A common limiter for many swimmers is the tendency to maintain the exact same hand speed through the entire stroke. This is especially noticeable in those who began swimming as an adult. Top masters swimming coach Eric Neilsen initially brought this concept to our attention. He refers to this limiter as swimming with a “monospeed” pull. Swimming with a monospeed pull hinders performance because it doesn’t allow the swimmer to fully access the propulsive power from the lats, upper back, and torso muscles. Any time athletes do it, and it usually becomes even more pronounced when fatigued, they are limiting propulsion. If swimmers and triathletes want to swim freestyle better, overcoming a “monospeed” pull in your stroke is essential. Here’s what to know.
How and When to Accelerate Hand Speed in Swimming
Defining “Monospeed” and Why it Matters
Swimming freestyle with a monospeed pull can affect swimmers at any level of ability or experience.
Olympic triathlon coach Tim Crowley has observed that a lot of adult-learned swimmers & triathletes, and even some elite-level triathletes, swim with a monospeed pull.
Somewhere along the way, those athletes never learned how and when to apply force to their stroke. This resulted in the continuation of swimming with a monospeed stroke. Many swim with what appears to be an efficient stroke and good bodyline, but they just don’t maximize their propulsion.
To understand why it happens, consider the concept of accelerating hand speed from the catch to the finish of the stroke.
Ideally, the hand, wrist, and forearm (as shown above) work like a rigid canoe paddle “blade. No bending at the wrist.
The paddle blade’s speed throughout the stroke path, also known as “hand speed,” should steadily increase. This is especially true from catch to finish.
When you look at the three phases of each stroke — entry, catch and finish — you can see how varying speeds impact performance.
Coaches recommend visualizing “reaching the hand and arm over a small physioball” to get into the high elbow catch position. When your “paddle blade” enters the water, imagine the arm rolling over a ball.
It would be counterproductive to push the red ball downward with your extended hand and arm pushing with much force. This action would simply lift the swimmer up and force the legs down, thus creating unnecessary frontal drag.
Avoid applying much downward pressure on the water in the very beginning phase of the stroke right after entry. Instead, quickly get your “paddle blade” into a high elbow catch position (arm over the red ball). Then accelerate the stroke as if you are pushing that ball straight backward until your hand gets to the hip.
(This video on “How to keep your legs from sinking” shows why it is important to learn this technique element.)
Once the “paddle blade” reaches “the high elbow catch” position and is set up to pull with power, many athletes unknowingly continue pulling with the same force and slow hand speed they used from entry to catch.
Lack of hand speed acceleration from the catch to the finish will limit force production by the large “pulling” muscles of the back, lats, and torso. This can happen even if the swimmer has an excellent high elbow catch.
Timing of the pull in freestyle must be connected with a slight rotation of the torso and core stabilization to maintain a long, taut bodyline.
If the legs “fishtail” side to side when applying force from catch to finish, that could be a sign the core stabilizers are not activated. (Learn more about proper rotation in Freestyle in this video.)
If the “paddle blade” pushes up on the water with too much effort at the end of each stroke, then the upper body will be forced down slightly. This creates undulation, more drag, and slower swimming.
It’s best to push straight back without flicking the wrist or pushing up on the water at the finish.
This video of Australian champion swimmer Grant Hackett shows how well he “grips and rips” the water with acceleration from catch to finish, demonstrating what varying hand speed should look like when performed correctly.
How to Measure Monospeed with the Vasa SwimErg
If you’re not sure whether or not you vary your hand speed, you can easily find out by using a tool like the Vasa SwimErg.
One key benefit of using the Vasa SwimErg is the ability to see the arms throughout the stroke. You can consistently position the arm to maintain a high elbow catch without crossing midline.
You can use the visual and audible cues from the SwimErg to keep your stroke on track. The monorail in the middle provides a visual cue if the swimmer crosses over the midline. The power meter display shows stroke rate and watts so you can see the watts increase when accelerating with force. The audible sound of the fan wheel increases significantly when your hand speed accelerates from catch to finish. When you connect the muscles of the lats, back, and torso with each stroke, you’ll generate more power.
Many coaches report using a Vasa SwimErg to diagnose if an athlete is swimming with a “monospeed” pull. Especially when fatigued. If a swimmer pulls with the same “paddle blade” speed, it is easy to see and hear it. Corrections can then be made by teaching the athlete the best stroke path on land and when pool swimming.
When a swimmer accelerates the hand speed properly from catch to finish, the Watts displayed on the Power meter increase. (as shown above)
Power output and right/left balance typically are lower if the athlete does not consistently accelerate hand speed while pulling. The average power will increase about 10 – 20 Watts when an athlete can sustain a powerful pull with hand speed acceleration. Sustaining power can be trained and having digital power data helps a lot.
Utilizing the Vasa SwimErg to Overcome a Monospeed Stroke
It’s important to maintain a steady stroke rate while learning this concept using a Vasa SwimErg or in the pool. Holding a steady tempo forces the athlete to find ways to increase Watts without compromising form.
Also, the SwimErg’s fan wheel makes a higher pitched sound as the air passes faster through the SwimErg’s airflow system. As the swimmer accelerates the pull from catch to finish of the strokes, the fan will make a louder sound.
Coach Neilsen teaches his athletes to use the Power Meter numbers (Watts) and also the audible cues from the SwimErg. This biofeedback is extremely valuable, especially once fatigued and both cues tend to diminish.
Some coaches also like to record videos of the athlete training on a Vasa SwimErg. Video recorded from a side view makes it easier to see if an athlete is not accelerating hand speed. Simultaneously noting the Watts on the power meter add more evidence. This biofeedback becomes even more valuable when fatigue becomes a factor. Many athletes revert to using a monospeed pull when tired.If you’re swimming freestyle with a monospeed pull, your technique needs a tune-up. Click To Tweet
Holding a set stroke rate with a focus on accelerating hand speed at the catch will result in greater recruitment of the powerful back, lats, torso, and core stabilizer muscles.
When athletes integrate dryland training with a Vasa SwimErg and put it all together in the water, their technique, efficiency, and ability to sustain a powerful stroke will improve dramatically.
This process will increase the swimmer’s ability to get into the catch position without much downward pressure on the water, then accelerate the blade hand speed to recruit the powerful pulling muscles.
Progressing In and Out of the Water
It’s useful to implement a progression for integrating this concept into swimming in the water.
Start by using a pull buoy and swimmer’s snorkel to eliminate kicking and side breathing. Using a pull buoy in the pool replicates the body position used on a SwimErg. This allows the swimmer to focus solely on accelerating hand speed in the pool, similar to the way it’s done on the Swim Erg. Using a snorkel allows you to practice without needing to breathe to the side in order to stay focused on practicing the pulling motion and holding a long, taut bodyline in the water.
Coach Neilsen notes that “when using the snorkel, once the athlete knows what they are looking for, they are in a position to make the needed corrections because they can always be watching their hands.”
Once a swimmer masters this concept and learns how to accelerate the “fingertips-to-forearm paddle blade” while engaging the torso for rotation and stabilizing their body line, they can progress by leaving off the snorkel or the pull buoy, and eventually both tools.
How to Overcome a “Monospeed” Stroke with the Vasa SwimErg
Coach Eric Neilsen recommends that athletes use the SwimErg to practice a drill called the double arm pull with butterfly recovery.
In his words:
“[This] teaches swimmers how to accelerate through the stroke and continue into a relaxed recovery that is still carrying speed. This drill is most helpful for those swimmers prone to getting stuck at the back of their stroke, for those carrying too much tension in their recovery, and the “monospeed” swimmer. For the advanced swimmer, I coach them to do the double-arm pull with butterfly recovery while lying supine on the SwimErg bench. That challenges everything more since less of the body is supported and the athlete can get a bit more lower abdominal involved.”
Accelerating the pull at the critical part of each stroke will progressively increase swim-specific sustained power. This is possible due to the isokinetic resistance provided by the airflow fan wheel in the SwimErg and power meter display”.
You can swim freestyle better by overcoming a “monospeed” stroke if you know what it is and how to recognize it in your own stroke. Progressive improvements in technique and ability to sustain more power SwimErg training are transferable to putting it all together in the water for a stronger, better, more efficient stroke.
Daly Daly, CSCS
Dryland Strength & Conditioning Coach
Head coach, FAST Masters
Masters Swimming & Multisport Coach
If you want to learn how to improve freestyle swimming technique, efficiency, power, and endurance, be sure to sign-up for our free course: How to Swim Faster Freestyle swimming clinic series
It’s taught by Masters Swimming World Record Holder and technique coach Karlyn Pipes. In this clinic, five elements for faster swimming are demonstrated in the pool and on land using a Vasa SwimErg.