Swimmer's Dryland Exercises for Developing a Swimmer's Catch Technique

How Important Is A Swimmer's Catch?

Mixed race man swimming in swimming pool
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At a Senior Nationals at Irvine California, eleven swim coaches were asked the question "what would you teach a swimmer first when teaching the freestyle?" Nine of the eleven said the "catch or EVF."

It's undoubtedly the most important propulsive element in swimming and, unfortunately for most swimmers, it also the most elusive. The bad news is that all the streamlining and effective conditioning won't make-up for a dropped-elbow stroke, the antecedent of a good swimmer's catch or EVF (early vertical forearm).

The good news is that coaches have new equipment and know more about how to train swimmers so they can acquire and improve this critical skill.

By analyzing videos of Olympic and World Record Holders, coaches and swimmers will see what a great catch looks like. All world class swimmers, in every competitive stroke, start with an extension of the arm(s) followed by a catch that moves the hand and forearm into the all important early vertical catch position. A great EVF doesn't just happen, it takes specific shoulder strength to put the hand/forearm into that crucial position. Knowing what to look for and understanding the mechanics of the swimmer's catch and the EVF position is just the start to improving it.

If swimmers can't demonstrate the EVF position out of the water, a vast majority won't accomplish the skill in the water. Every swimmer should be able to demonstrate what an EVF looks like to their swim coach.

Coaches should give themselves plenty of opportunities to see that their swimmers can perform the skill correctly. (Swimmers can mimic the catch for all strokes using isometrics).

Swimmers should be able to show the EVF position while:

  • Standing up
  • Bending over as they mimic swimming
  • While lying on their front and on their back (on a bleacher)

    From these dry-land positions, the coach or instructor can tell their swimmers what they're looking for, and then coaches can manipulate swimmers' arms until they can hold that effective EVF position without help. When these EVF motions are trained and reinforced everyday, swimmers will learn the concept, connect with the feeling, and transfer the EVF position more successfully in the water. Coaches will love it when swimmers begin to tell them that they are "getting it" (the catch), or telling them that they're losing it (and need to drill some more). Once swimmers can show the EVF position at the drop of a hat, they're ready for exercises that will help them maintain that position in the water.

    Dry-land Exercises for EVF Swimming

    Strength training exercises must be incorporated in every swimmers training regime. Young or old, the benefits of a comprehensive and safe strength training program to swimmers are immense. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) may be the most respected organizations dealing with exercise and its benefits. The ACSM has drawn conclusions as to the safety and importance of incorporating strength training for young children to adults. Swimmers will improve more and faster when a good strength training program is in place.

    General strength training should be at the core of every program and must be accompanied with auxiliary EVF exercises. The EVF exercises include specific shoulder and back routines. These specific exercises must be incorporated religiously into a swimmer's training regime to promote an effective EVF and are vital to improving the catch. It's important to note that the EVF exercises are in addition to and not exclusive to a comprehensive resistance training program.

    Swimmer's Dryland Exercises for Developing a Swimmer's EVF Catch Technique - Part I
    Swimmer's Dryland Exercises for Developing a Swimmer's EVF Catch - Part II


    Luebbers, Mat. "Swimmer's Shoulder and Related Info."

    Network Task Force on Injury Prevention, "Shoulder Injury Prevention."

    Morrissey, MC, EA Harman, and MJ Johnson. "Resistance training modes: specificity and effectiveness."

    Swimming World, "Freestyle Catch vs Release."

    EVF training specifically isolates and strengthens the shoulder muscles and should not be avoided. In the world of competitive swimming, swimmer's shoulder is not a good thing! Strength training exercises will help defend swimmers against shoulder related problems. More importantly, the avoidance of shoulder strengthening exercises may actually increase the chances of a swimmer acquiring shoulder problems in the future.

    Coaches and swimmers should know there are many possible causes of shoulder problems. The main culprits of swimmer's shoulder are:

    • Faulty stroke mechanics
    • Sudden increases in training loads or intensity
    • Repetitive micro-traumas related to overuse
    • Training errors (such as unbalanced strength development)
    • Overuse of training devices like hand paddles
    • Higher levels of swimming experience
    • High percentage of freestyle swum in practices
    • Weaknesses in the upper trapezius and serratus anterior
    • Weakness or tightness of the posterior cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor)
    • A hyper-mobile or lax shoulder joint
    A swimmer may cycle their arms as many as 16,000 times in a week, so it's easy to understand why a coach should develop a strategy designed to strengthen the posterior rotator cuff muscles. Without a strong upper trapezius, serratus anterior, and shoulder cuff, improving the EVF becomes much more difficult.

    Coaches should focus on the following muscles and groups to help decrease shoulder problems:

    1. The rotator cuff
    2. The muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade - trapezius, serratus anterior muscles
    3. The muscles of the low back, abdominal, and pelvis - the "core" of the body - the abs and lower back
    A good dry-land program should help swimmers develop muscular symmetry and that can be accomplished by training opposite muscle groups. The following list can act as a template from which coaches can expand or create their own resistance programs. Specific swimming (EVF) exercises are added to these core exercises and shouldn't eliminate or exclude basic muscle group exercises:
    • Push-ups/Flys + Back-Row/Reverse Flys*
    • Curls/Reverse Curls + Triceps extensions/Dips
    • Core Abdominals + Core Back*
    • Quad-Extensions + Hamstring Curls/Gastroc/Soleus
    • Pull-ups/Chin-ups + Military Press*
    • Internal Rotators + External Rotators
      *EVF Exercises are done in these exercise groups using stretch cords, isometrics and/or light dumbbells
    The use of isometrics in conjunction with surgical tubing or therapy-bands can reduce strength training time dramatically. Isometrics isolate and strengthen only the muscles they train. They may slow down muscled contraction response and this may help slow the swimmers "dropped elbow" habit or discourage it. An isometric exercise specifically targets a single and a training response can be achieved with ten to twenty second bouts at 80% effort. Isometrics can improve and greatly reinforce the EVF position.

    EVF Isometric Training - Getting Started

    Once the training regime is understood and becomes an honored team tradition, the program should be expected to evolve where distance swimmers may have a different regime than sprinters just as flyers may follow a different program than backstroker's, but a daily routine must be adhered to by every swimmer. When a training response is realized, an increase of resistance, time or both should be initiated.

    Dryland And Isometric Training Drills

    • Isometric drill where the swimmer has both hands over their head in an EVF position. You'll be surprised how difficult it is to keep the elbows slightly above the shoulder for any length of time.
    • Isometric drill where the swimmer has both hands pushing up and/or against a wall.
    • Using light weights or surgical tubing, have swimmers hold the EVF position for short bouts and slowly increase resistance and time.
    • While swimmers are standing, have them mimic the EVF stroke, moving their hands/forearms up and down but never past their shoulders. Swimmers can lie on their stomachs, over the pool and hold the EVF position or on their back to mimic the EVF for backstroke.
    • Have swimmers hold a rescue tube, noodle, kick board, etc., above their head in the EVF position (the forearm and hand should be straight).
    • Have swimmers bend-over and mimic the swimming stroke of world-class swimmers using a great EVF position.
    • Anchor the surgical tubing or have the swimmer stand on the tubing so they can perform stand-up or bent-over rows.

    Swimmer's Dryland Exercises for Developing a Swimmer's EVF Catch Technique - Part I

    Swimmer's Dryland Exercises for Developing a Swimmer's EVF Catch - Part II