Arm movements after perturbations like tripping over an obstacle have been suggested to be aspecific startle responses, serve a protective function or contribute to balance recovery. This study aimed at determining if and how arm movements play a functional role in balance recovery after a perturbation. We tripped young subjects using an obstacle that suddenly appeared from the floor at exactly mid-swing. We measured arm muscle EMG, quantified body rotations after tripping, and established the effects of arm movements by calculating how the body would have rotated without arms. Strong asymmetric shoulder muscle responses were observed within 100 ms after trip initiation. Significantly faster and larger responses were found in the contralateral arm abductors on the non-tripped (right) side. Mean amplitudes were larger in the ipsilateral retroflexors and contralateral anteflexors. The resulting asymmetric arm movements had a small effect on body rotation in the sagittal and frontal planes, but substantially affected the body orientation in the transverse plane. With the enlargement of the ongoing arm swing, the arms contributed to balance recovery by postponing the transfer of arm angular momentum to the trunk. This resulted in an axial rotation of the lower segments of the body towards the non-tripped side, which increases the length of the recovery step in the sagittal plane, and therefore facilitates braking the impending fall. © 2009 Springer-Verlag.