Common Mistakes from the Freestyle Hand Entry

The entry of the hand in freestyle is often overlooked as an important swimming technique, but it shouldn’t be. The technique of the hand entry causes significant problems for most swimmers. Yet many of those swimmers are not aware of them. They simply don’t feel the problems happening. Here are seven technique problems that we often encounter with our Race Clubbers with the freestyle hand entry. All seven can cause varying degrees of slowing of the swimmer.

  1. Entering the hand too close to the head

Many swimmers have been taught to slip their hands into the water carefully, just above their heads, and then slide them forward. The density of water is about 800 times greater than air and causes a lot more frontal drag. When moving any part of our bodies forward, with respect to minimizing drag, we are much better served by keeping the body part in air as long as possible, including the arm and hand. Enter your hand into the water with the arm fully extended, not bent.

  1. Entering the hand too delicately

One of greatest myths and fears propagated upon the coaching and swimming community is the threat of air bubbles surrounding the hand under water. It is true that those bubbles will reduce propulsion of the pulling hand, but the speed of hand entry has little to do with the amount of bubbles formed. Rather than delicately placing the hand into the water, drive the hand into the water ferociously, fully extended. You will gain some valuable coupling energy in the process that will help you swim faster.

  1. Overreaching the hand at entry

Overreaching means that the hand enters the water somewhere above the head, rather than above the shoulders, where it should be. By overreaching the hand, the initial pull must begin with an out sweeping motion, resulting in a zig-zag motion down the pool. The shortest distance to the end of the pool is a straight line, so enter the hand directly above the shoulder and swim straight.

  1. Relaxing the hand after entry

It is extremely important to learn to relax the hand and wrist on the early arm recovery, as the hand and arm are moving upward and forward. Once the hand enters the water, if it continues to be relaxed, one of three bad hand positions typically occurs, due to the flow of water around it.  Either the fingers spread apart, the hand flares out to the side, or the wrist bends backward. The latter is the worst, adding 13% more frontal drag at race speed, but the fingers spreading (2%) and or the hand flaring outwards (2.5%) also add more drag. Here are the results of our studies comparing different hand positions at entry compared to palm down, fingers squeezed.

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)
  1. Pointing the fingers downward at hand entry

When the hand enters the water, it is moving forward and will cause some drag. It takes some time before we can get it moving backward to generate propulsion. So long as it is moving forward, we don’t want the hand position to be slowing us down by adding more drag. By allowing the wrist to flex (bend) and pointing the fingers down, even slightly at hand entry, the frontal drag can increase by as much as 12% (see table above). Once we start the pulling motion (catch), we want to get from fingers-pointing-forward to fingers-pointing-downward as quickly as possible. Yet to reduce drag when the hand enters the water, keep the fingers and hand pointing forward, not downward.

  1. Keeping the palm down in the water after entry

This is one of the latest of my revelations from our drag technology studies. I always thought the palm should face down with the thumb and fingers squeezed together after the hand entry. Turns out, by rotating the little finger toward the bottom, a swimmer will reduce the frontal drag force by as much as 9.5 % at race speed (see table above). This technique can be used only in hip-driven or hybrid freestyle technique, as the hand is held out front longer. The three swimmers I have observed using this technique in competition are Sun Yang (1:57), Michael Phelps (2:16) and  Mykhailo Romanchuk. Those are pretty solid testimonials for using this technique with those freestyles. With hip-driven or hybrid freestyle, rotate your pinky down toward the bottom when entering the hand after the breath stroke.

  1. Not separating the fingers and thumb during the pulling motion

It is important to squeeze the fingers and thumb together at entry, as the hand pierces the water. Once the pulling motion begins (catch) with the lift phase by pressing the hand downward, the wrist, fingers and thumb should remain stiffened, but spread apart some. During the lift and propulsion phases of the pull, when the hand is moving downward and/or backward, more effective surface area can be achieved by separating the digits slightly. If the fingers and thumb remain squeezed together or spread too far apart, the swimmer will lose some propulsion.

Get some good coaching, practice with drills and try to correct each of these common mistakes of the hand entry in freestyle.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

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  1. I notice in the cover shot with this article – its not so much that the pinky is down (though obviously it is) more that the pitch of the hand is parallel to the line across the shoulders. In which case would it also hold true for shoulder driven free?

    1. Actually, the cover shot we used for this article is a good example of what you don’t want to do with any freestyle technique. In this case, his fingers are spread (+2%) and his hand/wrist is flared out to the side (+2.5%). It might even be bent backward some, which would add even more frontal drag. We have not measured the frontal drag of varied degrees of pitch of the hand from palm down to pinky down, but I would guess that the drag diminishes from one extreme to the other. Only Romanchuk, in the examples cited above, tilts the hand completely vertically (although he keeps his thumb out). The other two pitch their hands downward about half way.

    1. Hi Michael. The hyperlinks are embedded in the swimmers names. If you click on each name, you will be directed to a youtube video of them, showing how they use the pinky down technique.

  2. HI Gary,
    Startling change with “Little finger rotated downward (vertically)”…can you talk more about exactly what this position is? The video links seem to show some vertical orientation of the lead hand when underwater and out front, but don’t really show the entry. Are we talking about entering with hand parallel to water surface and then rotating towards vertical while out front, or entering with hand rotated towards vertical?

    1. David, what we measured was palm facing down (hand horizontal) versus little finger down (hand vertical). All of these swimmers enter their hands with the palm down and then rotate the hand in the water toward little finger down. Romanchuk is the only one that does this to a completely vertical position. Although it may be a poor analogy, I think of it as twisting the hand in the water, as if one were twisting the knife in someone’s back. Anyway, a swimmer can use this technique only with hip driven or hybrid freestyle…not in shoulder driven technique.