Story by Jonathan Cain, SwimLabs

Imagine yourself sitting in a canoe. You look downstream, and notice that there is a large, hungry looking Grizzly bear rapidly swimming towards you.  All of the sudden, nothing is more important than to paddle upstream as fast as possible. With the current pushing against your boat, you need to make sure that each of your strokes is strong. This leaves you with a choice: Do you focus on paddling with deep and strong strokes, or do you just paddle as quickly as possible?

Personally, I would try to set my paddle deeper in the water so that the blade would create resistance when I pull on it. When my paddle creates resistance, my pull creates force. This force I generate plays a large role in how far I can move my boat away from that Grizzly bear with each stroke. In both canoeing and swimming, the technique I use to set my paddle (or my arm) into the perfect position is known as the catch.

A catch is the moment in a stroke where a swimmer’s arm creates the most resistance against the water. In freestyle, this occurs when the swimmers arm moves into a vertical position.

When this happens, it allows a swimmer to actually push their arm against the resistance of the water. When a swimmer pushes their arm against the water, it generates force, which translates to forward movement.  Every swimmer catches at some point in their stroke, but the best swimmers catch water in the area directly in front of their shoulder, in an area known as the Power Zone.

In The Catch Part 1, we introduced the “Hinge Drill”, which was designed to help a swimmer move their forearm into a vertical position within the Power Zone.  While the hinge drill is a great way to learn to set your forearm into position within the power zone, it doesn’t really allow you to feel how deep your arm should be.

It’s important to remember that arm depth during the catch is very subjective. Some Olympic swimmers are so strong and talented that they can catch water with their arm nearly vertical in the water, however, for most swimmers (this guy included) this is not advisable. Therefore, the general rule is for the forearm to enter a vertical position while the elbow is still in front of and slightly lower than the shoulder. This puts the swimmers arm in the “Sweet Spot” where it is easiest to generate resistance against the water.

The best way to find your sweet spot is with Weighted Elbow Pop drill. This drill uses gravity as a tool to help you position your arm within the sweet spot in your power zone. Find a weight between 1.5-2 lbs. (we use a weighted ball, but a small aerobic weight or a rock would work too) and a buoyancy tool like a Finis Alignment board.

Start by holding the alignment board on one hand and extend your arm in front of you. Hold the weight in your other hand, and extend your arm forward, so that you are in a “Superman” position.

Pause briefly, and then hinge your arm so that it enters a vertical position in front of your shoulder. When it does, pause again, and pay attention to the position of your elbow – it should be lower than your shoulder. Once you note the position, take a stroke, making sure that your arm stays in a vertical position while your arm is underwater.

After you recover, extend your arm forward, and pause again. If your elbow was lower than your shoulder during your catch, try to replicate that first movement. If it needs adjustment, try to make it on the next stroke. Once you get the idea down with the first arm, switch arms, and practice until both arms work equally well.

If you find this drill difficult, you might need to work on perfecting the hinging movement. The best drill for this is Weighted Hinge drill. Hold your alignment board in one hand and extend your arm forward. Hold the weight in your other hand, and extend it forward so that you are in Superman position.  Allow gravity to pull the weight down, but keep your elbow high in the water so that your arm bends, or “hinges” at the elbow so that your forearm becomes vertical in front of your shoulder. Once it does, pause briefly in the “catch” position, and then return your arm to the surface. Pause again, and repeat the drill until you are comfortable.

Practice Set

Focus: Moving your forearm into a vertical position while it is in front of and lower than the shoulder.

4×100 Freestyle

Odds: Weighted Elbow Pop drill

Evens: Good freestyle, with early, well-positioned catch

Variation: Replace Weighted Elbow Pop drill with Weighted Hinge drill.

The key to the Freestyle Catch is making sure that you set your forearm in a vertical position as early as possible in your stroke. This allows you to both maximize the time and force that you can push your body forward. Once you can do this, you will be swimming faster and more efficiently (which might come in handy the next time you need to escape from a hungry Grizzly bear).

SwimLabs Swim Schools are state of the art swimming facilities outfitted with video analysis and Endless Pools for a truly unique underwater experience.  At SwimLabs, recreational and competitive swimmers can swim in a unique environment that provides them with the knowledge to learn, experience to continually improve, and the passion to enjoy a lifetime of healthy activity and competition. They currently operate locations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Virginia.