Vaulting?…Thoughts on the Straight-Arm Freestyle

Recently, I’ve heard more and more people talking about the “vaulting”  or “straight-arm” freestyle.  This technique maintains a relatively straight arm position throughout the entire stroke cycle allowing for a faster stroke rate.  During the pull, the hand act as a lever – “vaulting” the body over the water.

While I respect this version of the freestyle stroke, I feel that it may not be the best stroke style for the majority of age group, triathlete and masters swimmers.

The “Vaulting” Freestyle is primarily used successfully by an Elite Level Male Sprinter (ELMS).  Keep in mind that the ELMS’s primary objective is to plow through a 50 meter distance as fast as possible.  Any effective increase in stroke rate is a GOOD IDEA.

But if it’s good for the ELMS, why isn’t good for me? 

Fact #1:  I am not an elite athlete or a male (definitely not) and defiantly not a sprinter.

Fact #2:  You probably aren’t an elite male sprinter either.

Why does that matter?

Well, unless you are interested in looking like a wiggling-mess of spinning arms on a one-way trip to shoulder pain, it matters for three reasons:

  1. The Laws of Physics
  2. The Athletes Level of Physical Conditioning
  3. Kinesthetic awareness

“Vaulting” Freestyle places a significant amount of stress on the connective tissues and ligaments of the the shoulder girdle due to the trajectory of the arm during the recovery.  A strong kick is necessary to ensure an effective stroke rate without the athlete literally “spinning his wheels.” The stress on the shoulder increases significantly if the athlete has trouble maintaining a stable body position and all of that work is for nothing if the athlete is unable to control his hand entry.

In his article “The Biomechanics of ‘Unintended Consequences'”, published in the American Swimming Magazine (2009, Issue 2),  Jan Prins of the Aquatics Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii states:

“Because of the way the mass of the arm is distributed, an out-stretched arm has a larger moment of inertia when compared with an arm carried with a high elbow.  Regardless of the fact that the total mass of the arm has stayed the same, more muscular effort is needed to recover the arm when held in an extended position…”

“…….In conclusion, it should be stressed that due to the contributing factors that could negatively affect the ‘catch’ and the body orientation, the ‘straight arm’ recovery should be taught to swimmers only after they have reached a certain level of kinesthetic awareness.  Simply put, this maneuver should be taught to swimmers who have been swimming competitively for a number of years and not to relative newcomers.”

The way I see it, Michael Phelps’ day job is to be a swimmer.  He spends the same amount of time working out and burning calories as I do sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen.  The “vaulting” or “straight-arm” style works for him.  I can’t say it would do anything good for me — or most average swimmers for that matter — at least not without a major change in career goals and lifestyle.

Then again,  the only constant in swimming is CHANGE.

Keep on Swimming,

Coach Meg

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