By Jonathan Cain, SwimLabs
Correctly moving your arm underwater while you are swimming is like getting dressed in the dark. You can’t really see what you are doing, so you end up just trying to guess what’s best. Sometimes it seems to work, and sometimes you end up in a pink polka-dotted shirt and bright green cheetah print pants. In Freestyle, this “underwater blindness” most affects a series of movement at the beginning of each stroke known as “the catch”.
The catch refers to the moment in the stroke in which a swimmer’s arm is in its strongest position. In Freestyle, this happens as soon as a swimmers forearm becomes vertical in the water. This position maximizes the surface area of the arm allowing a swimmer to push harder against the water.
Every swimmer has a catch in his or her stroke, but one of the things that can impact how well a swimmer can move forward in the water is to catch early in the stroke. The best swimmers catch water in the area directly in front of their shoulder. For the purposes of this article we will refer to this area as the power zone.
The reason this is the most powerful place to catch water comes down to simple physics. From the time a swimmer catches water until their arm leaves the power zone, a swimmer can create enough resistance against the surface area of their forearm that it actually “anchors” into position. This allows the swimmer to move their body forward instead of just pushing their arm backward.
Take a moment and look at the picture for this article. Both of these shots show the swimmers arm in the Power Zone. The biggest difference in their technique involves the positioning of their arm in this zone. Swimmer A is not catching in the power zone. His elbow is slipping backward, which forces his arm into a horizontal position. This diminishes the surface area of his arm, greatly reducing his ability to apply force to the water. In contrast, Swimmer B is “catching” in the Power Zone, giving his arm the greatest surface area in the strongest part of his stroke.
This gives Swimmer B two distinct advantages over swimmer A. 1, catching in the power zone lets him engage the muscles in his back as if he were doing a pull up. This anchors his arm into position, so he can pull his body toward and then past his arm. 2, catching in the power zone increases the amount of time he is able to keep his arm in a vertical position during his stroke. This combination increases the distance Swimmer B is able to travel with every stroke, and the speed he is able to travel. This ultimately translates to lower stroke counts, increased stamina, and faster swims.
Catching water and maintaining arm position in the Power Zone is one of the most difficult aspects of Freestyle technique. What’s more, it’s not “just” one movement- but also a rather complex series of movements This makes catching in the power zone one of the most common things that swimmers of all ages and ability levels work on at SwimLabs.
The best way to work on catching water in your power zone is to start simple. Imagine your elbow as a hinge that allows your forearm to “hinge” or move from a horizontal to a vertical position in the water, just like a door opens and shuts. If you can hinge your arm while keeping your elbow in a stationary position in front of your shoulder, you will be catching in your power zone.
The best way to learn to hinge your arm without moving your elbow is to practice on dry land. Find a wall that is tall enough that you can fully extend your arms upwards. Place your back, elbows, shoulders and your head against the wall. Keep your elbows, shoulders and head on the wall and hinge one of your arms so that your forearm enters a position roughly parallel to floor. Hold that position for a moment and then return your arm to full extension on the wall. Practice this a couple of times with both arms, until you have a good feel for the movement.
Once you do, it’s time to try it in the water. When you start working on your catch it’s really easy to get really distracted by over analyzing every minute detail of your movement. Try not to do this! Focus simply on making sure that your arm moves into a vertical position while your elbow is still in front of your shoulder. If you can do this, you will be ready to start applying some real power within your stroke.
Focus: Hinge your arm and “Catch” the water in your Power Zone. As you swim this set, pay close attention to your stroke count. It is a great indicator of how effective your strokes are.
5×100 Freestyle: Moderate pace, Hinge your arm and Catch in the Power Zone
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.