All strokes are alike. You might be thinking, “What a radical statement to make!”
Consider the following: the crawl strokes use alternating arms while rotating through the front and back, respectively. The breaststroke and butterfly arms are simultaneous, but breast recovers underwater and butterfly over the water.
How can they be alike?
Strokes are classified differently as long-axis and short-axis. The long-axis crawl strokes use a six-beat rhythm with three kicks per arm stroke. The short-axis butterfly uses two kicks per arm stroke, and breaststroke uses only one. Again, how can they be alike?
Well, for one, all these four competitive strokes, as well as the sidestroke and elementary backstroke, have a two-phase rhythm: stroke and recovery.
Second, for all strokes, the swimmer inhales on one phase and exhales on the other.
Most important, though, what makes all of them alike involves how they propel the swimmer’s body through the water. By anchoring the arms and hands against non-moving water, each stroke levers the body past the hand(s).
What all strokes have in common is a propulsive position where the elbow is higher than the hand. Obviously, the inverse is true for back strokes. This enables an optimal surface area (hand plus inside lower arm plus inside upper arm) for leverage against the water.
It is not hard to visualize this high-elbow position for crawl-freestyle or for backstroke, where it is inverted. And if butterfly is properly considered as a double-arm crawl, the swimmer’s body is propelled between high elbows.
Even the breaststroke, properly swum, rotates the lower arms and hands below higher elbows. Like butterfly doubles crawl, elementary backstroke levers the body past two arms that basically hug the water. And sidestroke also uses a high elbow for its upper-body propulsive force.
To achieve this efficient and effective arm position, the swimmer can think “point my elbow” ahead toward the end of the pool. Anatomically, this means to medially rotate the humerus.
Additionally, for recovery, it is the elbow that does the work to let the hand and lower arm relax before providing the next propulsive effort.
Swimming gets a whole lot easier when, on front or side, the elbow stays above the wrist, and the wrist stays above the fingers. Try it and see.
Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors. firstname.lastname@example.org