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Arm Stroke Setup

The setup includes everything that you do after completing a stroke to get that same arm into position to perform another stroke. If you don't get a clean setup, it's hard to perform an effective stroke.

The ending setup position is illustrated to the left:

  • Head neutral on spine and facing straight down.
  • Lower arm extended out front: fingertips slightly below wrist, wrist slightly below elbow, elbow slightly below shoulder.
  • Maximum body rotation on your lower side, which should be about 45° (but varies, more speed = less rotation).
  • Lower leg poised to perform a rotational kick, which will fire simultaneously with the catch.

Setup Sequence

The swimmer releases the previous stroke as her hand passes her belly, and she begins to lift her elbow.

The hand is relaxed and clear of the water. The arm recovery is driven by the shoulder and upper arm - relax your hand and forearm until your fingers reenter the water.
With a high elbow, the swimmer drives her hand and forearm straight ahead.
Fingertips enter the water first, just in front of, or just wide of, her shoulder.
The hand is driven straight ahead, angled very slightly downward. (See the ending catch position above)

Setup Issues

Head tilted. This also tilts your shoulder girdle, making it more difficult (and maybe painful) to extend your arm directly out front. You will get a deeper, later catch.

Wandering hand. If your hand wanders toward the surface, or in front of your head or too wide, you will have to spend extra time and energy getting a good catch, and that will shorten your stroke length.

Setup Drill Sequence

Here is a good drill sequence for working on the arm stroke setup:

  • Extended Side Balance
  • 6-1-6: Kick about six kicks in the extended side balance position. Then take a single stroke focusing on driving the middle finger straight ahead of your shoulder. Breathe after the stroke (not before).
  • 6-1-6 Broken Arrow: Similar to the above in terms of the timing (kick in side balance for a bit, take a single stroke, and then kick in side balance on the other side). The difference is in how you recover your arm: lift your arm straight up in the air - fingers pointing to the ceiling - hold it there for a count of two, then "break" your elbow by dropping your hand and forearm forward, and spear your hand into the water, straight ahead in front of your shoulder. Again, breathe after the stroke (not before, and not with that arm in the air).
  • 6-1-6 Sharkfin: Like the Broken Arrow drill, but this time just point your elbow to the ceiling and pause there only long enough to say "point." Focus on your elbow: lift your arm out of the water using your elbow, point to the ceiling with your elbow, and drive your hand into the water using your elbow. Breathe after the stroke (not before).
  • 6-1-6: Repeat the 6-1-6 drill focusing on performing a perfect setup, all in one smooth action. Breathe after the stroke (not before).
  • 9-3-9: This is like the 6-1-6 drill, except now perform three strokes in a row (with perfect setups) instead of jsut one. Kick a little longer on your side. Breathe after the third stroke (not before or during the series).
  • Freestyle swimming, at a relaxed pace initially, focusing on a seamless setup on both sides. Don't worry about the timing, and let the catch and pull just happen - you can focus on those aspects of the stroke later.

Notes for Sprinters (Swim race sprinters, not sprint distance triathletes)

Regarding how the arm is recovered through the air, the method described here is called the high elbow recovery. It is the preferred method for open water, fitness or distance swimming, but it is not the best way to recover your arm through the air for sprinting, because it requires more body rotation and takes longer than other methods. Sprinters should also develop an arcing recovery (swing your recovering arm in an arc, much lower to the surface), which can get your hand back into the water more quickly and forcefully. Note that I said also - use the arcing recovery when sprinting, and the high-elbow recovery for longer sets or races. Good swimmers use different technique for different speeds, often during the same race. Swimmers who use an arcing recovery at distance-pace speeds tend to cross the centerline and have a less effective catch and pull.

Triathletes and Open Water Swimmers

A high elbow recovery keeps your hands closer to your body, and directs the weight and energy of the recovering arm directly forward. This means that you will be less likely to bump other swimmers, and if you hit chop with your recovering arm, you will most likely just punch right through it. If you use an arcing recovery in open water, your arm can be trapped in the chop before it is traveling in the right direction (forward), and you are much more likely to be knocked off course.

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