team logo
   article archive

Front-End Freestyle
by Dan Thompson, M.D.

State-of-the-art freestyle begins at the front end of the stroke with a maneuver called the "catch." A skillful catch enables the swimmer's hand to engage water early in the stroke, boosting the power and stride length of the entire pulling pattern. There is much to learn from a careful dissection of the front-end mechanics of champion freestyle.

As the freestyler's recovering arm slices into the water, two movements occur that permit the hand to catch water at maximum forward extension. First, the body rolls downward to the same side, and second, the shoulder pushes forward from the chest. These are movements that everyone uses in their daily lives when stretching to reach something just beyond their grasp.

At this point, physiology becomes a problem. The human arm, when reaching to full extension, is designed to swivel in the socket joint of the shoulder. This puts the arm in the dreaded dropped-elbow position, a posture favorable for grabbing solid objects, like branches of trees, but not conducive to grabbing that fluid medium called water. Instinctively, the champion freestyler counteracts this natural tendency of the arm to swivel to the dropped-elbow position. As the hand slices forward, the champion freestyler rolls the arm to the famous high-elbow position. This is an ingenious maneuver because it brings into play the levering action of the mighty latissimus muscle, enabling the hand to lever forcibly against the water. If performed briskly, it produces a solid feel of water pressure against the hand, a sensation described by Johnny Weismuller as "grabbing a handful of water."

Now, having grabbed onto the water, the freestyler must hang on to it. That is, the hand must anchor firmly against the pressure of the water until the power phase of the stroke takes over to drive the arm inward and backward to the hip. Hanging on to water is accomplished by the two-fold movement of bending the elbow and rolling the shoulder forward to a position alongside the jaw. It is described aptly as the feel of "reaching over a barrel." The effect is to create a pivoting mechanism that gives the hand a backward pitch against the water while fixing the elbow in a high, stationary position. The average freestyler, unable to perform a pivoting style of catch, has no choice but to pull the upper arm backward as a means to maintain water pressure on the hand. But pulling the arm backward squanders the strong pulling action of the latissimus, the main muscle responsible for propulsion in swimming. A pivoting maneuver catches water by using the small rotator-cuff muscles of the shoulder, saving the latissimus to be used to best advantage later, in the power phase of the stroke.

Executing proper front-end mechanics is the cornerstone of great freestyle, setting in motion the chain of muscle movements that produces a beautifully efficient stroke. Interestingly, by tailoring the front end of the pulling pattern first, the mid-stroke and finish will almost take care of themselves. .
 back to top

Dan Thompson is head age-group coach at Texas Aquatics in Austin, Texas. He currently holds the USMS record in the 50 yard butterfly in the 40-44 age group.