Volunteers Are The Pioneers: The Top Arm Breakout

by Amanda Smith 36

October 09th, 2013 College, News, SEC, Training

When I retired from swimming post 2012 trials, I thought I’d never live that lifestyle again. Oh, think again Amanda. I have always loved swimming and I find myself on deck again as a coach, actually sleeping less now between the early mornings with my Masters and National swimmers, to the late nights with my Gold and Silver swimmers.

For once I got home early from coaching, and was determined to fall asleep when, like I said in college, “NARPs” do (non-athlete regular people). Between the insomnia-tic life of coaching and frustration with my swimmers streamlines and bodylines, I started to watch YouTube swimming videos to kill some hours. The combination of starting with SwimSwam last February (conference season), the talks of the Cal “open streamlines” from last season and my goal to be an NCAA coach, I found myself watching videos from the 2013 NCAA Championships. Mainly I was searching for the Cal streamline, but I stumbled upon something totally different.

Outside of the powerhouse of Cal, Tennessee women were on fire last March. First, after never winning a single NCAA title relay, they went on to sweep the first three of the meet. With great performances from start to finish, the Volunteers walked away with a program best third place and trophy from Indianapolis, Indiana.

With the start of college swimming upon us, let’s take some time to relive those memories. Take a trip down memory lane to the first race of the meet, the 200 freestyle relay. You can watch above in the feature image, Tennessee is the third from the top. But instead of just watching the race, pay attention to this. Lane 3, Tennessee vs. Lane 4, Arizona (predominately a strong sprint team).

Now, I want you to watch their breakouts. And yes, you saw what I just saw; they pulled with their top arm.

Now pull up their 400 medley & 200 medley winning relays on YouTube. Fast forward to the freestyler; you see it again. Maybe it’s only a relay technique? Take a look at Lindsay Gendron in her 200 (link below) & 500 freestyle individual races; no matter the distance nor individual or relay event, the Tennessee Volunteers breakout with their top arm.

Lindsay Gendron – 2013 NCAA Women’s 200 Freestyle Final
Gendron is second from the top (Lane 7) – She would go on to finish 5th, 1:43.77

Everything I have ever learned about breakouts involved the bottom arm. Let’s define it as the arm that faces the bottom of the pool as you push off the wall, that will be the first arm you initiate a pull with – ie. if you turn left (like most right-handed swimmers do), your left arm will face the bottom and your first stroke is with your left arm.

Personally, I have a bachelor’s degree from University of Southern California in Kinesiology, with a focus in biomechanics. There had to be a reason behind this change. I started to envision these movements in terms of body plane/body line. We know that streamline, when done well, is the easiest way to go fast through the water. That being said, holding that line to maintain maximal speed off the wall is what we are trying to achieve as coaches and swimmers. Just because you are a strong athlete, doesn’t mean your core is strong, which is integral to holding that bodyline.

For all the swim nerds out there, close your eyes. As you push off the wall and start a bottom arm breakout, you initiate the pull while you are still very much underwater. You are shifting your body from a let’s say a 135* angle to a quick flat 180*. As I imagined this, I saw a lot of drag being created by moving our body out of streamline to “spin” through the surface. This also relies on the swimmer being able to stay tight, using their core, through all these changes in body position. And let’s be honest, maintaining a perfect bodyline is difficult while changing your position, while also going lightning fast.

Now let’s take the top arm breakout. You push off the wall in the optimal bodyline like before, but now hold it until the very last moment as your breech the surface to pull with your top arm. Pulling with the top arm happens at the moment you slide on top of the surface. That top arm breakout is able to keep your body inline easier, since you aren’t dealing with so many variables as I said above, and also right into that first race stroke.

Look at the videos again. Tennessee is very much onto something brilliant. I had to know more, and had the opportunity to speak with Assistant Coach Tyler Fenwick on the phone. I’ve never personally met Tyler, and after introducing ourselves and getting to know their program and philosophy at UT, it was a perfect segway into a breakout discussion (pun intended).

Tyler shared with me a big part of their philosophy at Tennessee is that “this is what we are doing right now and how can we then do it better collaborating from both the coaches and athletes”. As a staff, Fenwick said they meet on average 12 hours a week, constantly finding out ways to get faster, making every practice a learning lab within the sport. Every person in the water or on the deck at UT has a voice. The catalyst of all this breakout and turn discussion came from the volunteer assistant Bill Boomer last season.

NCAA swimming is short course yards, which means a lot of walls. You are only as fast by how much speed you maintain in and out of those walls. And I agree, it will be very difficult to reach that top tier in NCAA swimming if you choose to swim between the flags versus within the walls. This is a huge emphasis at UT. This season for example, they did not allow the team to use a physical wall until October. They had to learn how to generate speed with their legs, streamlines, bodylines and breakouts.

Tennessee was able to hire an engineer out of Colorado Springs last season. With that they were able to test, run data, take video, all in search of how to hold a better line and maintain maximal speed off the wall. Next is what really blew my mind, based on what they compiled the top arm breakout is EXPONENTIALLY faster than the bottom arm. Using the top arm is more pronounced in maintaining the line, and efficiently maintaining as much speed as possible off the wall.

It seems hard to believe. But once you visualize the movements, it begins to make sense. This top arm breakout keeps your line and tight, through all that turbulent water, at the last moment then sliding you through the surface of the water. I volunteer twice a week up at The Ohio State University, and while working with Bill Dorenkott and Liz Hinkleman, my curious ears overheard Bill Wadely on the other side of the deck talking about “no depth breakouts”. This top arm is exactly that; you are breaking out right at the surface, not deep where the bottom arm rather is.

I am a self-admitted swim nerd, so of course I was eager to try. I had workout with my National group swimmers at the Mason Manta Rays based out of Mason, Ohio under Head Coach Ken Heis (suburb of Cincinnati). During a test set off the blocks, I pulled aside our top three women – who are very coachable and strong in the water. I had them pull with the top arm the whole set, and admittedly after talking to Tyler I was drinking a little bit of the orange koolaid, but they really did look cleaner, sliding through and onto the surface, versus spinning, as they broke out.

I really admire what is going on in Knoxville. That old school mentality of swimming and coaching is nowhere to be found under Matt Kredich’s tenure. The emphasis is always on finding new ways to go fast – for all we know, their breakouts could totally change for this year. A little birdie did tell me to keep an eye on the backstroke breakouts this season.

Tennessee has been developing some raw swimmers into exceptional NCAA titleholders. As it is in recruiting, the better you do, your recruiting pool becomes richer with talent and swimmers with strong backgrounds at the club level. As a club coach hoping to break into the NCAA level one day, I would keep an eye out for the Volunteers – or should I say the new “pioneers” within our sport.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Anthony Randall
7 years ago

Interesting read, love what Kredich is doing over there at Knoxville.

7 years ago

Phelps has been doing this for years:


I noticed this a while ago but never really thought anything of it. Perhaps this is the start of something new.

Top Arm?
Reply to  jake
7 years ago

I’m not sure if that is what the author means by “top arm”. Maybe I’m reading this wrong but I think it refers to when you do a turn and push off the wall, then your body is on it’s side and as you breakout you use the arm that is closer to the surface of the water rather than the arm pointed downward. Can someone let me know if I’m reading this right? I feel like if the article only meant “arm on top in streamline” then this concept wouldn’t be a big deal.

Reply to  Top Arm?
7 years ago

Top Arm – this is correct. The arm closer to the surface.

Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

Thank you for the clarification. I see whats going on now.

Out of the Box
7 years ago

I love the innovative thinking, but have some questions. I’m unclear on the author’s use of “exponentially” faster. Is that a mannerism or do you have numbers to back that up? If so, please share.
I am on board with the idea of going faster by reducing drag instead of creating force, but it seems like you would sacrifice a whole lot of force generation (by pulling with all the muscles of the body in a bottom-arm breakout vs. just the arm muscles of a top-arm breakout). Is the amount of drag reduction that much higher than the amount of force being lost?
If drag is the issue, wouldn’t it make sense for them to do it on… Read more »

Reply to  Out of the Box
7 years ago

This article is about turns, not starts.
When you think about it, there isn’t really a bottom or top arm off a start. You don’t push off the block and enter off a “flat” body position.
And this isn’t about force. It’s about maintaining maximal speed off the wall. In their research they found that the top arm GREATLY maintains maximal speed.
You go in 100, you want to come off as close to 100 as possible. The force of the pull doesn’t make up for the lost speed.

Out of the Box
Reply to  Amanda
7 years ago

OK, we’re talking about turns here…

Your article states that an engineer from Colorado Springs came and ran tests and analyzed the data. I applaud the UT staff for focussing on science and data in their efforts to go faster (as opposed to old coaching folklore). If data was used to determine that a top-arm breakout is faster than a bottom arm one (exponentially, greatly, vastly, immensely, or any other word that means “a lot”), then it should be easy to answer the question “How much faster is it?”

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t believe you/UT, it’s that I want to know an amount so I can begin working on it with my swimmers and know a… Read more »

Reply to  Out of the Box
7 years ago

It’s a mannerism, because even with data, “exponentially” wouldn’t apply here. That would mean if it saved 0.02 on the first turn, it’d be 0.04 on the second, then 0.08 on the third… in a 500 the last turn would save over an hour.

Also, it’s not very good evidence to say “if you think about it, it makes sense” or “they looked cleaner”.

People like hearing about new training techniques and how they work, but stories like this should feature first-hand knowledge from coaches like Kredich himself.

Reply to  swumswom
7 years ago

swumswom – the article did contain first-hand knowledge, specifically from Matt Kredich’s assistant, Tyler Fenwick, who was designated as the point of contact on the subject by the staff, as is referenced several times.

About Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith is a former swimmer at both Indiana and USC, where she earned a total of nine All-American honors at the NCAA Championships. Smith, a middle-distance specialist as a swimmer, was also 3-time USC School Record holder, a 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year nominee, and an Olympic Trials …

Read More »