How to get the perfect arm stroke for a triathlon swim

Struggling to know where and how to place your arm through the water as you pull through a stroke? Swim coach Andrew Sheaff cuts through the complexity to present his three simple rules to help you slice through the water in super quick time…

ATHENS - AUGUST 14:  Ian Thorpe of Australia competes in the men's swimming 400 metre freestyle heat on August 14, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at the Main Pool of the Olympic Sports Complex Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

If you read any description of the optimal arm pull, it’s often really complicated. It might seem like you need an advanced degree to understand what’s going on!

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Understanding the underwater arm stroke is made more complicated because while there are general principles, each person is different. We have different limb lengths, different degrees of flexibility, and different strength levels.

This means that what’s ‘optimal’ for each person is likely going to differ as well.

The quickest way to move through water

To take away some of the complexity, and to allow for individual variation, I came up with the ‘three golden rules of freestyle strokes’. I based these rules upon a basic understanding of what moves us forward in the water, as well as witnessing what the best in the world do.

To move forward quickly in the water, we have to move a lot of water backward. The best way to do that is to create a big paddle and move it straight back.

With that in mind, here are the three golden rules to follow to have a great pull:

  1. Make sure the hand is deeper than the elbow
  2. Make sure the hand is inside the elbow
  3. Make sure to pull straight back

How to create a big paddle

By getting the hand deeper than the elbow and the hand inside the elbow, you ensure that you’re creating a big paddle to move water with. As, importantly, this is a position you can maintain for a long period of time while pulling straight back. This means a lot of water gets moved backwards, so you can go forward.

To see what it looks like in action, check out one of the best freestylers of all time, Ian Thorpe. As it’s all about creating a big paddle and pulling straight back, there shouldn’t be too much side-to-side movement.

You can also check out this quick video for some ideas on how to set up your stroke. It can be a complicated concept, and I do my best to show you how to keep it simple, yet effective.

You don’t need to worry about specific angles and depths. Just follow the basic rules and get in the basic position.

As you can see in the videos, the hand is much deeper than the elbow, and the hand is closer to the midline than the elbow. These positions allow you to move a lot of water with the strongest muscles of the body. To work on these skills, give the exercises below a shot.

Exercises to improve your stroke power

Power pulls

This is the simplest way to work on getting a feel for getting in the right position, and pulling straight back. Keep it simple and follow the rules. You can also add a buoy.

Human Paddle

Just like the above, except one arm at a time. You can also add a buoy.

Power Catch-Up

Once you get a good feel for executing solid arm pulls during the Human Paddle, you can start implementing Power Catch-Up. It will force you to work on recovering the arms AND executing great pulls.

Be patient if your pulls aren’t quite as good to start, as compared to when performing Human Paddle. It will get better with practise. You can also add a buoy.

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Top image: Adam Pretty/Getty Images