Author Archives: Gary Hall Sr

Gary Hall: Swimming Myths Debunked (1)

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.


Gary Sr.




Gary Hall: What Makes Michael Fly?

Most people that swim butterfly are not so pretty to watch, especially at the end of the race. It is not coincidental that some of the greatest flyers in history also had some of the most graceful strokes. Mark Spitz had one of prettiest flies of all time and set standards that endured for years. Pablo Morales, Mary T. Meagher, Mel Stewart and many others, including Michael Phelps, not only were the fastest of their time, but also made butterfly look the easiest.

One of the most overlooked reasons for their success is not what they did underwater, but what they did during the recovery. The recovery is the period in which the hands leave the water and get ready for the next entry. In these few tenths of a second, which happens to be the most visible part of the race to the spectator, the ability of the swimmer to completely relax the arms has a huge impact on how long a swimmer can sustain the rigorous effort required by the butterfly stroke. During his world-record setting hundred-meter fly races, Phelps never looked like he was in a hurry or stressed on the recovery. Instead of throwing his arms over the water, he swings them gently with the most relaxation possible.  Those few tenths of a second are spent in complete relaxation, undoubtedly one of the reasons that he is able to finish so relentlessly in the second half of his race.

Underwater, you will see just the opposite. The hands enter at the shoulder level with an immediate catch in a high elbow position. From there, he accelerates the hand and forearm through the pull as quickly as possible to generate arm propulsion. Then, he sinks back into utter relaxation as his fingertips glide over the water.

Of course, I would be remiss not to tell you that behind every great butterflyer are a great pair of legs. All great flyers learn to use their legs in both directions, kicking both up and down, which is essential to generating propulsion during the stroke cycle. Strong legs also help avoid the elevation of the shoulders and the associated increase in frontal drag. When the legs crash and burn, the increased drag will doom the swimmer to an unpleasant outcome.

Michael uses a few other technical regularities, such as tucking his chin to his chest at hand entry to reduce drag and breathing every stroke (except the start and turn) to help keep his lactate level to a minimum. With his strong legs, his fastest body speed during the fly is actually greater than during his freestyle. One could say that during his recovery, Michael comes closer to hydroplaning than any other human being in history.

So if you want to be like Mike, grab your FINIS Swimmer’s Snorkel and Alignment Kickboard, and start kicking. When it is time to put the arms into action, remember to relax through the recovery, catch with high elbows, and accelerate the arms through the pull as quickly as possible. Oh…and don’t forget to breathe…a lot.


Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.



Stroke Rate vs Distance per Stroke: Who is right?

 In recent years there has been an increasing tendency for coaches to push increasing DPS to improve swimmer’s performances. Yet, during the Olympic Games, in every freestyle event over the 50 meter sprint, one sees a variety of techniques used from high stroke rate, shoulder-driven technique, to hybrid freestyles (one arm shoulder driven and one arm hip driven) to pure hip-driven freestyle.  Unlike the 50, where everyone is swimming with a shoulder-driven technique, for the middle distance and distance events there does not appear to be one right way of doing freestyle.

A great example of adapting to a new technique is Katie Ladecky, gold medalist in the 800 freestyle. Though I had not seen her swim before the Trials, allegedly, she once swam with a pure high stroke rate, two-beat kick, shoulder-driven freestyle, ala Brooke Bennett. In an effort to lengthen her stroke, her coach converted her (mostly) to a longer hybrid stroke by breathing to the other side. At the Trials, she did something I had never seen before. She swam most of the 800 breathing to her right with a hybrid freestyle, using a six beat kick and a stroke rate in the mid 80’s. But for a few strokes each lap, she would breathe to the left, convert to her old, shoulder-driven freestyle, use a two beat kick and elevate her stroke rate to about 100. Then, it was back to the hybrid stroke again. She did much less of the conversion at the Olympic games, sticking mostly to hybrid technique, but she shows an unusual ability to switch freestyle techniques in the middle of a race. Nathan Adrian does a similar thing at the end of his 100 freestyle, converting from a slowing, shoulder-driven to a faster, straight-armed, body-driven freestyle; a tactic that clearly earned him a gold medal.

Regardless of whether a swimmer elects to change techniques during a race or not, I believe it is very important for coaches to teach all swimmers more than one freestyle technique, since there is not one technique that works ideally for all swimmers or distances. Perhaps the best tool for doing that is by using the Finis Tempo Trainer; almost an indispensable tool for learning fast-rate, shoulder-driven freestyle, slower hybrid or slowest-rate hip-driven freestyle. By setting the interval of the beep of the tempo trainer from rates of 60 up to 120 or higher, swimmers will more easily adjust to the higher rates demanded of shoulder-driven or to slowing the rate down for hip-driven in order to push out the front and use the legs, core and hips to drive forward. Since hybrid freestyle involves using one arm with each technique, the stroke rates are typically in between the two extremes, usually in the 70’s or 80’s.

There are many other ways to use the Tempo Trainer effectively to help swimmers get faster. One is to teach constant pacing by setting the beep interval to occur at 12 ½ yards or meters. By learning that they have to push harder to maintain the same speed, swimmers will learn to hold back and push at the right time.

For backstroke, the most common mistake I find is too slow of a stroke rate. The Tempo Trainer will enable a coach to get his/her swimmer to turn the arms over much faster and maintain a more constant speed and a more efficient stroke. In backstroke, a fast, controlled stroke rate usually results in a faster time.

If you want to improve as a coach, have your swimmers use the Tempo Trainer often in practice and use it for all four strokes, regardless of whether you are trying to lengthen or shorten the stroke.


Yours in Swimming,


Gary Sr.

The Race Club