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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 address presently.

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 arm.

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 triathlon.

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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