" and the "follow- through phase". Both the preparation and follow through take place during the glide phase of Nordic skiing. Since there is no glide phase during Nordic walking, the range of motion of my Exerstride method Nordic walking technique is limited to the "power phase". The power of poling in both Nordic skiing and Nordic walking comes from the point when the arm is extended into what I call the handshake position (David refers to it as the "straight arm" plant) and the real power has all been generated by the time the hand begins to pass the body and begins the "follow through". It is during the follow through that the grip is released in both Nordic skiing and INWA style Nordic walking.

The problem of using both my "straight arm" or handshake technique and the passing of the hand behind the body and a release of the grip is that in order to have that long range of motion, one must have a correspondingly long stride. Another feature of my Exerstride method Nordic walking technique is the maintenance of a comfortable, normal stride length as opposed to the long stride promoted in INWA style Nordic walking.

Stride length is of course a matter of personal choice and comfort, but the longer the stride, the more the injury causing impact force upon heel strike. I also find that a normal, comfortable stride length is more acceptable as well as safer among most fitness walkers.

Concerning the ROM issue, I have been using my technique for more than twenty years and I have experienced no diminished functional ROM despite the fact that my technique does not call for the arm to pass behind the body when Nordic walking.

Finally, for the record I have occasionally experimented with passing my hand behind the body and releasing the poles and have found that one can open the hand and release my strapless grip if you simply hold it between the thumb and first finger.

No matter which technique you opt for you will find that my strapless design grips are cool, comfortable and place no irritating stress on the wrist in the way that strapped poles inevitably do.

As is the case in all debates, when it comes to the straps versus strapless debate there is no definitive truth. You will decide for yourself what opinions and basis for those opinions seems most well reasoned to you. But the bottom line conclusion can only be reached by each person trying both strapped and strapless poles and both INWA and Exerstride method Nordic walking and listening closely to the feedback that you get from your body. Nordic walking may be good for the head, but it is primarily what it does for your body that really counts!

No matter which technique and equipment design your settle on as your particular favorite, like David said, "Whatever poles you use and whether they have wrist straps or not there are fantastic benefits to be experienced." Keep Nordic walking and...

Stay Well,

Tom Rutlin
Many thanks Tom for replying to my posting and for giving the readers of Nordic Walking News the opportunity to hear your side of the story. Like Tom I believe it is good to have an open and sensible debate.

As an independent publication (eg not tied into any manufacturer etc), Nordic Walking News gives people the chance for such a debate. This can only be healthy and in the best interests of the greater cause - namely Nordic Walking.

So, I would encourage anyone who has had the benefit of actually using BOTH the Exerstrider strapless poles AND the strapped poles manufactured by companies like Exel, Leki, Swix, Fischer etc, to join the debate and post their comments.

However, please remember this - At the end of the day the one thing we must all not lose sight of(and I know Tom agrees,)is that we must all pull together to promote the world wide expansion of this finest of physical activities, regardless of whose poles we use and in the case of instructors, who gives us our training.

I am posting this reply on behalf of Peter at The Wallnut Company in the Netherlands...

Dear David,

First congratulations on having succeeded to build an open mind towards "walking with poles". You are a great tribute to improve the possibility for people to choose for a technique !

As for the strap-discussion. As an "early" adaptor in Europe of the exerstrider technique and having learned the technique to several hundreds of people in the Netherlands by now I would like to comment the "unnatural half movement".

It appeared that especially this "half" movement of the arms is fundamental for keeping a low (normal and natural) walking speed. And this is what mainly elder and slightly disabled people love about the technique. It may be not a fully completed move but it is the fundament for the easy-to-learn technique AND the possibility to keep striding in
an easy way.

That is in my opinion why people who would never start nordic walking (as it is far to exhausting for them) can perfectly start exerstriding.

This makes exerstriding (besides of all other great effects) THE method to get this group of people moving again !

And in my opinion it is better that they move with a not fully completed armswing (which is compensated by the pump-handle technique which makes it a 100 % total-body-workout) than not moving at all !

So that is why I personally think that the strap is not necessary. (And when you fall, you will not brake a wrist...).

Hope to meet you one day. Keep up your great work,

Stay well,
A few years after this debate, I have to chime in on the side of Tom.

Although I own an inexpensive pair of Nordic walking poles, I use Tom's technique for the following reasons:

1. I am recovering from major surgery and the only exercise I'm permitted to do is walking. Because powerwalking was my exercise of choice, I find using Tom's technique "friendlier" with my arm movements.

2. At 56, I am older and the Nordic technique requires more of me than I can give at this time. Tom's technique is spot on for getting me back into fitness, kicking up my walks notches, and not taxing my (somewhat inflexible) muscles.

I've had these poles for a couple of years, but found that the Nordic technique just didn't work for me. Since discovering Tom's technique, I use them with my walks several times a week.

If I depended on *just* walking and swinging my arms for ROM, then I'd be in pretty sad shape. Walking with poles is wonderful, but other means of exercise, including stretching and weights (when Dr says okay), have to be incorporated for a complete fitness plan in my opinion.

Just my (very late) 2 cents' worth.
Sorry if I'm being obtuse, and I'm certainly not being flippant, but is it not possible to buy Nordic poles and use Tom's technique with them? If this can be done then actually you can use different techniques on different days, depending on how you feel.

Thanks for the information and it's certainly good to see two heavy hitters of nordic walking slugging it out in friendly fashion!
Jon thank you for your question.

Yes you can use Tom's technique with standard Nordic Walking poles. I'm sure Tom would say that to get the full benefit you would need to use his poles because they have been crafted to his specific technique (and I wouldn't disagree) but the answer is yes.

It doesn't work the other way around though. If you are using what I would term the full European technique: E.g if you let go of a pair of Exerstriders on the push behind hip phase, then of course you will drop your poles ;-)
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