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Technique and Training

Right at Your Fingertips

No matter how you pitch them, your hands are important

Scott Bay | November 28, 2016

Many of us over the age of 30 were taught that, during freestyle, our hands should enter the water thumb first. Some of us still swim this way. Others were taught to put our fingertips in first. You can see both styles being used today, even in the elite race pool.

So which is correct?

The short answer is “both,” depending on who you are and what you do after the entry.

Thumb-First Entry

We used to teach kids to put their hands in the water thumb-first when swimming freestyle because we were also teaching the now-obsolete S-pull. At the time, it seemed only natural to set the hand up for the out-sweep. These days, although almost everyone agrees that the hand path in freestyle should be more of an anchor and straight pull, there is still some merit still to the thumb-first entry because this puts your elbow in the right place to get an early vertical forearm. Thumb-first entry also opens up your shoulder so that you can swim with your body rather than your shoulders.

If you swim with a thumb-first entry pay attention to the following:

  • After the hand enters the water, rotate your little finger towards the centerline of your body. This gets your hand in a position where the water does not slip off the edge of your hand. 
  • With that rotation, remember to twist only the wrist—don’t drop the elbow.
  • Feel the pressure on your little finger at the beginning of the pull and your index finger as your hand exits the water.
  • Be careful not to chop at the water. That extra momentum from entering with your thumb could cause you to over-reach if you’re not careful. Bring your hand in front of your head rather than in front of the shoulder instead.
  • This approach works well if you use a thumb-first entry on butterfly, too.

Fingertip Entry

The advantage with the fingertip entry is that your hand is already in the right place, but there are also a few things you should look out for when using this type of entry.

  • How far forward do you reach? Think about slipping your hand into the water with the fingers first. If the fingertips and the rest of the arm hit the water at the same time, you’re reaching out too far over the water. Slip the hand in and slide it forward under the water. 
  • Think about where the point of your elbow is before you pull. Make sure it’s rotated out so you can get a nice, high-elbow catch.
  • Just like thumb-entry swimmers, make sure you can feel where the water is slipping off your hands during the pull.
  • Be aware of the width of your entry. Some finger-entry swimmers tend to flatten their stroke and end up swimming too wide, as if paddling on a surfboard. This not only widens your drag profile but also puts your hands farther away from your core and reduces your leverage on the water.
  • Remember these same pointers in butterfly—they’ll translate well if you swim with a fingertip entry on that stroke, too.

Mixed Entry

So what happens if you have one hand that does thumb-entry and the other using fingertip-entry? It happens!

Coaches used to assign drill after drill with kids to ensure they had symmetrical strokes but more recently, coaches have come to realize that each swimmer is different and asymmetrical swimming isn’t necessarily a problem. Sometimes, “fixing” an asymmetrical stroke can slow a swimmer down. Fast swimming can be executed in a range of ways, and some of these differences are mere eccentricities rather than something that needs to be fixed.

It’s also important to remember that not all shoulder joints are the same. Technique that works for one swimmer might cause impingement for another. This can depend upon several factors besides joint anatomy and whether you have a thumb-first or fingers-first entry—elbow and hand position play a part as well.

If you’re not sure which entry you use, ask your coach for help or have a friend video you.

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About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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