Swimming Myth #1
To go faster in swimming one must push out the back of the arm pull.
I believe this myth may have originated with an article that appeared some time in the 90′s. The article showed a swimming figure mimicking Alex Popov’s freestyle pull. It showed the figure with the left arm forward, ready to exit the water for the recovery. A graph showed the velocity of Popov’s body in the water as a function of the position of the hand. The velocity ranged from nearly 3 meters per second down to about 1.4 meters per second during a single pull cycle. The slowest speed occurred when the hand appeared to be just in front of the shoulder and the fastest speed occurred in the position shown in the figure. The author erroneously concluded that since the speed was so high as the right hand was about to exit, that this is where the most power must be, leading readers to believe that a ton of power is developed from the push out the back.
Studies of the freestyle stroke support that these two positions consistently show the highest and lowest velocities of the stroke cycle in freestyle. However, it is not because of the power out the back that we see the highest speed in this position. This occurs because this stage of the stroke is also one of the most streamlined.
Propulsion is generated when the hand and forearm are actually moving backwards in the water (propulsive phase). This phase begins when the hand is about one foot in front of shoulder (anterior quadrant) and ends when the hand reaches the hip (posterior quadrant). The actual distance the hand travels backwards is only about two feet, since the body is moving forward simultaneously. Therefore, the power of the arm pull favors the front quadrant — where the shoulder, back, chest and core muscles are all engaged. As the hand moves through the pull, the power will drop off quickly in the rear, passed the shoulder joint. When the pull is in its final stages, the tricep muscle is about the only one still working. As one hand completes the propulsive phase, the other hand is still in the lift phase in front, so the body is in the most streamlined position it will be during the stroke cycle. This explains why the body speed is greatest at this point in the stroke cycle.
The slowest body speed occurs just as the hand enters the propulsive phase (one foot in front of the shoulder). Other than the kick, there has been no propulsion since the other arm entered the release phase. The position of the upper arm (which is moving forward with higher velocity) begins to stick out, increasing the drag coefficient tremendously. When this happens, the body speed slows quickly.
Choosing to put emphasis on the finish of the pull delays the recovery and slows the swimmer’s stroke rate. The sooner one can get the hand back to the front quadrant after leaving the propulsive phase, the better. There is little to be gained by pushing harder or longer at the end of the pull cycle.
If you happened to be blessed with Mercury motors for legs: like Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Gary Jr., Natalie Coughlin, etc., you can afford to use a slower stroke rate. However, you should hold in the front of the stroke, not in the back (hip-driven technique).
For the rest of us mere mortals: keep your arms moving faster and concentrate on the front quadrant, not the back quadrant, for power. One of the best tools for teaching a higher stroke rate (or shoulder-driven freestyle) is with the Tempo-Trainer by FINIS. I use it at The Race Club with my swimmers every day and I truly believe in this product. Set the interval of the beeps to the appropriate level for the distance and the stroke, requiring the swimmer to time the entry of the hand with the sound of the beep.