The PULL – Wrist Awareness: Using “The Power of the Y” for a Stronger Stroke

5 Steps to a Stronger, Better, Faster Freestyle

Lesson 3:  The PULL – Wrist Awareness: Using “The Power of the Y” for a Stronger Stroke

alex meyer head shot of swimming in lane of pool

Have you ever noticed how the best swimmers in the world make it look so easy? Let’s find out why.

Last time we went in depth on the Catch and the importance of positioning “the blade” (fingertips to elbow) required for sustaining a powerful, efficient stroke.

Awareness of your wrist is another element in this equation, and getting that right can have a positive effect on force production and speed in the water. Holding a firm wrist in line with the hand and forearm is something that every swimmer needs and those that master the power of the wrist will improve in any of the 4 strokes.

For freestyle swimmers, this means keeping the wrist in line with the fingertips and forearm, rather than flexing much at the wrist joint. Again, think of the canoe blade analogy – fingertips, wrist, forearm – all held together in a firm straight line to present a more effective pulling surface to the water.

For those athletes who have developed a habit of flexing at the wrist, it’s worth the effort to retrain this part of your stroke position, even if it means some exercises to strengthen that area.

If you’ve got the bad habit of using a “Princess wave”, which means twisting at the wrist, that needs to change too! Any extra motion other than a straight insertion of the blade into the water in front of your shoulder just wastes energy and potentially creates more drag.

How Does the Wrist Position Affect Power and Speed?

One goal of improving the stroke is to enter the water with hands & arms to create as little frontal drag as possible. Ideally, arm entry will be completely smooth with your “blade” angled at about 10-15 degrees relative to the surface of the water upon entry.

Allow only a slight flexion of the wrist, with fingertip position just below the level of your wrist.

If you flex too much at the wrist upon entry, the back of your fingers and hands will be “shoving water” in front of you, which creates unnecessary drag forces, slows down your entry and potentially causes strain or injury to your hands and wrists.

A subtle wrist flexion of 10 – 15 degrees as the hand enters the water will enable you to “slice” into the water smoothly without excess drag. Be sure to hold that angle with some stability in the wrist, yet not too rigid.

Entry with a weak or floppy wrist will lead to shaky or wavy hands, an issue that freestyle swimmers commonly experience at hand entry.

Some describe this as a “poor feel,” but this instability is often the result of low strength & stability at the wrist and shoulder.

Without enough strength in your shoulders, forearms, and wrists, it’s difficult to control where the water is going around you during your stroke. Unstable hands, forearms, and shoulders can result in the displacement of water in such a way that creates more drag, slowing you down. In turn, it will ultimately require more energy and effort to overcome the deceleration of your body in the water.

When the hand enters the water, isometrically hold the 10 – 15-degree flex to prevent excess movement. Once the arm completely enters the water, the wrist angle must keep steady as the fingertips to forearm remain relatively straight.  This video shows the wrist angle of many top competitive pool swimmers in the world and gives perspective on the entry to catch segment of the stroke.

Strive to be able to maintain a firm wrist with relaxed fingers & hand at the catch with minimal effort.

What’s the best way to Prevent Drag and Injury During Entry and the Initial Catch?

One key to preventing drag is to hold an ideal wrist angle and to improve shoulder and wrist stability through strength training. Masters Swimming coach Karlyn Pipes likes to tap into what she refers to as “The Power of the Y.”

The “Power of the Y” concept focuses on swimming with an open hand with a firm, straight wrist that allows for increased pulling power from the lats and upper back muscles. The key is to feel the pressure on the water on the forearm and wrist, rather than out on the palm and fingers.

When you focus applying pressure on the water with that part of your “blade”, it tends to release tension in the shoulders, while accessing your large back and lats muscles for power.  It’s a “save your shoulders” technique.

Most swimmers have been taught to apply power with a “hard hand,” i.e. rigid hand & fingers. However, this can put excessive pressure on the muscles of the shoulders and the biceps tendon, which are recruited to propel you through the water. Add poor form and fatigue to this technique and you’ve got a recipe for overuse injuries in the shoulder and biceps tendon areas.

To test this out, find a partner to face toward you and hold out their palms up & flat. If you press down on your partner’s palms while they resist, you will notice more tension in your shoulders and biceps.

Swimming with a hard hand will quickly fatigue the smaller muscles of the shoulders and forearms and put too much strain on the wrists. Over time, this will slow your speed, strain your muscles, and may cause overuse damage.

Now, have your partner hold your forearms just above the wrists. Press down with force, and you will notice a shift in tension to the lats and upper back, rather than the shoulders and biceps.

With an open, relaxed hand and slightly flexed wrist, the large propulsive muscles of the lats, upper back and torso engage more.

This style shifts the pressure from fingertips & palm to “the blade” – wrist and forearm – which recruits the lats and back muscles for greater power.

In Freestyle, when the lats, back, and torso muscles are working together, you’ll get a very powerful, sustainable propulsion. So it is beneficial to engage them with every stroke.

How to Train for Shoulder and Wrist Stability

Putting the focus on the wrist and forearm will give you more power during your stroke. To do this consistently, you will need to keep your wrists and shoulders stabilized.

Improve your core and shoulder stability by doing exercises during dryland training. Focus on the desired wrist, forearm, and body position, especially while training with a Vasa SwimErg, Vasa Trainer, or stretch cord tubing & bands.

Take a minute to watch the video below which shows the shape your “blade” needs to be when training on dryland and focusing on wrist awareness. The athlete is using forearm cuffs to better feel the pressure on the forearm and wrist, a concept developed by Matt Kredich, head swim coach at the University of Tennessee.

When training on a Vasa Trainer, SwimErg, or Sport Bench with tubing, use either the forearm cuffs or the Power Paddles to add wrist awareness to your stroke. If you drop the elbow or bend too much at the wrist, the cuffs and the power paddles will slip a little bit, thereby providing useful biofeedback to make corrections, especially if for “dropped elbows”.

Whenever practicing the strokes in the water, be sure to maintain a high elbow high catch. As we have covered already, swimming with a high elbow catch reduces strain on the shoulders, accesses the stronger muscles of the upper back & torso, and sets up the stroke for powerful, efficient pulling. It also helps prevent injury to the small muscles in the shoulders & biceps tendons.

Once in the water, focus on the “Power of the Y” by holding “the blade” – fingertips to elbow – as a firm unit and apply pressure on the water just above the wrist to generate more power from your lats, back, and torso.

If you feel any shoulder strain during the stroke, pay attention to your elbow position (should be high, not dropped at the catch), wrist firmness (should be straight and firm, not bent or twisted) and keep a relaxed open hand.

If your hands, forearms, and shoulders strain from “clenching” or “clawing” during entry, catch or pulling phases of the stroke, you will fatigue much faster than if you relax the arms and shoulders.

During dryland training, focus on exercises that will strengthen your wrists, core, upper back, shoulders, and lats. Doing so will make you more durable, fatigue resistant, and preserve your body for longer swims. Here is a good drill that will strengthen the right muscles while ingraining a correct high elbow catch & pull:

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re using the “power of the Y,” have a coach or experienced swimmer watch you or video record your swimming. The use of dryland swim training equipment such as the Vasa Trainer or Vasa SwimErg will also help you analyze and improve your stroke mechanics.

In Part 3 of our Faster Freestyle Swimming video series, coach Pipes explains more about Wrist Awareness and The Power of the Y. Click on the video below to learn how.


  • Be sure to practice the points made in this lesson at the pool and with a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer.
  • For at least half the workout, focus on applying power during the Pull using your “blade” and feel pressure on the forearm just above the wrist (Power of the Y).
  • Be sure to use the black line at the bottom of the pool to help you avoid crossing midline.
  • If training on a Vasa on land, consider placing some masking tape lines on the floor under your stroke path, parallel to the monorail and about shoulder-width apart. Then use this to trace your fingertips along the line.
  • Use the Forearm Cuffs with Trainer Straps to get the feeling of pulling with this part of the blade, as shown in this video.
  • In the pool, 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.

Next time, we will go into more detail about the catch and pull and show you how to put extra “Umph” in your stroke.

“We called it ‘Lane 7’ at Germantown Academy. We had three Vasa Swim Ergometers & 9 Vasa Trainers on our pool deck. The quality of workmanship in this product is unbelievable… the Vasa products have enhanced all the swimmers at Germantown Academy as we use them for working on stroke technique, conditioning, coordination, and fitness. I would highly recommend they put Vasa in every program.” – Richard Shoulberg, legendary US Olympic Swim Coach

Until next time, happy training!

Rob & the team at Vasa

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