When you’re shopping for an office chair, you’ll have a choice to make. Do you want a chair that has arms, or a chair that doesn’t? There are pros and cons to both options, and there’s no one right decision. We’re here to help you pick the right choice.
The Benefits of Chairs with Arms
First up, let’s talk about the benefits you get from having arms on your office chair. There are a few of them, and while some people might not feel like they’re hugely important, they can be deal-breakers for others.
Better Ergonomics at Your Desk
For many chairs, the position of the armrests is determined by the height of the chair plus any adjustment in the armrests themselves. However, they are generally engineered to rest at around the same height as the surface of the average desk. This way, your elbows, and forearms can rest on the arms while you type at your desk, without putting undue strain on your body holding your arms up to type.
Of course, this mostly only works if you’re of average height and build. If you’re unusually tall or unusually short, outside of the average that the typical office chair is designed to cater to, you’ll need to look for something a little different. It also may or may not be beneficial depending on the tasks you’re performing; some tasks require a more free range of movement, while others are focused in a small area.
Arm Support Lessens Shoulder and Neck Strain
Some estimates place the arms as accounting for around 10% of your overall body weight. They aren’t as heavy as legs or as bulky as the torso, but they’re still a lot of meat and bone weighing down on your muscles, tendons, and skeletal system.
When you use armrests, you can rest that amount of weight on the chair, rather than letting it all hang from your shoulders or press down on your wrists and forearms. This alleviates a lot of the strain that your arms naturally put on your shoulders, neck, and back. It also helps reduce the amount of pressure pushing down on your rear end and the seat of your chair, which can alleviate other sources of pain as well.
Easier to Get In and Out of The Chair
If you’re a naturally larger person, or if your desk is arranged in a particular way, you may need to stand up more or less vertically rather than sliding to the side and relying on your legs. You may be able to use your desk for some support, but the last thing you need is your chair sliding out from under you when you’re only half-way to your feet.
With a chair that has arms, you can put your weight on those arms to press upwards, and the chair should be able to take it. Depending on how your chair is constructed, of course. Some of them have only a few small bolts holding the arms to the chair frame, and the torsion put on the arms from pressing down on them can break them eventually. You’ll have to watch out for this.
Less Stressful on Arm and Wrist Muscles
Similar to how resting and relaxing your arms on the chair’s armrests alleviates stress on the neck, back, and shoulders, it can also alleviate some issues in your forearms. When you’re holding your arms up to type, you end up putting a lot of weight on your wrists. Depending on what kind of additional wrist rests you have, this might lead to compression in the carpal tunnel, leading to worsening repetitive stress injuries.
A lot of this depends on your overall posture, however. If your arms are lower than your keyboard naturally sits, you may end up with a positive tilt, which can put additional stress on your wrists. If you’re naturally sitting higher, you might benefit from a negative tilt keyboard instead.
Reduced Temptation to Sit Crossed-Legged
When your chair has arms, it reduces the amount of room you have side to side on the chair. When you have more room, the temptation exists to sit with a leg underneath your thigh or crossed over your other leg. While this can seem more comfortable initially, the pelvic twist it adds to your spine can cascade up through the muscles in your back and lead to everything from back pain to herniated discs to migraines.
It's strongly recommended that you sit with your feet flat on the floor, your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, your thighs parallel to the floor, and your waist bent at a 90-degree angle, so your back is straight. This is the “proper” ergonomic posture and is the best for long-term health and wellness in an office environment.
Potentially More Comfortable
This last one is, of course, the most subjective of them all. Some people find a chair with arms much more comfortable to use than one without arms. On the other hand, some people find the opposite to be true, which is why this is also a pro listed in the armless chairs section as well.
The Benefits of Armless Chairs
Now that you know the benefits of a chair that has arms, let’s talk about what you get from a chair that lacks them.
More Versatile Use of Space
A chair without arms is better able to fit in multiple spaces, in tight spaces, and in spaces where you’re sitting in a corner. One of the biggest examples is an L-shaped desk. L-shaped desks are designed to fit into a corner and give you maximum desk surface in that corner, but they can make it very difficult to fit in a chair that has arms. The arm on the interior side of the L will constantly rub up against the edge of the desk, and it prevents you from pushing yourself closer to the desk surface itself to work. You’re more heavily restricted on the kinds of actions you can take when you have arms in the way.
A stool is even better than an armless chair for this purpose because it also lacks a back that would get in the way of turning and can also damage the edge of the desk. We’ll talk about damage next.
Less Likely to Damage the Edges of Your Desk
Depending on the kind of desk you’re using, a chair can damage the edge of it. Most low and mid-range desks have a simple particle board or MDF surface, covered with a thin veneer of plastic that has a texture and coloration of the wood grain. These veneers can wear off with abrasion over time. First, the color goes, showing the plastic beneath, then the plastic itself goes, leaving a rough and splintered surface. This surface can then catch on clothing or skin and can be painful over time.
For desks that are made of glass, solid wood, or a composite material, they will be able to withstand the scuffs of the chair more easily, and can themselves be repaired (other than glass) if need be. If the material is harder, though, the chair could be damaged itself. In either case, you’re left with damage from two office furniture pieces repeatedly colliding and rubbing against one another, and that’s never a good thing.
Sometimes Easier to Get In and Out of The Chair
Depending on you, personally, and how you use a chair and your office space, a chair without arms might be easier to get into and out of. Larger people, people who prefer to turn and rotate to get out of a chair, and people who need to slide back away from their desks might all benefit from a chair without arms.
As with when we mentioned this as a pro under chairs with arms, this is an intensely personal decision. The way you get in and out of a chair is something you develop over time, and a lot of it has to do with your overall health. If you have hip or knee issues, for example, the arms in the chair might make it difficult to get in and out of the chair. To a certain extent, you’ll just have to try different kinds of chairs and see how they work for you.
Better Ergonomics With a Keyboard Tray
On a typical desk, a keyboard tray hangs below the main desk surface. This tray is lower than is comfortable for some people but is the perfect height for letting your arms hang and your wrists more or less hover while you type. A lower keyboard tray, particularly a tray with a negative tilt, makes it a lot easier to use a keyboard while keeping your main desktop surface clear.
The caveat here is that your chair needs to not get in the way of using the tray. Larger, bulkier chairs, especially those with large arms that are not adjustable, get in the way of the tray. If to use the keyboard tray, you need to squeeze your arms into your torso to fit in between the arms of the chair rather than on top of them, you can recognize that the arms are a detriment to you. In that case, an armless chair might be the better option for you.
More active Than an Armed Chair
While a chair without arms is not better than a stool for active sitting, it is better than a chair with arms in terms of keeping your back and spine in constant motion. When you move your arms a lot, you need to constantly adjust the way your body sits, and those constant adjustments prevent muscles and tendons from locking up and causing damage to your back.
Potentially More Comfortable
As we mentioned for chairs with arms, chairs without arms can be more comfortable for some people. There’s really no telling which one will be more comfortable for you than the other until you’ve actually given them both a try. Luckily, you can do that without too much issue. Unfortunately, one thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of factors that can go into the overall comfort of a chair above and beyond the presence or absence of arms. For example, the lumbar support, back support, seat tilt, and back tilt adjustments are all important too.
All of the above is really just a long-winded way to say “get the chair that works best for you.” Some people will find a chair with armrests more comfortable than one without. Others find that armrests get in the way of the work they need to do at the chair and prefer a chair without them.
The real solution, though, is to buy a chair like the ErgoChair 2, which can be assembled with or without the arms. Try it both ways, with one chair, and see which one you like more. If you prefer it with arms, you can keep them in place. If you prefer it without arms, simply remove them and set them aside. They won’t go anywhere on their own, we promise you that.
If you’re going to go with this method, we recommend using the chair for at least 1-2 weeks each way to see which option is better for you. The only reason to cut the test short is if one option or another leads to an absolute deal-breaker, such as serious back pain or extreme disruption of your workflow. These are pretty unlikely, though.
Finally, you can also consider using a chair that’s not a chair at all. Something like the ErgoStool allows you to practice active sitting and gives you much more flexibility in your range of postures and positions while working. Of course, a stool will always lack arms, so that’s a choice you’re making when you buy it.
At the end of the day, of course, the choice is yours.
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