Flying birds flap their wings to generate aerodynamic forces large enough to overcome weight and drag. During this behavior, the forelimbs are displaced and deformed in a complex, coordinated sequence of movements collectively known as the “flight stroke.” Despite an influx of relevant fossil material and new functional insights from extant birds, the historical origin of the avian flight stroke remains poorly resolved. Potential behavioral precursors have been identified primarily on the basis of kinematic resemblance—similarity of movement irrespective of underlying mechanisms. We discuss fundamental issues of motion analysis that are frequently overlooked by paleontologists, and conclude that a purely kinematic approach is insufficient. Consideration of kinetics, the forces responsible for motion, offers a more complete picture of flight stroke evolution. We introduce six kinetic components that interact to determine a limb's trajectory. Phylogenetic mapping reveals that forelimb loading patterns have undergone at least two major transitions on the line from basal archosaur to modern bird. Using this kinematic and kinetic perspective, we offer four specific criteria to help constrain and evaluate competing scenarios for the origin of the avian flight stroke.