ARM STROKE

By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

ENTRY AND GLIDE

One hand enters the water while the other arm is mid-stroke. Entry is steep, index finger first, palm facing slightly outward, at a comfortable distance from the head. The arm is then straightened underwater very close to the surface. Arm then serves as leverage for streamlined body rotation*. It is best to have the palm facing straight down with hand relaxed. Arm should be straight but not tight or locked in the elbow. People looking should not notice any bend but you should not feel the tension in your triceps. Elbow is pointing to the sidewall, arm is extended and chin is on the shoulder. Do not try to stretch out. This is another poor choice of words to explain something (I am sure a lot of my colleagues will disagree with me). You need to glide with your body straight in line from the tip of the
middle finger, through the shoulder and hips, to the tip of your toes. People who try to stretch drop their elbow and bend their torso, with hips breaking out of the shoulder-line. The only part of your body that stretches is your arm until your elbow is at a 180 degree angle. This is a deceleration phase so the glide should be limited to a reasonable length, or a compromise between relaxed swimming (long distance per stroke) and speed (tempo, turnover).

 

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The insweep finish of the right arm accompanied with the entry and glide of the left. Notice how palm is still pointed angled outward slightly, then moves into the horizontal plane with the rotation of the body that occurs during the next two phases.

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Side view of the insweep. Notice how close to the surface the hand is. The closer to the surface your arm is (higher in the water), the more powerful your downsweep (the phase that follows next) and higher your body position will be.

 

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DOWNSWEEP

Downsweep moves the arm into position for the catch (another unfortunate term, since we catch things with our hands and the catch phase of the freestyle arm stroke is performed with the whole forearm). The hand and forearm are aligned* moving down, forward, and slightly out (you can call this phase the real glide since you just finished the stroke with your other arm that was accompanied by the kick and you’re traveling at high speed). The elbow points to the sidewall and the chin stays on the shoulder. There is a slight bend in the elbow. During the downsweep, the other arm will exit the water and approach the midway in the recovery phase (the highest point of the elbow and the maximum angle of the upper body rotation). If you were somehow rotating around the central body axis (head-neck-heart-pelvis-legs-feet) you would not be able to have the highest point in recovery and the maximum rotation at this point but rather at the mid-stroke (after the catch). The fact that it is this way shows the asynchronous nature of the arm stroke (arms are not in the opposite phase). Keep your hand semi-relaxed**

*Do not bend your wrist. Any attempt to pull backward will cause a drop in the elbow and a loss of overall propulsion surface.
Recommended drill is fist swimming (refer to our drills and tips page).
**Keeping your hand rigid is the most common error among novice swimmers. You should try to apply as much force as needed to keep your hand straight with fingers about 5 millimeters apart, no more, no less. Unfortunately, no one can teach you how much force you need to apply to keep your hand at the maximum propulsive efficiency. Only you can feel this, and this will come through long swimming.

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The downsweep phase and the exit with the other arm. Notice how the palm faces straight down and the body is starting to roll more to the side.

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Side view of the downsweep. You can see that the force is applied straight down with the whole forearm-wrist surface combo. The wrist is perfectly aligned with the forearm. The ability to push down with your forearm-wrist while prolonging the length of this phase is the single biggest difference between a good and an excellent swimmer. Working on your kick and distance per stroke (i.e., 3/4 catch up drill) can significantly improve this phase of the stroke as well as your overall speed and ability to swim long and relaxed.

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CATCH

The arm is flexed about 90 degrees at the elbow and the hand is fairly deep (about 60 cm.). The hand can be out of the shoulder line or right at it when catch is made, depending on your style and muscle development (out/strong lats, and at the shoulder/more pectoral involvement). This is the first truly propulsive phase of the stroke. Keep your wrist straight! Make sure your arm is not too deep, so as not to limit the amount of power you can apply in the catch and insweep phases. How deep your downsweep will go and at what depth the catch will occur again depends on your style and specific muscle group conditioning. A more shallow catch has the advantage of a short period of deceleration, with more force and acceleration during the catch; however, this way is not only very hard on your shoulders, but also requires tremendous power and endurance from the lats. A deeper and in catch has the advantage of confining the insweep to the body and creatng more acceleration, but lengthening the deceleration period due to a longer downsweep.

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A deep and more in catch style typical for distance swimmers. During this phase the body achieves maximal roll; the elbow is pointed to the side wall.

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Side view of the catch phase. Notice the in-line forearm wrist surface combo. The elbow is pointed to the side wall; the other arm is midway through recovery.

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INSWEEP             

The hand is below the chest and in good position to apply the maximum force. Use the large muscles of your back for this phase. The hand pitch changes from out to in during the insweep. The arm does not flex more than it already is. Halfway through the insweep, the other arm enters. At the end of this phase the other arm straightens and glides slightly. The body rotates back to the horizontal plane at the end of the insweep; this causes the feel of the hand coming inward to the center line. Some crossover with the non-breathing side arm is common due to greater rotation to the breathing side, which causes the opposite side arm to go deeper and more inward. Try some alternate breathing patterns. Breathing every stroke (two breaths per cycle) is particularly helpful.

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The insweep phase. Notice the size of the propulsion surface; it's almost your whole arm.

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Side view of the insweep phase. The wrist is still aligned with the forearm, with the elbow high and pointing toward the side wall.

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Front view of the end of the insweep. The elbow is still at 90 degrees, as the other arm is just entering the water.

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Side view of the end of the insweep phase and the entry with the other arm, a perfect example of the asynchronous nature of freestyle.

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UPSWEEP

The upsweep starts when the hand is close to the midline. The body is horizontal, with the other arm straight up. Hand pitch switches from in-back to out-back. Do not attempt to extend the arm rapidly during this phase; instead, try to feel like you are pushing off with your arm as long as possible. This is achieved by closing the angle in the shoulder (use lats) and keeping the forearm perpendicular to the body’s trajectory. As the angle of the forearm-surface closes, position your hand perpendicular to the forward trajectory in order to extend the acceleration period of this phase. This is the only time when your wrist should be bent and toward the upper part of the forearm. During this phase you will reach maximum velocity. The end of the upsweep (the last effort/propulsive phase of the stroke) is immediately followed by the downsweep of the other arm. The use of hand paddles can improve this phase as welll as muscular endurance in the muscle groups used.    

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The upsweep phase. It is easy to see that the pitch of the hand changes to in and back, with the other arm moving through the entry-extend-glide phase with the hand pitched out.

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Side view of the upsweep phase. Notice how the angle of the upper arm-surface closes while the forearm is still perpendicular to the traveling trajectory, which provide the maximum propulsion.

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EXIT AND RECOVERY

At the end of the last propulsive phase, the palm should turn inward since the recovery will start while the hand is still underwater. An inward palm should minimize the drag during the arm-hand exit and prevent tension in the shoulder and possible hand-led recovery. Your goal during recovery should be to cause the least amount of lateral movement and to rest the recovering arm as much as possible. This is accomplished by recovering entirely from your shoulder. With every muscle in the arm relaxed, recover it by using the back and mid sections of your deltoid muscle. Your relaxed and weightless hand should naturally remain close to the surface and very close to your body. It is good to practice relaxed recovery with your palm facing your body (face) the whole time. Look at your hand as it goes by your head. Make sure it is not more than 4 inches away from your face. Close, tight, high elbow recovery is the only way to properly relax and maintain proper alignment. The fact that some great swimmers recover with straight arms should not confuse you. It is rare, and if you look closely, their elbows are still very high, body alignment unchanged. Recommended drills: finger drag, shark fin, zipper, arm-pit touch, etc.

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Exit and recovery with the left arm and entry and glide with the right one. Notice the pitch of the right hand entering (outward) as well as the pitch of the left hand exiting (inward)

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Side view of exit and recovery. Notice how close the hand is to the body and how the palm is facing the hip.

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Side top view of the beginning of the recovery phase; the hand is relaxed and recovery is led by the elbow.

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Midway recovery, top side view, shows the highest elbow position during the downsweep phase of the opposite arm stroke.

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Recovery end/entry phase, top side view. The hand enters at a very steep angle in order to minimize the resistance during this phase. How far from your head your hand will enter depends on how long your arm is. It is best to make sure the entry is at a steep angle, with minimal splash and no slapping of the water.

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Midway recovery phase, top front view. Notice that the upper arm is almost vertical while the body is still at about a 50-60 degree angle roll. This is accomplished by having good shoulder flexibility. From this photo you can see that the rotation is done around the arm that is in the water in a downsweep phase and not around the central axis.

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By Nenad Rodic, founder of TriathlonPlace.com