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When Pressure is a Good Thing

Put more pressure on the water for better speed and efficiency

Scott Bay | July 25, 2016

Swimming is different from most other sports because we spend very little time exerting force against a solid object. As terrestrial creatures, we spend our whole lives with resistance based on some sort of solid force—in running, it’s the ground, in cycling it’s the pedals. A need for strength against a solid force and speed of movement are the two things that rule almost all land-based sports, but anyone who has spent any time in the pool can tell you that this is definitely not the case for swimming, where technique rules the day instead.

Swimming is different

Because water is liquid, different rules apply from those we encounter on land. Learning to exert controlled pressure on the water will be more effective than applying brute force. Strength is still an important element but pressure is more important, and this is especially true for the catch phase of all strokes.

Swimming velocity depends upon putting pressure on the water in a propulsive way while minimizing any drag forces that could slow you down. And particularly in freestyle and butterfly, it’s not just the hands that you should be looking to for creating this pressure on the water—it’s also the forearms. This is why long-sleeved wetsuits have textured patches on the forearms to help swimmers catch more water—i.e., put more pressure on the water with their forearms.

Pressure Drills

Use these tips to improve your catch and pull in both freestyle and butterfly and watch how the pressure you exert on the water increases.

  • After the hand enters the water, think about where your fingers are. They should pitch down toward the bottom of the pool as you initiate the catch.
  • Think about your elbows, and specifically where the point of your elbow is (that’s the part that makes a point when you curl your arm). Rotate that ‘point’ outward so that the forearm can follow the fingertips into the down position.
  • You should feel your shoulders shrug up by your ear a bit and feel your latissimus dorsi (flying squirrel muscles) engage, or open a bit.
  • Anchor the hands and forearms in the water and pull yourself over your hands. Accelerate your hands and arms through the pull.

As the saying goes, understanding it is one thing and doing it is another. Swimming is all about making sure you’re doing the movement correctly so thoughtful repetition is the best way to go. Next time you are at the pool try these drills.

Hands-in-Fists Drill

Thehands-in-fists drill is an excellent way to practice the catch and pull with the forearm.

  • For freestyle, use a pull buoy. That way you won’t compensate for a lack of catch and pull by having a strong kick.
  • For butterfly, use fins. Most swimmers find it very challenging but also very instructive. If you can do it with a pull buoy, that’s awesome.
  • Don’t cheat! Make a true fist like you’re going to punch something. The point is to take the surface area away from the hands and make you rely on the forearms. If you simply can’t resist the urge to open your hand, hold a tennis ball in each hand.

Paddle Drill

Using paddles in a nontraditional way is a good idea, too.

  • Remove the straps from your paddle and wrap your fingers over the front edge.
  • Hold the paddle to your palm and forearm. If at the end of 50 yards, your fingers are sore, it might be because you’re dropping your elbows and the paddle is pulling away from your forearm.
  • Try this drill for butterfly as well.

Is This Right?

How do you know if you’re doing it right? The answer can be the feedback you get from your own body. If you feel the effort in the triceps and the lats, then you’re most likely doing it right. If you feel the effort in the front of the shoulder, then you may be a little out of position. Have a friend video you if this is the case, or better yet, ask a coach.

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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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