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Faster Freestyle Lesson #4: Putting More “Oomph” in Your Stroke

5 Steps to a Stronger, Better, Faster Freestyle Swim

In Lesson 4 of our Faster Freestyle Swimming video series, coach Pipes explains the Pull and how to put more “oomph” in your stroke. Click on the video below to learn how.

Lesson 4:  The PULL: Putting More “Umph” in Your Stroke

So far in this course, we have focused on setting up your stroke so you can generate more power and efficiency.

Hand placement, fingertip orientation, awareness of wrist flexion, and the “Power of the Y” all set up “the blade” for maximizing the surface area that pulls against the water, which accesses your most powerful pulling muscles while reducing drag.

Now you are ready to put everything together and focus on how much power (“oomph”) you can generate when using a high elbow catch freestyle stroke.

If you want to gain more “oomph” in your stroke, it’s helpful to focus on elements that affect your hand & arm entry, like the depth of your catch and force of your pull, as well as the overall alignment and movement of your body in the water.

Where does the Power come from in your stroke?

Once your arm sets a high elbow catch, focus on gaining power by connecting your torso, lats, and upper back muscles – to the “blade” (hand & arm). In Freestyle, this means driving the opposite hip downward just as you start pulling with force and acceleration from the catch.

NOTE: Avoid too much rotation, twisting, and turning, as shown above.

The correct amount of rotation at the catch (shown left) – vs. – Too much rotation causes problems (pictured right)

The video below shows how to do it efficiently.

The timing of the rotation and pull is critical if you want the best result. When your catch engages the strong pulling muscles in unison with core stabilizers, and when you pull with acceleration from catch to finish, it puts the “oomph” into your stroke. In other words, it’s when your most powerful muscle groups work together to propel your body forward in a straight, streamlined, efficient way.

When you set up into the high elbow catch, keeping your fingertips, hand & forearm pointed towards the bottom, you’ll be able to access the power of the “big engine” muscles of the back, lats, and torso.

The video below demonstrates the correct body action needed.

Avoid the “Monospeed” Pull

It is essential to learn how to pull with acceleration from the catch to the finish of the stroke. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck using the dreaded “monospeed pull,” when the swimmer’s paddle blade speed does not change from entry to finish. Most adult-learned swimmers have a monospeed pull until they become aware of it and take corrective action.

Umph in your stroke

When studying video of the pulling technique used by elite-level swimmers, it is clear that once their “paddle blade” reaches the catch position, they accelerate their pull with power by synchronizing the pulling arm with the large, powerful back, lats and torso muscles.

The speed of going from “Entry to Catch” is steady, without pushing down on the water. It’s about getting the paddle blade and arms over that imaginary physioball and into position to accelerate the pull from Catch to Finish.  If a swimmer applies too much force in that first segment, it will push them up in the water, make their legs sink, and create more drag.

Think of the total stroke in segments. At each section, a swimmer typically applies a different amount of pressure or force on the water. At Entry, it’s ideal if the “blade” – fingertips to elbow and extended arm – “slices” into the water. Insert your paddle blade directly in front of the shoulder and extend it to the catch position.

IMPORTANT: During this stroke segment, avoid using much downward pressure on the water since that lifts the upper body up, makes the legs sink, and creates drag that slows forward momentum.
Umph in your stroke

Imagine reaching your arm blade over an imaginary ball to get into a high elbow catch. 

Once your arm reaches the high elbow catch, connect the torso & back muscles to pull with force and accelerate the “blade” straight back toward the finish of the stroke.

At the finish of the Pull, when your hand is about to exit the water, avoid pushing up on the water. That motion will drive your body down in the water, creating unwanted drag that will slow your momentum.

How and When to Accelerate Hand Speed in Swimming
How and When to Accelerate Hand Speed in Swimming

Learning the high elbow catch

Learning the high elbow catch – especially for swimmers who learned the old “S” pull technique – can take time and practice to master. A new “groove must get greased” until it feels natural.

In the past, swimmers were taught to enter their hand thumb-first in the water, followed by pressing out and sweeping back in, and finally exiting the hands after it brushes the thigh (this creates an “S” shape, also known as the “S” pull).

The problem with this technique is that it puts much of the power at the end of the stroke. It also fails to account for body rotation, thereby overworking the arm & shoulder muscles. If done with poor form, performance will be sub-optimal and could lead to overuse injuries in the shoulder or biceps tendon.

Most modern coaches and swimmers use the high elbow catch technique since it has several benefits, including a more powerful connected stroke, reduced fatigue, and less likelihood of shoulder injury.

What is the Key to a Powerful High Elbow Catch?

It’s all about positioning. The high elbow catch requires correct technical position and repetition to ingrain the movement pattern. Incorrect positioning won’t allow you to access pulling power, creating drag that reduces power and speed.

The good news is that everyone can learn how to do it. You don’t have to be an Olympic-level swimmer to acquire a high elbow catch.

If you previously swam with the “S” pull technique, learning the high elbow catch means rethinking the way you currently catch and pull. Swimming with an “S” pull will cause the swimmer’s body to fishtail or move like an eel in the water, which causes more drag.

Unlike the “S” pull, the high elbow catch keeps the elbow closer to the water’s surface, and the forearm, wrist, and hand are in line as if reaching over an imaginary physio ball just below the surface.

If you’re new to swimming and learning the high elbow catch for the first time, you will still need to focus on the proper body position to get more power without injuring yourself. Many swim coaches like to teach it while the swimmer is on a swim bench, like a Vasa Trainer, because it is so much easier for the swimmer to see and understand the effects of a powerful pull using the high elbow catch technique.

Dryland Workouts to Increase Strength & Power

To increase the strength & power of your lats & upper back muscles, do a 2-arm or butterfly pull with both arms using the Vasa SwimErg with Trainer Straps, a Vasa Trainer, Swim cords, or weight-assisted pull-ups. To increase core stability, try doing Plank exercises and other abdominal strengthening exercises, such as this core strengthening routine, by Olympic-level coach Tim Crowley is a great one to use. For a total body dryland strength workout, try this advanced circuit.

If you’re unsure of your freestyle swim technique, consider working with an experienced coach to help you improve your form.

Practice swimming with a high elbow catch to become a stronger, better, faster swimmer.

Be sure to practice the points made in this Lesson at the pool or while using a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer. Swim training with the Vasa SwimErg, in concert with some pool swimming, will accelerate swim technique, speed, sustained power, and stamina improvements.

Coach Eric Neilsen has discovered:

“Having a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer on the pool deck is the best-case scenario. It provides profound tactile feedback that can be translated immediately into swimming in the pool. The SwimErg helps those athletes challenged by stroke rate or who have difficulty breathing while swimming in the water since they can breathe easily (no face in the water) and keep their bodies straight. Also, side breathing while swimming can create an imbalance. Swimming on the SwimErg is like swimming in water with a front-mount snorkel. It helps you isolate and engage your bigger muscles. You can re-create the clean line used on the SwimErg once you enter the water.”  Coach Eric Neilsen

There are many ways to integrate the training, coaching, and skill work done on the Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer into swimming in the pool or open water.  If you want to focus only on practicing the technique and accelerating your pull, consider using a swimmers’ snorkel and pull buoy to remove kicking and side-breathing.

Until next time, happy swim training, and look for the next Lesson to arrive in your email inbox.

P.S. Get Vasa’s latest “how-to” training and technique information – join 12+ million athletes and coaches using Vasa content to get Stronger, Better, and Faster!