Yer Middle Name Ain't 'Gumby'
Revised from a response I gave in the H2OustonSwims.org discussion
forum. The question was along the lines of "I just read the latest TI
newsletter that now the recommended extended arm position is at a down
angle. I don't understand the rationale."
In freestyle swimming, a streamlined position is used to minimize frontal
resistance. In a perfect world, this is achieved, in part, by extending
the entering arm to a horizontal position that puts the hand as far out
in front of the body as possible, straight toward the far wall. On a well-balanced
swimmer, that shoulder will be 6 to 10 inches under the water surface.
If the arm is horizontal, the hand will be that same 6-10 inches under
the water surface. However, it is common to misjudge the entry, extending
the arm at a bit of an up-angle such that the hand ends up closer to the
water surface than the shoulder. This creates numerous problems that I'll
By "a perfect world" I mean, "if the coach had his way and you, the swimmer,
had been granted, by chance or deity, the flexibility of Gumby." But this
just isn't the case for you, is it? Most adult swimmers (and many younger
swimmers) have shoulder range of motion (ROM) issues that affect the choice
of the arm extension position. There are four internal/biomechanical considerations
that argue strongly in favor of some degree of down-angle for the extended
In each of the following, I am referring to a well-balanced swimmer
in a side-lying position, the underwater arm extended toward the far
end of the pool:
Injury potential - extending the arm horizontally (or at any
up-angle) may cause the shoulder tendons or bursa to be pinched between
the ball of the humerous (upper arm bone) and the socket of the glenohumeral
joint. Doing this occasionally doesn't usually create problems, but
doing it thousands of times per day is a cause of chronic pain for a
high percentage of swimmers. However, extending the arm at some degree
of down-angle greatly reduces the risk of this type of impingement.
Energy use - the closer a joint is to the extreme end of its
ROM, the greater the amount of internal force is required to hold it
there. Whether drilling or swimming, if you are choosing an extension
line that is near the end of your shoulder ROM (horizontal or up-angle),
you'll be doing lots of unnecessary extra internal work just to maintain
the position. For most swimmers, choosing a bit of a down-angle greatly
decreases the internal tension (and, consequently, the work) required
to support the position.
Mechanical advantage - a shoulder joint at or near the end of
its ROM has poor mechanical advantage. You exert large amounts of muscular
force but get very little work done). But extending your arm at a bit
of a down-angle keeps the shoulder away from the end of its ROM, increasing
mechanical advantage for the first part of the stroke.
Making that elusive "catch" - Most swimmers have a at least
a nodding acquaintance with the concept of a "high elbow" or "over the
barrel" catch position where the stroking arm first is able to exert
force in a propulsive manner. However, this holy grail of swim technique
eludes most adult swimmers. The largest contributing factor, in my estimation,
is the choice of an improper extension line. With the arm extended horizontally
or at an up-angle, there may not be sufficient room between the ball
of the humerous and the roof of the shoulder to allow for the arm to
be moved into the high elbow catch position. Instead, the swimmer is
likely to choose some degree of the dreaded dropped elbow position,
rendering the catch ineffective. Choosing a bit of a down-angle for
the arm extension allows greater freedom of motion as the swimmer attempts
to achieve an effective catch.
There are two external/hydrodynamic considerations that also make the
choice of some degree of down-angle for the extended arm appear prudent:
Skiing uphill - as the swimmer glides forward through the water,
an arm extended at any degree of up-angle will mean that the onrush
of water will hit the bottom surface of the hand and arm - a bit like
skiing uphill. Even smallest lift force exerted on the hand out front
will have a big lifting effect on the upper body due to the long lever
of the extended arm. Any amount of lift experienced by the upper body
in this manner will result in the hips dropping a like amount. By now,
I hope you've come to view, with great suspicion, anything that tends
to cause the hips to drop. Alternatively, any amount of down-angle of
the extended arm will tend to reverse the lift and drop forces, improving
the likelihood that your hips will continue to hug the surface throughout
the stroke cycle. Would you rather ski uphill or downhill?
Fatigue induced hip drop - Earlier I noted that it takes lots
of unnecessary extra internal work just to maintain an arm position
that puts the shoulder at the extreme end of its ROM. For short durations
this might be a sustainable ploy but for longer swims, using such an
arm position generally results in fatigue failure. Unfortunately, the
most common result is that the swimmer simply releases some core body
tension and "breaks" out of the balanced streamline position by letting
the hips drop a few (or a handful of) inches. While this relieves some
of the stress on the shoulder, it also dramatically increases total
frontal resistance. A better solution is to extend the arm at some degree
of down-angle that does not require the shoulder to be supported at
the extreme end of its ROM.
My experience has been that most swimmers tend to have some up-angle
to their extended arm (if they actually extend the entering arm at all
- but that's a whole different issue). In most cases the swimmer is not
aware of this until they get external feedback. And while a tiny percentage
of adult swimmers can get away with an up-angle with no ill effects, most
will suffer one or more of the problems mentioned above.
Some will argue that a down-angle places the hand and arm below the rest
of the body and thus out of streamline. Yup, yup, yup.you got me there.
But, wouldn't you much rather have that small increase in resistance (over
that of the "perfect world" streamline which we already agreed wasn't
in your bag of tricks) than risk injury, wasted energy, poor mechanical
advantage, no catch, uphill skiing and the resistance caused by your big
ol' hips (big compared to your hand, that is) dropped down deep?
Have your coach, or a swim partner, give you feedback about your extended
arm position. Then experiment with various amounts of down-angle in your
arm extension line. Who knows, you may find that your shoulders thank
you, your heart rate is lower at the end of your swim and there are fewer
people to pass in the ridiculously-expensive-two-wheeled-toy part of your
© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2004
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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole) and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.
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