Don’t Overlook These Key Muscles When Trying to Swim Faster
You need to have an effective kinetic chain to maximize your strength while swimming
Have you ever tried swimming with your hands balled into tight fists? You don’t get a lot of propulsion, do you?
Swimming with your hands closed (commonly referred to as fist drill) dramatically demonstrates the importance of their surface area in engaging the water. Wearing large paddles emphasizes the same idea in a different way. There’s no doubt that your hands are key factors in creating thrust in swimming.
Likewise, the force that moves your hands originates elsewhere. Big muscles such as the pecs, triceps, and lats provide the bulk of your power. But just as a bicycle needs a chain to transfer power from the pedals to the wheels, your body must move power from the source muscles to your hands. Known as a kinetic chain, this system can translate the energy from relatively small muscular contractions near your shoulder into a large sweep of your hand that accelerates your body forward through the water.
A broken chain renders the bicycle useless. Similarly, joint injuries, tendinitis, and broken bones represent severe damage to a human’s kinetic chain. But just as an intact bike chain loses performance from rust or bad derailleurs, you can lose power from weaknesses within your power transfer system.
Most Masters swimmers are aware of the importance of abdominal and core strength in supporting the delivery of power, but I’d like to focus on an oft-neglected transfer point: the wrist and forearm. Because the pitch of your hand (its angle in relation to the direction of movement) is so critical in maximizing thrust, the components that control pitch must be accurate and strong.
The Forearm’s Importance
The muscles of your forearm control how your hand is positioned. Hold up your hand and look at it. Stiffen your fingers as if you intended to let no water escape. Did you notice how your forearm tensed to create that finger stiffness? Now wave your hand and watch your forearm. Did you see how muscles all around your forearm became engaged? (You don’t swim with your fingers tightly clenched together, but you need to maintain firm pressure on the water, and a strong forearm helps keep your wrist from breaking the plane.)
Great swim coaches will suggest subtle changes in hand pitch to achieve maximum thrust or to find the most efficient streamlined position. As you press against water, there’s an equal force of the water pressing back against your hand. Swimmers with weak forearms experience slippage as that opposite force bends fingers or changes the wrist angle. Swimmers who simply don’t pay attention experience the same thing as their hands flop around in nonproductive motions. Therefore, it’s not only important to strengthen the muscles that support hand pitch maintenance, but also to strengthen your awareness on what is happening out at the end of your arm.
Training from Elbow to Fingertip
Here are some drills and exercises to keep your kinetic chain rust-free.
- Lightly rub your fingers and palm along a rough part of the pool deck to sensitize your touch receptors. Then swim with your eyes (mostly*) closed so you can feel the pressure of the water on your hands. Is it evenly distributed across your fingers and palms? What happens if you change the angle of your hand; can you feel the pressure change? (*Open your eyes as needed. Safety first!)
- Tread water with arms only. Notice how your wrist moves. Then lock your wrist and try the same thing without changing the angle between your hand and forearm bones. Try it with your fingers splayed apart and then again with them held tightly together. Then try it with them slightly apart, as you would have them while swimming. Develop the habit of always feeling the pressure changes on your hands, and what the muscles in your forearms did to create those changes.
- Standing in shallow water, close your eyes and move your wrist to what feels like a 30-degree angle with your forearm. Open your eyes and see if it looks the way it felt. Adjust to different angles and repeat until you what you feel exactly matches what you see.
- During breaks between sets, keep your hands moving under the water. Feel how each change in pitch moves water in a different way. Use recovery time to fine-tune your sensing accuracy. (Hey, this works in the hot tub too!)
You use your forearms every day, from gripping your oatmeal spoon to typing the great American novel. Therefore, if you want them stronger, you must stress them a bit more than you might think. Include forearm training in each of your resistance training sessions and vary the exercises to ensure continual adaptation.
- Fingertip push-ups—Don’t let your palm touch the ground as you do push-ups. Use fewer fingers as your strength increases.
- Wall-outs—Face a wall with your feet two or three feet away. Place your palms flat on the wall and use your forearms to push your body away until only your fingertips touch the wall. Modify your distance from the wall to adjust difficulty. Try to keep your fingers stiff. (Avoid spousal ire by cleaning up any fingerprint smudges you leave behind.)
- Swim with paddles—Paddles increase the workload on your forearms but be careful to avoid overstressing your shoulders or letting your forearms flop.
- Dumbbell wrist curls—Use a reasonably heavy weight to roll your wrists. Go in both directions (lifting the knuckle side of your hand as well as the palm side) as well as from side to side. You can brace your forearms against your knees or a bench, or you can perform the exercise with arms held to the sides. You should do this until exhaustion (when you can no longer repeat the movement), rest, and then do it again.
- Cable isometrics—Perform standard cable machine exercises (triceps press, biceps curl, etc.) but don’t grip the handle. Instead, press against it with just your fingers, holding your palm even with your forearm bones.
- Roll-ups—Using a dowel (or broomstick segment) with a rope tied to a weight plate, roll the stick as if you were reeling in a kite while lifting the weight off the floor.
- Grippers—There are lots of toys and accessories that can be used to perform squeezing exercises. Find one you like and torture it mercilessly.
Play the piano, guitar, saxophone, or theramin. Ambidextrously transcribe the dictionary. But whatever you do to strengthen your forearms, keep in mind that it’s all about getting a better catch and a more powerful pull.
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