Welcome back!  Today we are going to continue discussing proper techniques during the recovery and entry of the freestyle stroke to help prevent and/or reduce shoulder pain and inflammation.  A few days ago we covered proper hand position upon entering the water and the effects that this can have on the pull and your shoulder.  Today we are covering the second common problem that is seen during the entry of the stroke.  That common technique flaw is the location of entry, meaning where the hand actually enters the water.

The location of entry is a very difficult technique to figure out.  The main reason for this is because a swimmer cannot actually see anything that is going on above the water, so he or she just goes with what feels right.  It is for this very reason that working with a coach is essential on the road to good, safe technique.  Unfortunately, what feels right and natural may just be a bad habit.  There are a few possible places where the hand will enter incorrectly.  These places include across the mid-line, too close the head, and too far out in front of the head.  The best way to enter the water is finger tips entering first, in-line with or just wide of the shoulder, half way between your hand and your head during full extension.  This will put your entry point a few inches beyond your head.  Many swimmers, especially people new to swimming, will enter either right next to their ears or across their mid-line.  These three errors will be the focus of our discussion today.

We will start first with examining why swimmers cross over the mid-line during the entry and how it can lead to shoulder pain.  The mid-line is just what it sounds like.  It is an imaginary line that goes from the top of the skull down your body separating your body into a right and a left half.  When a swimmer’s arm enters across the mid-line, the arm tends to go across the body even more as he or she rolls and extends the arm.  Instead or starting the pull in-line with the shoulder of the pulling arm, it starts the pull in-line with the opposite shoulder.  This is an extremely inefficient pulling position because there is no way to grab any water before pulling.  This also means that the SITS muscles are doing all the work to pull which is not what you want.  It is the use of the SITS muscles rather than the lats during the pull that may eventually lead to inflammation and pain.  If you do not understand why to use the lats instead of the SITS muscles, please read part I of this series that was posted last week.  The goal is for the arm to enter in-line with the shoulder of the pulling arm.  This allows for a safer and more efficient pull.

A swimmer may cross over for two reasons.  The first reason, as explained above, is because the swimmer naturally has a point of entry that is across the mid-line which has become a bad habit for the swimmer.  The second reason why an individual may enter and pull across the midline is because the swimmer drops his or her elbow to the side as the hand enters the water.  If a person enters the water in the proper place or across the midline and he or she drops his elbow while entering the water, the result is the same.  Both of these swimmers will cross over.  As the elbow drops down to the side, the hand will go from aiming in the direction the person is swimming to aiming to the side of the pool.  The arm will go in the direction the hand is pointing as the swimmer rolls and extends the arm down and out.  As the elbow drops to the side, the hand begins to aim to the side of the pool across the body.  This will cause the swimmer to cross over setting up an inefficient and dangerous pull.  The goal for proper technique is to enter the water finger tips first, in-line with the shoulder or a tad wide of shoulder width apart, keeping the elbow nice and high, and 8 to 10 inches deep.

The second common problem area is entering to close to the head or next to the ear.  This is a problem of inefficiency rather than a dangerous pull; however, depending on what a swimmer does after entering it can set up a dangerous pull.  When a swimmer’s hand enters the water right next to the ear or head, it causes the swimmer to drive their hand straight down rather than down and out to about 8 inches deep.  In a few days we will be covering the importance of an 8-10 inch deep entry so check back for that explanation.  This swimmer may actually be starting their pull 1 to 2 feet deep rather than 8 inches.  The problem with this is that the swimmer is not actually grabbing much water to pull.  Grabbing the water is the most important part of the stroke because grabbing more water to pull will allow you to go faster.  By entering close to the ear, the swimmer will tend to grab less water and as a result have an inefficient pull.  This inefficient pull will generally not cause a shoulder issue; however, swimmers that enter at the ear realize that they need to grab more water and it is the way they go about grabbing more water that can lead to a problem.  This variation is that the swimmer after entering deep, because he or she entered the water next to his or her ear, will then let his or her arm drift up to the surface as the swimmer rolls onto the side and extends the arm forward.  The problem with this is now the swimmer is pulling from a point that is too shallow and this puts a lot of pressure on the SITS muscles and shoulder.  It is this problem that can lead to a shoulder injury.  This will be covered in-depth in our post about entry depth in a few days, so hang tight and check back in a few days for corrections to this problem.

The third common problem is entering the water way out in front of the head.  The goal entry location as we stated above is to enter the water half way between the head and full extension, in-line or just wide of the shoulder, with the finger tips first.  The reason for this location is to ensure that the hand extends to the proper location in order to set up a safe and efficient pull.  When a swimmer enters the water with his or her hand at full extension or beyond the proper location, he or she is setting up a pull that will use the SITS muscles rather than the lats.  Once again the shoulder problem is created because it is setting the pull up wrong.  It is the start of the pull and the entry depth that will actually put the pressure on the shoulder but the entry location needs to be correct in order to prevent this improper pull.  When a swimmer enters too far out front, he or she will start the pull from the surface which puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder and the SITS muscles and uses no lat muscle.  It is this pressure that may cause shoulder pain in the long run.  By entering at the proper location, this pain can be avoided because it will ensure a proper pulling depth and the activation of the lats for the pull rather than the SITS muscles.

There are a few drills that can be used to work on all of these issues of entry location and dropping the elbow.  The first drill that can be used is the  stop-stop-switch drill.  This is a great drill that allows you to slow down your stroke and focus on keeping the elbow nice and high as your hand enters the water.  This drill was also seen in Part I of this series to help with hand position while entering.  This is a hard drill to do, so if you have a weak kick it is in your best interest to do this drill with fins otherwise you may sink.  In this drill you will start kicking on your side with your head looking at the line at the bottom of the pool.  Your bottom arm will be out in front of you, palm down, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with your shoulder.  The first stop in this drill is when you roll your head to breathe while kicking on the side.  Place the head back in-line with the spine looking back at the line at the bottom of the pool.  The second stop is when you lift the elbow of the top arm up to the ceiling.  Keep the forearm relaxed, so that the hand swings forward with the knuckles facing the end of the pool that you are swimming to.  This will make a shark fin with the top arm and that is the second stop.  You want to pause in this position for a couple of kicks.  The switch occurs when you swing your hand and forearm from the shark fin position forward so that the finger tips enter the water and you take a stroke to switch sides.  Then you will repeat this stop-stop switch drill with the other side.  The goal for this drill is to really focus on where the hand is actually entering.  You will want to go slow from the second stop through the switch in this drill and focus on where the hand actually enters the water.  Also focus on keeping the elbow nice and high throughout the entry so as you enter the hand goes in first followed by the wrist and then the elbow.  The hand and elbow should not enter the water at the same time because that means your elbow is dropping to the side and you are crossing over as you enter.  Here is a video for you to watch to better understand the drill and the entry location:

Another drill to work on these problems is the catch-up drill with a kick board or fin.  This will be most effective for correcting the problem of entering across the mid-line.  In this drill you will want to use a kick board or fin and turn it horizontally.  You will start on your stomach holding the kick board/fin with the arms about shoulder width apart.  You will swim normally focusing on keeping the elbow nice and high and grabbing the kick board shoulder width apart after each stroke.  After the hand that just entered the water grabs hold of the kick board in-line with the shoulder, then do the same thing with the other arm.  Always have one hand holding the board at all times.  This drill is doing two things.  It is teaching your muscles the proper location of where the hand should enter the water.  It is also teaching the muscles how to keep the elbows nice and high as you enter the water.  If you are crossing over as you enter, then you will be grabbing the board closer to your head and you will have a hard time with this drill.  The point of this drill is not to go fast, it is to do it right so be sure to stay focused.  Here is a video of this drill:

Another drill to help you work on keeping high elbows and a wide entry is the catch-up drill with finger-tip drag.  This drill can be done with or without a kick board as seen above.  The difference between regular catch-up and this drill is that as you go through the recovery portion of the stroke you want to get the elbow nice and high and drag the finger tips across the surface of the water.  As you are getting ready to enter the water focus on keeping the elbow nice and high and entering the water shoulder width apart.  Here is a video of this drill to get a better idea of what you are shooting for:

The final drill to help you work on high elbow and entry location is the shark fin touch drill.  This drill allows you to work on balance, high elbows, and entry location. Start on one side with the bottom arm out front, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with the shoulder.  Lift the top arm up at the elbow keeping the forearm and hand relaxed with the knuckles facing forward. This will make the shark fin. Pause here for a couple of kicks, then swing the forearm forward and touch the water with your finger tips only where you want to enter half-way between the head and full extension.  Make sure you keep that elbow nice and high. Then bring the arm back to shark fin and then back down by your side and breathe.  Keep the elbow pointing at the ceiling the entire time except when the arm is by your side while you are breathing.  This is another drill that you should use fins with if you have a weaker kick.  Check out this video to see what the drill looks like:

This concludes part II of this three-part series.   Part III will be focusing more on entry depth and how setting this up properly is essential to a safe and efficient pull using the Lats rather than SITS muscles.  There is a lot of information here and not all of it will apply to you.  Generally a person has one of these three problems not all three, but it is important to be aware of all the areas the stroke can go wrong.  Knowing these different areas will help you to maintain a proper stroke and keep those shoulders pain-free for a long career in swimming and triathlon.  Correcting these problem areas does not guarantee that you will never have shoulder pain or injury, but entering at the proper location will help to lower the risk of injury.  Please feel free to comment on anything mentioned today and ask as many questions as you like.  Also a special thanks goes out to our strength coach Franco Zuccoli for demonstrating the drills properly in all the videos seen today.  Come back in a few days for part III. Start getting excited now because you are almost swimming pain free!