Updated: Mar 1, 2019
Comparing stroke styles and body types
If you scout around YouTube swimming videos you’re likely run across a few that discuss front quadrant swimming in freestyle. In this technique, the swimmer keeps one arm extended in front of the body at almost all times during the stroke. Several world-class distance swimmers use this technique with great success, including Sun Yang and Jordan Wilimovsky.
I first encountered this technique during sessions to rehabilitate shoulder problems. Six years later, I’m still working at it.
So why can’t I swim the the grace, and speed, of a Sun Yang? Front quadrant swimming introduces a potential “dead spot” in the stroke, where you are not using either hand to propel yourself forward. Every time I try to work at it, I know I’m slowing down, because if you are not propelling yourself forward, drag slows you down. And that’s key to a good front quadrant stroke.
How does a front quadrant stroke improve speed if part of your stroke isn’t propelling you forward? Holding an arm out in front as the opposite hand recovers introduces a very tight streamline and reduces drag. It also helps to set up a good catch and a high elbow. But should everyone try to swim like Sun Yang or Jordan Wilimovsky? No. It depends your body type.
The other day I watched a video of the last U.S. 10k open water swim--it’s the one I linked for Jordan Wilimovsky. In that race, a scrappy third-place finisher was 18-year-old Michael Brinegar. I watched a video of his swim in the men’s 1650 at the 2017 junior nationals. His stroke was fairly even with a bit of hitch that reminded me of another strong distance swimmer: Katie Ledecky, who churns through the water at a high stroke rate, but with a killer vertical forearm pull. And she always wins.
If you compare Sun Yang with Katie Ledecky, you see a very different body type. Yang is tall and lean with long arms and long legs. As her own coach has remarked, Katie Ledecky doesn’t have any extraordinary physical attributes--just an engine that never quits. She doesn’t glide much, but she does set up her catch well.
Here is what all world-class swimmers have in common: Their arm entry anchors their body position and sets up the catch. Swimming guru, Gary Hall Sr., says that anchoring the arm set ups a Bernoulli Effect that lifts the shoulder and conserves energy. Watching Sun Yang seems to demonstrate this concept.
More importantly, setting up a strong arm entry elongates the body and minimizes a swimmer’s profile, thereby reducing drag in the water. If you’re six-feet tall with a 32-inch waste, you will swim faster with a radical front quadrant recovery. But if you're more like me—built more like an Eberhard eraser than a pencil—you will be going up against more drag because of your wider profile in the water. That’s life!
However, all swimmers who hope to swim faster need to be mindful of, and practice, a good front quadrant stroke because it sets up the first part of your catch and puts you into a streamline position. If you’re built like a teapot (short and stout), you’re not going to want to glide much as your opposite arm recovers. But absolutely essential is how you drive your recovery into a that gliding position. How long you hold the glide depends are body-type. Are you a Ledecky or a Yang?
Equally important to setting up the catch with gliding reach, is driving into stroke with you hips. As your recovering arm drives forward, your opposite hip counter rotates. Try this: While standing, stretch one arm to ceiling. Notice how as you reach your hip rotates, and the more you stretch the more your hip turns. Keep this in mind as you swim.
A favorite drill of mine to help with is a 6-kick swim drill. This can be done with or without fins:
Push off from wall with glide.
Bring your right arm to your side, as you do start turning on you side with your right shoulder pointing up, left shoulder pointing down and left arm outstretched. You should be turned at about 45-60 degrees towards the side of the pool.
Hold this position for 6 kicks. Turn you head to breathe. You shouldn’t need to turn much, since you’re already swimming on your side.
Start a recovery with your right arm as you finish the breath. Start your pull with the left arm and leave it your side.
During that recovery and pull, sharply rotate your hips and drive your arm forward as you would to start you stroke.
Hold this position for 6 kicks. Take a breath on this side. Pull with the outstretched arm, recover with the opposition arm.
Repeat on each side for the length of the lane making sure your kick and constant.
Final notes: If you are pool sprinter, where turnover is everything, this post is not for you. Also, there are a few factors in open water swimming where you're going to want a quicker stroke rate, such as in a crowd or if the water is rough. But in smooth water, get back to that cleaner pool stroke and find someone to draft.