This is an excerpt from Mastering Swimming eBook by Jim Montgomery & Mo Chambers.
The power in swimming comes from the core group of muscles, which this book defines as the area from the neck to the knees, including all of the upper-back and shoulder muscles, the abdominal muscles, and the trunk and upper-leg muscles. The best way to access this power is with a great setup at the beginning of the freestyle underwater pull, or what is commonly called the catch. This term, which first became popular with the development of the crawl or freestyle stroke in the 19th century, refers to the point in the stroke when a swimmer's hand connects with the water and starts to pull.
The catch itself is not the main propulsive part of the stroke, but when properly executed, it sets your stroke up to be more effective through the propulsive power phase that follows. The freestyle catch occurs in the first 9 to 12 inches (23-30 cm) of the stroke, where you begin your pull by pressing the fingertips down while keeping your elbow up. Imagine yourself reaching over a waterfall and anchoring your palm and forearm on the rocks so that you can pull your body over. The late Doc Counsilman, former head coach of Indiana University and coach to 48 Olympians, including Jim Montgomery, was well known for his analogy of pulling over a barrel. Great freestyle swimmers anchor their hands in the water and use their core muscles to rotate their bodies past their hands. To properly achieve this catch position, internally, or medially, rotate your shoulder and open your armpit. Imagine driving your elbow toward the pool wall in front of you.
Consider the effect of body rotation on the depth of your hand catch. The forward reach and downward press of your arm at the entry and catch causes your body to rotate to the side. Keep your hand planed directly back (toward the wall behind you), with your fingertips toward the bottom of the pool, until your arm has reached midstroke. This is a key point for maintaining a powerful application of propulsive force. Finding the right amount of body rotation will automatically help you find the ideal depth in the pull. Once you set the high-elbow position in the underwater pull, maintain it throughout the stroke cycle. By keeping your hand and elbow anchored in the water at the catch spot, you will be able to recruit core muscles to rotate your body past that spot on the longitudinal axis. At midstroke, the bend of the elbow is approximately 90 degrees and then opens up again as your hand finishes the stroke. Your hand moves slowest at the catch phase of the stroke, but gradually picks up momentum until it is moving fast under your hips at the end of the stroke. Keep your wrist flexed to hold your hand perpendicular to the water's surface at the finish of the pull. The acceleration of the hand through the underwater pull synchronized with the rotation of the body's core creates the power phase of the freestyle stroke.
With a well-executed hand entry and extension followed by an effective catch and follow-through, your hand will actually come out of the water in front of the point where it entered! The hands of world-class swimmers exit the water several feet (about 1 m) in front of their entry points. These swimmers have an incredible amount of shoulder and back flexibility, allowing them to position their hands, forearms, and elbows in the catch position much earlier in the stroke. This creates a longer and more propulsive power phase. The following series of photos depicts the freestyle stroke from catch to power phase (figure 4.3, a-d).
Many adult novice and intermediate swimmers lack the body rotation, strength, and flexibility to hold their shoulders and elbows above their pulling hands throughout the freestyle pull. A well-designed dry-land program that includes stretching and strengthening helps swimmers learn and perfect the underwater stroke. Use the following teaching progression of both on-deck and in-water skills to learn the mechanics of the catch position and the correct muscle recruitment for transitioning into an efficient underwater pull.
- Begin by standing on the pool deck in a streamlined position. Have a partner hold a hand against yours, applying slight pressure against your palm as you proceed to simulate the freestyle pull pattern. Start by pressing your fingers and elevating your elbow. Feel the different use of muscles during a high-elbow, a straight-arm, and a dropped-elbow pull. When you do a high-elbow pull, you should feel your core muscles come into play, including the upper-back, chest, and shoulder muscles.
- Use stretch cords to manipulate your hand and forearm into the desired movement of the stroke cycle. Start with your arms fully extended at shoulder-width and your wrists slightly flexed. Pop up your elbows and move your arms back in a curved path, first diagonally outward and then inward. Once your hands have moved across and under your body, extend your elbows and straighten your arms. Notice that your hands travel farther than the elbow.
- Another great teaching tool is the in-water press-up. Position yourself at the deep end of the pool, facing the wall. Place your palms flat on the deck or gutter of the pool. Start with your head and body submerged, and then press up, using the buoyancy of the water to lift your body out. Maintain a high-elbow position and lift your body as high as you can.
- Sensitizing your hands and forearms can dramatically enhance your feel for the water. This allows you to make subtle adjustments in the pitch of your hand so you can hold the water more effectively, whether anchoring in the catch position or finishing the propulsive power phase. You will learn to recognize water pressure against your hand and forearm during every phase of the stroke. Here are three simple ways to sensitize your hands: press the fingertips of one hand hard against the fingertips of the other, press your fingertips against the pool deck while resting, or rub your hands together or on the pool deck.
- Swimming with hand paddles generates more water pressure against the palms of your hands, which activates the muscle groups that propel your elbows up. Novice masters swimmers should use smaller paddles, preferably with holes in them. Try eliminating the wrist strap of the paddle and use a single strap or tubing around your middle finger. Focus on keeping water pressure on the paddle. If you drop your elbow, the paddle tends to slide off your hand.
- Whether you are from the American South or not, the A-OK and the Hook 'em Horns drills can effectively teach you to recognize flow and to angle your hands efficiently for good stroke patterns. To begin, swim freestyle with your fingers in the A-OK position, pressing together the tips of your thumb and forefinger to form a tunnel to channel the water flow as your hand changes direction in the stroke. If you drop your elbow during the pull, the water will not flow through the tunnel. To form the Hook 'em Horns hand position, hold your middle and ring fingers against your palm at the base of your thumb and point your forefinger and pinky finger up to signify horns. Begin the freestyle with this hand position, pointing the horn fingers toward the bottom of the pool during the pull.