Here’s something really cool and really easy to try…
Have a friend hold their hand out, palm up, at about the height of your shoulder. Now, imagine you are swimming “up” toward the ceiling/sky. Reach up with one arm and start to take a stroke. As you “pull” down toward your feet, have your friend catch your hand with theirs, palm to palm, and resist your pulling motion. While you are doing this, think about which muscles are engaging to press your hand and arm through the stroke. You will most likely feel your forearm, biceps, triceps, shoulder, and perhaps a bit of your neck and upper back. Once you have a decent sense of which muscles were engaging, stop, bring your hand back up over your head, and start your pull again. This time, have your friend catch you so their palm makes contact with your wrist and the very heel of your hand. It’s not a particularly big change in location or distance, but notice which muscles engage this time. Along with substantially more of your shoulder muscles, you should also feel your lats (the muscles along the side of your torso) engage. And along with the added muscle engagement, you should notice a good bit more leverage and power, enabling you to press your friend’s hand toward the floor with much greater ease!
When a swimmer focuses on their hand for their pull, they use much smaller muscles, which will have less overall power and will fatigue more quickly. Biomechanically, the swimmer will be far more likely to drop their elbow as well, effectively reducing the total pulling area of the arm to just the hand, sacrificing a huge amount of potential value from the stroke. Simply by changing the focus of your catch to the wrist and lower forearm, the elbow remains much higher, larger muscle groups are recruited, leverage improves significantly, and for reasons I’ll skip over here, drag is reduced substantially!
Better technique, better power, better endurance, better hydrodynamics, and most importantly, greater overall speed, performance, and results. Not too shabby for just moving your focus a few inches, huh? :-D
Yup, they really are! Think about the mechanics of walking. You use the muscles of the hip and upper leg to move the femur (upper leg) forward. The knee joint is relaxed, allowing the lower leg and foot to trail behind. Once the knee has moved far enough forward, the momentum created from the motion causes the foot to swing forward and just as our knee joint fully straightens, we land on the foot, and our body uses that leg to support our body as it moves forward, with the hamstring and gluteus pulling the leg back behind our body. Meanwhile, the other leg has finished it’s pulling phase and is swinging forward.
Now imagine that same action, but with everthing moved from a vertical positioning of the body to a horizontal positioning. The only joint that is in a specifically different position is the foot, as the ankle allows the water’s resistance to press it back, so the toes are pointing straight back toward where we’ve just swum from. Otherwise, it’s all the same. The power is created from the upper leg and hip muscles. The knee is not rigid, but relaxed. This means that the leg does not stay absolutely straight, but rather, has some flexion and straightening through the kick cycle. It does not, however, bend dramatically, which would only result from actually using the knee as a power source for the kicking. (Imagine how silly you’d look if you purposefully bent your knee and then pressed your foot forward from the knee each time you took a step while walking.)
So give it a go. Next time you are in the pool, instead of focusing on “kicking your way forward”, just try to “take a step” in front of your body. If you keep it small and quick, you just might find it gives you better results with a lot less effort.