The Coupling Motions of the Start: The Arm Swing

In previous Race Club articles, we have discussed the importance of the coupling motions in all four strokes and how significantly they can influence propulsion and a swimmer’s speed. The coupling motions of the start are just as important as in each of the four strokes.   There are three principal coupling motions on the start; the head lift, the arm motion, and the back leg kick up in the air. This week and last, in subscription Lanes 2, 3 and 4, as part of our start series, we highlight the arm motion of Olympian Brad Tandy, who has one of the best starts in the world. The arm motion on the start can be a powerful coupling motion.   Although there are some variations of the following techniques, we see primarily four different arm motions from swimmers as they leave the block prior to getting into a streamlined position for the entry. Since the amount of kinetic energy in the arm motion is what influences the propulsion from the feet and hands, I rank the four different arm motions from the highest energy to the lowest. In other words, they are ranked from what we consider the best to the worst arm motion.  

  1. The Big Circle. By straightening the arms from a bent position, the swimmer will quadruple the amount of kinetic energy in this circular motion. The key is to keep the arms straight throughout the entire circular motion and, by arching the swimmer’s back in the air, continue the arm circle high over the top of the swimmer’s body back, creating a big circle, into the streamlined position. Brad does this motion better than anyone I have ever seen.
  2. The Small Circle. By bending the elbows and making a smaller continuous circle, the kinetic energy of the arm motion is reduced. This bent-elbow technique, which most of the elite American swimmers use, is easier and safer, but may not result in as good a start as the big circular arm motion. Some coaches refer to this technique as the ‘quick draw’ start.
  3. The age-group motion. I see many young swimmers using this technique. In this start, the swimmer begins the motion with a straight arm in a circular pattern, but stops the motion once the arms reach the swimmer’s side by their legs. The swimmer then reverses the direction of the arm slowly underneath the body back into the streamline position. By stopping the motion of the arms, the swimmer loses valuable coupling energy.
  4. The forward arm swing. With this technique, the swimmer simply releases the hands from the block and swings them forward slowly into a streamlined position. This slow motion of the arms produces very little kinetic energy and minimal coupling effect.
  We have been able to teach the Tandy start, using a big, straight-arm, circular arm motion, to competitive swimmers of all ages, including Masters. Brad actually started using this start technique at the age of seven. Using a progression technique, we start with dryland simulations and work our way up to the starting blocks. Most swimmers will succeed in getting the arm motion correct in a few tries.   When comparing American record holder, Zane Grothe, using the Velocity Meter technology, we found that he was 2% faster on his start to 12 meters using the Tandy, big-circle arm motion compared to the smaller circle arm motion. That meant he was .1 seconds faster, enough to win or lose a race.   Like with any other technique in swimming, swimmers must practice, practice and practice in order to perfect it. We recommend practicing this start 100 times before trying it in a race. Once you get it down, you will feel as if you are flying through the air.   We hope you will enjoy our recent webisodes on our subscription service, as we breakdown some of the important nuances of the Brad Tandy start, including velocity meter testing done on the Indiana University post grad swimmers.   Yours in swimming,   Gary Sr.