The ENTRY – Hand Placement: How to Set Up the Stroke for Success

5 Steps to a Stronger, Better, Faster Freestyle [5-part series]


Lesson 1:  The ENTRY – Hand Placement: How to Set Up the Stroke for Success

 

swimmer freestyle in pool reaching out

Are you ready to become a stronger, better, faster freestyle swimmer?

Stronger, better, faster swimming requires applying power while executing efficient stroke mechanics. Both of which can be improved when training in and out of the water.

While almost anyone can learn how to swim, to become an excellent swimmer, it’s best to understand the specific techniques that optimize propulsion and minimize drag.
Hand position, body position, and even finger position all affect the outcome. But that’s only half of the equation.

Mindset, attitude, and a willingness to train consistently are also required to see results.

That’s why we’ve developed this 5-part swim technique course. We want to help you understand the critical elements needed to improve your swimming while promoting the tools and the mindset useful for maintaining consistent swim training year-round, whether you can get to the water or not.

To help you improve your freestyle swim, we have to start somewhere. Becoming a stronger, better, faster swimmer requires consistent training to develop an efficient stroke that you can sustain with power.

What Makes a Powerful Swim Stroke?

Force application at the right time in your stroke coupled with a taut, streamlined body will allow you to minimize drag so you can glide through the water efficiently.

To do that, however, it helps to understand the ideal stroke path, such as fingertip orientation, hand-forearm and shoulder alignment, and overall body orientation. If one of those elements is off kilter, the swimmer risks creating excess drag in the water, thereby reducing speed and efficiency.

To combat drag and create more power, you need to put the parts of your body in the right positions. To begin, we often recommend that swimmers learn how to properly set up the stroke to perform what’s known as a High Elbow Catch (aka Early Vertical Forearm, or EVF). A high elbow catch is essential for creating a powerful and efficient pull in every swim stroke.

What Is the High Elbow Catch?

The high elbow catch stroke technique requires a vertically positioned hand and forearm, with the elbow and upper arm just below shoulder level and with your elbow “aimed” to the side, rather than down or back. Note that fingertips, hand, wrist and forearm – acting as one unit together – need to be straight without bending at the wrist. Think of this unit like a canoe or kayak paddle blade – one straight surface to pull through the water.

Using a high elbow catch is ideal for all four swimming strokes – Freestyle, Butterfly, Breaststroke, and Backstroke.

This works well for two reasons. First, it maximizes the surface area used to pull against the water. Second, this position will allow you to access greater pulling power by engaging the larger, stronger muscles in the upper back and torso. It ensures that you get the most pulling output at the right phase of the stroke path while minimizing the amount of drag.

It also reduces the stress on the smaller muscles in the shoulders, arms and biceps tendon, which fatigue faster and are more vulnerable to overuse injury.

Learning the high elbow catch position requires practice. The good news is that you can practice it in and out of the water to achieve the best results.

So what does the high elbow catch involve and look like exactly?

Let’s create a visual of the right arm position at the catch. Imagine that you are about to do a pull-up. Reach your hands up as if to grip the pull-up bar, with the palms of your hands facing away and arms positioned just wider than shoulder width.

Next, with your arms still in that pull-up grab position, imagine a large box floating in space just in front of your face with the upper flat surface at your eye level.

Now move your arms from the pull-up grab position, bend them slightly at the elbows, and set your hands & forearms on that upper flat surface of the imaginary box in front of you. Be sure to keep the fingertips to forearms (“the blade”) in a straight line as you rotate the arms forward at the shoulders.

 

This motion creates the structure for a high elbow catch.

There are, of course, more things involved with perfecting this motion. It does help to have flexibility in the shoulders, and the position of the hands, fingertips, shoulders, and body during the rotation in Freestyle will also impact the effectiveness of the stroke.

To create a powerful catch and pull technique, you will need to practice the high elbow catch with proper positioning. Too many adult learned swimmers mistakenly were taught to enter the hand and arm and glide out onto that side. If you are a triathlete, we highly recommend viewing this video with legendary Ironman and coach, Dave Scott, where he explains how and why it is necessary to pay close attention to how your hand and arm enters the water and what to do just after entry.

Correct Catch and Pull Technique

These elements will ensure your high elbow catch is giving you the power you need.

#1:  Entry with extension.Your fingertip, hand & forearm orientation will impact the effectiveness of your catch and pull since you can use this to optimize the size and shape of the pulling surface. Fingertips should be outstretched long and enter the water first, with the fingertips pointing forward. Note: avoid “the Claw” whereby the fingers are curved and gapped, hands cupped, or wrists bent and distorted. Those just reduce the surface area you need to pull with, thereby “leaking” your propulsive force. As you reach forward with a shoulder shift and slight body rotation, the fingers, hand and wrist should be in an open and relaxed position. We will cover this in greater detail later on in the course.

 

#2:  Catch & Pull.Once your fingertips to forearm as a unit or “blade” are pointing down toward the bottom of the pool, the high elbow catch and powerful pull begins. With your bodyline is lengthened head-to-toe, long and taut, press the water back toward the hips, rather than pushing downward. This action will activate the large muscles of the back to provide lift and propulsion without wearing out the smaller shoulder and arm muscles. Note: pushing downward simply lifts your front up, drives legs down, and creates a lot of drag – so avoid that!At the catch, it’s crucial to pull through quickly and straight back with acceleration toward the finish of the stroke. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck using the dreaded “mono-speed,” which is when the swimmer’s hand speed does not increase or accelerate at the high elbow catch to the finish of the stroke. The “mono-speed” phenomenon is very common in adult-learned swimmers, so first comes awareness then comes corrective action.To see how to do this correctly, take a minute to watch how Australian Olympic champion Grant Hackett uses an outstanding high elbow catch and pull. Notice how well he “grips the water” with his “arm blade” once it reaches the catch position. Then he “rips it” with acceleration and power from his back, lats and torso: watch Grant Hackett high elbow catch and pull video.

#3:  Finish, Exit, & Recovery Concentrate your effort on pressing the water straight behind you with “the blade” – fingertips, wrist, forearm to elbow. Ideally, you will feel pressure on the water on the wrist and forearm, not as much at the fingers. Combined with a taut bodyline and well-timed rotation of the hips & torso, this will give you a long, efficient stroke that minimizes drag and prevents injury. We’ll be discussing this in the final lesson of the course.

With all of these elements combined, you will have a stronger, better, and more sustained power in your strokes.

In Part 1 of our Faster Freestyle Swimming video series, coach Pipes explains more about Hand Placement and how to set up your stroke for success. Click on the video below to learn how.

 

“I am a strong proponent of the use of Vasa Trainer swim benches as multidimensional tools for helping to develop swimmers. I have been using them to train swimmers for over 21 years, and have seen two significant benefits: one in the specific strength of the swimmers’ pull, and the second in the understanding of proper swimming mechanics that comes from doing things the right way on the Vasa.” – Matt Kredich, Head Swim Coach, University of Tennessee

Stay tuned for the next lesson to learn the most effective fingertip & hand orientation.


PUT IT TO PRACTICE:

  • Be sure to practice the points made in this lesson at the pool and with a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer.
  • Plan to select just one of the focus points – Entry, Catch, Pull, Finish & Exit – and swim just 1 or 2 lengths of the pool while practicing that aspect of the stroke. Then do the next one.
  • Consider using a pull buoy and swimmers snorkel, as this will eliminate the variables of kicking and side breathing so you can focus on correct arm strokes.

Until next time, happy training!

Rob & the team at Vasa

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