Why You Should Relax Your Wrists When Swimming

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Have you ever noticed that the fastest swimmers in the pool typically look like they are swimming with less effort than the slower ones? It is not a coincidence. There is a reason and it is mostly in the wrist.

The part of the swimmer we see during the freestyle race is the part above the water…the back of the head, the back, the feet breaking the surface, and the recovery of the arms. Although most of the real work is going on under the surface, the few tenths of a second that the arms are recovering above the water between each underwater pull turns out to be extremely important for the swimmer.

The human muscle can recover in a surprisingly short amount of time, if we give it a chance. If a muscle is relaxed for just a brief period, tenths of seconds, the ions involved in the exchange across the cell membranes, mostly sodium and potassium, necessary for a strong muscular contraction, can find their way back home in time for another good pull. If we keep the muscles tense and contracted, they fatigue much sooner. The muscles are simply unable to sustain the strong contractions for very long.

I am not certain what percentage of our total available muscle fibers are contracting during any one single freestyle pull, in any of the muscles involved in this motion (likely less than 50%), but it is significantly higher when the muscles have had an opportunity to recover than when they haven’t. Relaxing the wrist and hand on the recovery of the freestyle stroke enables the muscles in the arm to recover better than when the wrist is stiff and the fingers are clenched together. You don’t even need to be in the water to figure that out.

It seems like a simple proposition. Relax the wrist and fingers during the recovery and you will likely pull stronger and for a longer period of time, two desirable outcomes, particularly if you want to swim fast. Yet many swimmers don’t get it. In their overzealous attempt to quickly get to the other end of the pool, they never let go of their intensity. They never chill out on the recovery. When the arm moves over the top of the water, they look as if rigor mortis is setting in, completely stiff and un-relaxed. As a result, they get tired and don’t keep swimming fast.

Don’t underestimate the importance of relaxing the wrist and fingers during this recovery period. I haven’t seen a great swimmer yet that hasn’t learned that. At The Race Club, we spend a lot of time on one particular drill, the six-kick, one-stroke drill, stopping the hand at 12 o’clock, straight above the shoulder. At that point, the swimmer dangles the wrist from side to side for a second or two, before continuing on with the recovery. Even this simple drill is a challenge for many swimmers. At the top their recovery, the dangle looks more like a parade wave, rather than a hand that is connected to the forearm by a few threads, hanging down toward the water, pulled by gravity. In order to recover well, there has to be complete relaxation of the wrist and fingers.

It is surprising how this single act of relaxation of the hand and fingers during those few tenths of a second can not only make you look like a great swimmer, you will actually start to act like one, swimming faster. In life, it is commonly held that taking vacations is a good thing. They help to keep us energized and strong during our working months. The same could be said of taking a few ten-minute breaks during our workday. They keep us fresh and more productive.

Make your swim more productive. Take the break when you can get it, on the recovery, by relaxing your wrist and fingers to sustain a faster, stronger pulling motion. As my Masters coach in Phoenix, Troy Dalbey, used to tell me, “swim with soft hands on the recovery”. Troy was right. Softer, relaxed hands make for faster swimmers.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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10 Comments on "Why You Should Relax Your Wrists When Swimming"

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Great piece, thanks!

You are welcome!

“You have hands like a ballet dancer when your swimming!” Said my best friend and swim training partner. Now I have an excuse/reason for my dainty wrists on recovery

That is a great compliment!

Agreeing with Gary. One of the many ways to spot an adult onset swimmer from the pool deck is that most of them tend to try to lead with the hand on the recovery rather than just letting the forearm be carried along by the momentum from rolling your shoulders forward. The folks who have a couple million yards/meters under their caps have generally learned somewhere along the way to do as little as possible to get their hand in position and get readty for its entry into the water.

I would agree, particularly on the ‘low octane’ recovery with a bent elbow, more common in the 200 and up events. The sprinters tend to use a straighter arm (high octane) and faster, more aggressive, recovery which produces more coupling energy for the underwater pulling arm.

Logan Bradford

This ^^^ is always the very first thing I teach people when I’m helping with their stroke: lead with your shoulder, not your hand. Drawing the parallel to walking, we lead with our hips, not our feet. The movement originates in the joint — the satellite limb is merely the recipient of the action.

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