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  Shoulder SHIFT for a Faster Freestyle

Printed with permission from:

Pool’s Edge Column- Swimming World Magazine-May 2007

By: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen Aquatic Edge, Inc.

The article appeared in Swimming World Magazine in January of 2000. The piece was short on text, the photos marginal at best, but the content was an eye-opener. In two short pages, I discovered a TOTALLY new way to swim freestyle.

I am referring to “Fairly Good Sequence Illustrating the New Australian Crawl” by former ASU coach and multiple Masters World record-holder Ron Johnson.

Johnson had analyzed Australians swimmers Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins “…and the best of the rest of the world.”

In 2000, Johnson noted, “The shoulder shift is the single most obvious difference between the great contemporary Australian freestylers and today’s top American male swimmers.” In addition, he found that “there is considerable overlap in the stroke (“catch up”)…the upper arm and shoulder are in a higher and more stable position…the stroke is wider throughout and more along the shoulder line,” Johnson adds. “This pull is also wider than generally advocated in recent publications.”

His analysis made sense to me, unlike the stroke that was being endorsed at the time with a great deal of shoulder rotation and swimming on your side.

“Many of our "experts" have advised us to swim "like fish,” Johnson said. “A more useful model would be to swim like the fastest humans. We're not built like fish, and we cannot emulate the movements of fish. Fishlike swimming is an impossible-and misleading-goal. Besides, any fish on it’s side is a DEAD fish!” he concludes. What I took away from Johnson’s article was: by using a shoulder shift instead of a roll, a few extra inches are available on every pull. By reaching or “extending” forward, natural core/hip rotation occurs. With a slightly wider than shoulder width hand placement and an early/high elbow catch, I have a stronger and more efficient pull.

This more efficient pull also proved to be faster. How fast? At the age of 42 I swam LIFETIME bests in both free and fly.

I now call this the stroke the “wide entry, early catch freestyle” and teach it worldwide at my Aquatic Edge swim technique clinics and camps.

Here are five key points that you can try….

Minimize shoulder rotation: Too much shoulder rotation burns up energy and does little to help you move forward. Minimize rotation by “quieting” the shoulders. Instead, shift the shoulder forward allowing the body to rotate as one unit, using the core and the hips to generate power.

This “flatter” stroke can feel mechanical at first, that’s ok! Change feels weird at first. Of note, it is nearly impossible to swim entirely "flat". We are simply removing the EXTRA rotation.

Wider hand placement: With less shoulder roll, a slightly wider than the shoulder hand placement is now available. This wider “spacing” creates the foundation for a powerful and more stable pull.

Need more proof? The next time you go to get out of the pool, look down at your hands. You probably placed them about shoulder width apart. Why? Because you intuitively knew that you needed power, leverage and stability to exit the pool. Apply this same principle to where your power is in the pull.

Extend and pause: Another term for “catch-up” stroke. The “extend and pause” allows the pull to “catch up” to the often-shorter recovery phase, and gives you time to set up the “catch.” If you swim with a “mirror” stroke, you may be rushing your pull.

High elbow/early catch: After “extend and pause,” initiate the “catch” by lifting the elbow and pointing the fingertips at the bottom. The wrist is firm and straight, but the hand is relaxed. A great visualization technique to practice a high elbow catch is to imagine you are swimming over a VERY SHALLOW coral reef. You can’t touch the coral, so the arm must bend at the elbow to accommodate the shallower pull. Do not internally rotate the shoulder as this may cause injury.

Pull alongside the body, not under: You would never put a paddle in front or under a canoe or kayak. Apply the same principal to swimming. An efficient pull “catches” or “holds” the water to move you forward, with the hand entering and exiting the water at about the same location. The old “S” pull pattern moved water…you want the water to move you!

Power: After the “catch,” apply power early and round off the pull at the hips. With this wider stroke the power or “umph” is in the FRONT using large muscle groups instead of the back, which relies on the triceps.

I know…it’s a lot to think about. Slow down, practice one thing at a time and keep it simple. Your stroke will always be a work in progress. Seek progress, not perfection and don’t forget…have fun!

BIO: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen will be inducted in the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame Class of 2007. To preview her DVD GO Swim Freestyle with Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen visit www.goswim.tv. To find out more about Aquatic Edge Swim Technique Clinics and Camps, visit www.aquaticedge.org