What Does Your Paddle Look Like?
The position and shape of your paddle directly affects power output and the amount of demand you place on your vulnerable shoulders. But, what is our paddle? The complete surface area from your fingertips to your elbow comprises the paddle, and that area propels yourself through the water in freestyle. For many swimmers, digging deep down below their body to pull with a straight arm feels natural. While this may offer a decent amount of power, the lengthened position of the arm isolates the small deltoid muscles and demands too much from them.
Practice reshaping your paddle and the pathway it flows through in the water. Again, maintain retracted shoulder blades to help support the upper and lower levers of the arm while keeping a high elbow position during the pull. Picture your elbow as a hinge on a door and picture the forearm and hand as the door (your paddle). After extending the arm under the water, hinge at the elbow and rotate your paddle downward into a vertical position as you begin the pull.
To take a close look at this and feel the subtleties of these mechanics, put fins on and slow down your stroke rate significantly so that you can maintain control and focus. This new paddle positioning recruits the large muscles of the back and chest (lats, rhomboids, traps), creating a more effective and durable stroke. This will help safeguard the health of your shoulders and tap into the largest muscle group in your upper body--your lats!
Keep it Safe
I encourage all swimmers to practice yoga regularly or partake in any other stretching that isolates and strengthens muscles that comprise the shoulders, back and chest. All of our muscles work together, but when one doesn't function properly, it directly comprises the effectiveness of the others.