6 Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle-Lift Phase Part II

The Six Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle

Lift Phase Part II

The following is an excerpt from our forthcoming book entitled Fundamentals of Fast Swimming

The lift caused by the pulling arm and the hand in the front quadrant occurs for two different reasons, or laws of physics. The first is the Bernoulli effect, which is what accounts for the wings of airplanes lifting the plane off of the ground. The body, arm and hand outstretched in front of the swimmer acts like a wing, causing a certain amount of lift from the flow of water around it. The taller and faster the swimmer, the bigger the arm and hand and the longer the flattened hand is held out front, the more the lift from the Bernoulli effect occurs. The second lift force is mechanical and occurs once the hand begins to press downward in the water, what is referred to as the catch.  When the swimmer begins to press downward with the hand, the fingers and thumb should separate slightly in order to maximize the lift and they should remain spread during the propulsion phases that occurs later. A slight separation of the fingers and thumb will increase the drag caused by the moving hand, effectively increasing the surface area of the hand. Given the speed of a swimmer and the configuration and size of the arm and hand in the water, the Bernoulli effect likely causes significantly less lift force than the Newtonian mechanical effect of pressing downward.

The other important force that comes into play during the lift phase in freestyle is frontal drag, which has the effect of slowing the swimmer. One objective of swimming fast is to minimize the drag forces, whenever possible. When the hand strikes the water, it is actually moving forward at a greater speed than the swimmer’s body, since it is moving away from the body. Once in the water, however, with the arm completely submerged and fully extended, all parts of the arm are moving forward at the same speed as the swimmer’s body. Once the hand begins to move downward in the water, the upper part of the arm is moving forward faster than the hand. This fact is important in understanding why the technique of a high elbow pulling motion reduces frontal drag.

The drag caused from any part of our body in the water at a given time is proportional to the shape of that part of the body (drag coefficient), its surface characteristic (slipperiness) and the square of its forward speed. With respect to improving freestyle technique for reducing frontal drag during the lift phase of the pulling cycle, the two most important anatomical parts that deserve our attention are the upper arm and the hand/wrist.

Using a high-elbow pulling motion has the effect of keeping the upper part of the arm, which is the largest part, out of harm’s way. By keeping the upper arm pointing more in the swimmer’s line of motion, as we initiate the downward motion of the hand, we reduce the frontal drag caused by the upper arm. When comparing the position of the upper arm using an out-sweeping motion, an in-sweeping motion or a deeper pull, all of which cause the upper arm to stick out more from the body’s line of motion, the high elbow pulling motion is the most desirable with respect to lowering frontal drag. 

Much has been written about the importance of using a high-elbow pulling motion, particularly in longer freestyle events. Little has been written about the position of the hand and wrist at entry, yet that is also important. When the hand enters the water and is moving forward, we want to minimize the frontal drag from the hand and the arm. We do so by initially keeping the arm straight with the wrist and the hand in alignment with the forearm, all of which are pointing forward. The fingers and thumb should be squeezed together before the hand enters the water and they should remain squeezed together, once they enter the water. To reduce frontal drag maximally from the hand during this early lift phase, the little finger should be rotated downward in hip-driven and hybrid freestyle techniques (on the breath side). Mykhailo Romanchuk demonstrates using this pinky-down technique in the 1500 meter final of the World Championships in 2018. Turning the pinky down will reduce lift, but more important, it will also reduce frontal drag. The pinky-down technique in freestyle can be used only with hip-driven or hybrid freestyle technique. With shoulder-driven freestyle technique, the downward force of the hand should begin immediately, so there isn’t time to rotate the small finger downward after hand entry.

Here are some results of our studies using the PDM (AP Labs Italy) on how drag forces at race speed (2.3 m/sec) are affected by different hand positions with one arm held out front under water. The results are compared to a palm-down with fingers and thumb squeezed together position, stiffened wrist with hand in alignment with the forearm. The lowest frontal drag hand position is with the little pinky down.

Hand position
Change in frontal drag force (Newtons)
Fingers and thumb spread slightly
+ 2%
Wrist bent with hand flared to side
+ 2.3%
Wrist bent backward slightly
+ 13%
Wrist bent downward slightly
+ 12%
Little finger rotated downward (vertically)

Some coaches advocate angling the fingers downward and bending the wrist at hand entry with the palm down, which, according to our data, is not a good idea. That hand entry technique will add significant frontal drag. The best technique is to position the hand in the water with fingers and thumb squeezed together pointing forward, either palm down or, preferably, if time allows, pinky down. 

Once the pulling or lift motion of the hand begins with a downward force (the catch), the swimmer should go from the palm-down, fingers-pointing-forward position to fingers-pointing-downward position as quickly as possible, with the hand just inside the elbow. The fingers and thumb should separate slightly in order to maximize the pulling force. When the hand begins moving downward or backward quickly through the water, the flow of water through the small spaces separating the fingers becomes turbulent, effectively increasing the surface area of the hand. If the fingers spread too far apart, the flow between them becomes laminar or smooth and results in a loss of propulsion. The larger the effective surface area of the hand, the more potential there is to increase propulsion. 

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.