Why Fixed Arms On Office Chairs Work Against You: A Case Of The Tail Wagging The Dog

Of course there’s nothing wrong with using an office chair with fixed arms. What's the big deal? As long as I've got somewhere to rest my arms that’s OK isn't it? Well, yes if you're very lucky it might be but the odds aren't good.

Why fixed arms on an office chair are never a good idea
Even today with all the awareness about potential problems with Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and carpal tunnel issues fixed arms are still the norm on many office chairs. This inflexible way of working is not good for as number of reasons.

First, most fixed arm designs are based more on coming up with a sexy shape than what they should do – support your arms and shoulders properly. Some have straight tops while others drop away alarmingly at the front, but hey they look cool.

Second, they are usually made from rigid hard plastic and are just plain uncomfortable to use.

Third, little or no thought goes into the design of them in terms of their height. It’s really all a bit of a lottery as to whether they are right for you. We are all unique and so a fixed arm can never work for more than a small minority of users.

It’s not a good idea to rely on luck that a fixed arm will be right for you. What can you do to find a better solution to fixed arms?

A simple step up adds loads of flexibility
Fortunately many chairs now come with standard adjustable arms and this is a major improvement for your comfort and proper arm support.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about this sort of arm. Quite simply they quickly adjust up and down, normally by about 3 to 6 inches. Straight away you're able to set the arm height at the right height for your own personal comfort. For the vast majority of people standard adjustable arms are all you need. A number of manufacturers offer even more arm choices.

Adding further comfort refinements
One option you will always find worthwhile is selecting padded arms if available. These include foam padding on the arm tops and greatly increase comfort for the underside of your lower arms. Others are made with a soft plastic on the arm tops, however this isn't quite as effective as foam.

The next level of arm is often referred to as highly adjustable arms. These will have added functions and can include some or all of these features:

  • Tops that can be angled in and out for a wider range of arm support
  • Tops that slide backwards and forwards – useful for getting closer to your desk
  • Arms that can be adjusted in width to give your shoulders better aligned support
  • Arms that can be temporarily moved out of the way effectively making your chair armless

Is there a case for having no arms on your chair?
Most people find they need arms on their chair. However this isn't universal. If you prefer to work in a chair with no arms there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Office workers who spend a lot of time typing and keying in data frequently find it preferable to work in close at their desk.

Effectively the desktop provides support for the user’s arms instead of the chair. In fact when you work up close to your desk many chair arms can actually hit the desk edge and prevent you working in this way.

Let’s quickly summarize the key point we've covered here.

  • Fixed arms are inflexible and uncomfortable
  • Getting fixed arms of the right height is a lottery
  • Height adjustable arms make it easy to set the arms where you need them
  • Padded arm tops will greatly enhance your working comfort
  • Highly adjustable arms have many useful refinements

Here's where you can find a summary of office chairs with adjustable arms. Some of them have highly adjustable arms with great additional functions to enhance working comfort.

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Arm Options For Office Chairs: Making Sure You Make The Right Choice

If you look at chair manufacturers’ price books you will see that most chairs are offered without any arms at all. Why is this? There are occasions where this makes sense, more on that later.

What choices of arms are there?
Increasingly these days chairs come with adjustable arms enabling the user to set the position to suit their way of working and this makes good sense. Nonetheless, there are still a huge number of chairs sold with fixed arms. These are a permanent part of the chair and don't move and can be a hindrance.

What arms should you avoid?
You may just be lucky and find that fixed arms are the right height and shape for you. Frankly this isn't very likely, so choosing them is all a bit of a lottery. For this reason it’s always best to avoid fixed arms because they can often get in the way when you're working if their shape and position doesn’t suit your body. Given the choice between fixed and adjustable arms it’s always best to opt for adjustability, even the most basic versions are a big improvement on a rigid arm.

What features are available on adjustable arms and which should you go for?
Adjustable arms come in a wide variety of levels of sophistication. Entry-level versions usually just adjust in height and this is by far and away the most important feature. It means you can set the arm height to support your shoulders naturally and safely. So the good news is even the most basic adjustable arm will offer you major benefits.

From there you can get highly adjustable arms where the arm tops swivel inwards and outwards. This can be very useful for people with narrow shoulders as the arm width is often too wide for them.

Additionally some arm tops also slide backwards and forwards and this again can be handy for fine-tuning the arm supports. It’s particularly convenient if you like to work close to your desk because you can push them backwards so they aren't in the way yet still support your arms.

Some top end chairs allow the width of the arms to be adjusted making it easy to set them to suit your shoulder width, so your arms hang at a natural angle.

If offered it is always a good idea to opt for padded arm tops because prolonged use of hard plastic arms can create a lot of discomfort to the underside of your lower arms.

A few manufacturers take things a stage further and offer arms that can be completely moved out of the way. HÅG’s Futu chair allows you to quickly push the arms behind the back of the chair. With Neutral Posture’s swing arms it’s possible to rotate them by 180 degrees to achieve the same effect. Effectively your chair becomes armless.

When don't you need arms on an office chair?
As mentioned at the beginning of this article there are instances when an armless chair makes sense. Some people like to work close up to their desk and so for them the actual desktop takes the place of the chair arms. And if this is how you prefer to work then this makes good sense.

It’s all down to how you like to work and if you're not sure whether you want arms or not, why not decide later? Many chairs allow you to retrofit arms so you could start out by buying a chair without arms and see how you get on. If all goes well that’s good and if not buy a set of adjustable arms and add them later. Just make sure they can be fitted later as not all chairs allow this.

Let’s summarize the keys points I've covered in this article.
Chairs often include the option of no arm, fixed arms and adjustable arms
Avoid fixed arms where possible they're uncomfortable and inflexible
Adjustable arms come in varying levels of sophistication to suit how you work
Armless chairs can be good for people who like working close up to their desk
If you pick the right model you can try armless first and add arms later

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