How to unlock your catch & pull

If there is one technical element that is consistent right across the board with many of the world’s best swimmers, it’s good alignment.

This is in stark contrast to how many of them look in the water as their technique can look very different. Some look silky smooth and effortless, others can look more like windmills thrashing through the water.

What is clear is that different strokes work for different folks and the reason for this is because all have:

  • Different body types 
  • Different proportions 
  • Different breathing patterns
  • Different levels of flexibility 
  • We also think differently

Despite all this the one key technical area that unlocks so many other parts of a swim stroke is good alignment. When you put this in place it can help improve so many areas of the stroke that might not be working as efficiently as it could. Without question this is the technical area that if you get it right gives you the biggest bang for your buck in others areas too.

Unfortunately, this is the number 1 fault I see swimmers making daily basis but can be easily corrected.

So, what is good alignment?

The best way to think of alignment is how straight your body stays as you move through the water. This is particularly important when you extend forwards with your arms. If you imagine two track lines coming out from your shoulders pointing directly down the pool, then these are the lines you are looking to extend along.

Unfortunately, many swimmers end up crossing inwards over the centre line of the body as the arm extends forwards. Once the hand and arm cross this midline it creates an equal and opposite reaction in the legs and hips which causes the body to ‘snake’ through the water. It can also result in a splayed leg kick as the body tries hard to stabilise itself.

The main cause of poor alignment is two-fold:

  • Incorrect hand entry into the water (usually too soon or close to the head or the fingers are pointing inwards from the wrist rather than forwards)
  • The arms start to follow the movement of the body from side to side as it rotates, especially when a swimmer turns their head to breath. In many cases allowing the extending arm to follow the movement of the head.

Entering too close to head

Crossing due to early hand entry

Right arm crossing inwards as swimmer turns head to breath to the left

Extreme crossing, watch any pool full of swimmers and the amount of people you will see doing this is very high!

Quite often the swimmer will also be unable to swim in a straight line because of it.

The other major problem is this completely off sets your pulling pattern underwater leading to a much less affective catch & pull through. Quite often the swimmer will be so far offline that the arm will cross over the midline under the water as well.

Crossing way over the midline

Excellent arm position for pulling

Less commonly we see swimmers with alignment that is too wide. This again off sets the pulling pattern underwater making the swimmer pull way too wide of the midline.

Left arm too wide

The key to unlocking an affective catch and pull through is to start with the alignment first. This massively improves the pulling position of the arms underwater. In many cases there will be no need to make further adjustments to your pulling pattern. This is because it places the shoulder and arm in a stronger, more comfortable position for pulling backwards in a straight line.

How do we do correct this alignment?  

Firstly, the swimmer needs to see the mistake they are making because very often they have no idea they are making this mistake in the first place. In fact, many are convinced their arms are straight. That’s why swim video analysis can be so powerful because swimmers are often astounded when they see what their body is doing. Once you realise you can’t believe what the brain is telling you it is quite simple to correct but be warned! It might not feel good at first when you get it right. In fact, when you finally do get into the right position the arms usually feel way wider than you perceive them to be!

Ideally hand entry should be at least 3/4 arm length in front of the head or even further forwards. This starts to stretch the arm further forwards helping to straighten it out more. The closer your hand entry is to the head the higher the chance of you crossing inwards because you close the angle of the extending arm when ideally we want to open it.

Once hand entry into the water is correct (it might already be good in some cases) you then need to start working ‘around the clock’. What I mean by this is you must imagine your arms are at 11am/1pm, 10am/2pm or even in some cases the swimmer needs to imagine 9am/3pm when extending forwards!  Sometimes this will need to be off set too if there is more crossing on one side compared to the other i.e. 11am/2pm for example.

The response I have from almost every swimmer once we put them into the right position is “I can’t believe how wide it feels!” .This is because the old movement pattern that you thought was straight has been firmly embedded into your stroke through thousands of repetitions, in many cases over several years.

The worse the crossing, the longer it will take to unpick it. Worst cases scenario will take about 5-6 sessions before it starts to feel more normal so be patient, it will come. If it is only a subtle adjustment you need then you might just start to get it right after a session or two of focussed work, then just add in sets as ‘reminders’ over time.

I’m not really a fan of doing ‘drills’ to correct this either, this can over complicate matters. Just by doing some full stroke swimming (over shorts sets such as 6 x 50m on 15 rest interval) focussing on your specific “clock positioning” is enough during a warmup to start getting it right.

The sets need to be short because this is easier for the brain to cope with the initial change. Then you extended the distances with this new position over time as your body gets used to it.

A swimming snorkel is also an incredibly useful tool to help improve alignment. This is because you can look further forwards to see what your arms are doing while you are swimming. We use the snorkel extensively in my swim squads to focus on many different areas of the stroke. The elimination of breathing makes it so much easier to imprint good technique and movement patterns before reintroducing breathing as the next layer.

Another simple correction method is to swim over the black line in the swimming pool. This will help you get a good feel for the position of your arms. If they are coming onto across the black line, then you know you need to push them wider. As soon as you see the arms parallel with the outside of the black line then lock this is as it will be the position you are looking for.

Without question in my experience poor alignment is the number 1 issue most swimmers at all levels suffer from to differing degrees. This is why I focus on it so much with my squad swimmers each week. It can easily be corrected with the right guidance.

This is another reason why swimmers even at the highest of levels should get their strokes filmed at least once a year so they can make sure that they are not falling into bad habits.