What’s the Pinky got to do with the Freestyle Pull?

In Technique by Abbie Fish1 Comment

A lot of times swimmers have issues with their hand entry at the beginning of their pull. The ideal entry point is with the hand faced palm down and leading with the middle finger. The middle finger should be the first finger to enter into the water.

In order to achieve this middle finger entry, the elbow must be higher than the wrist and the wrist higher than the fingers. If either the wrist or elbow is lowering the fingers, the middle finger will not be the first to enter.

When I first started coaching at Athens Bulldogs Swim Club, we had our swimmers do the “Ping Pong Drill”. Basically, they were to swim with their pointer and middle finger bent and touching the tip of their thumb–creating a circular space. The circular space is what gives this drill its’ name because it’s where a ping pong ball could be held (you don’t need a ping pong ball to actually perform this drill though). The reasoning on why this drill works has to do with the fact that some swimmers like to lead their pull with the thumb. Leading the pull with the thumb means your entry looks like a “slicing motion”. This type of entry was taught years ago, but now has been argued that it is less conducive as it puts more strain on the shoulder joint and also prolongs the time it takes a swimmer to get into the high elbow position. So in actuality, the thumb leading entry makes a swimmer’s pull less powerful.

So what does the “Ping Pong Drill” really do? Well, the drill is related to the nerves in the hand/arm. The Ulnar nerve runs from the Brachial Plexus to the ring and pinky fingers. The Median and Radial nerves run from the Brachial Plexus down and into the other three fingers. During the “Ping Pong Drill” you actively engaged the first three fingers by holding the fingers together and you are forcing the body/brain to learn what it feels like to initiate and pull with the pinky (via the Ulnar nerve) on the outside of the hand.

I know coaches and swimmers are concerned about the ideal entry and hand position during the freestyle stroke, but neither the entry of those matter–if the pinky isn’t engaged properly. If you’re only pulling using the first three fingers (and two peripheral nerve groups), it doesn’t matter entry or hand position because you aren’t effectively using the surface area available. All five fingers must be engaged and slightly cupped backwards, leading with the middle finger, for you to effectively use the entire surface area of your hand and the three major peripheral nerve groups.

Part II: The Power of the Pinky Finger

Last week we touched on why it’s important to pay attention to your pinky finger during the Freestyle Pull. I would recommend reading Part I before Part II, as you will have a better understanding of this concept.

This week, I’d like to dive deeper into this subject and specifically focus on why properly engaging your pinky and ring fingers during the Freestyle Pull–actually makes your Freestyle Pull stronger.

Let’s do a test. Stand up and put both of your hands at your side (you really only need to do this test with one hand—so if you’re holding a phone or tablet, put your hand without any device relaxed at your side). Perform a variation of the “Ping Pong drill” —make a fist with your thumb, pointer, and middle finger and do a light squeeze. Where do you feel any sensation and/or muscle contraction?

Now, try making a fist with your ring and pinky fingers (while relaxing the other three fingers)—where do you feel any sensation and/or muscle contraction?

If you performed this “test” correctly, you should have felt the first variation (with three fingers) contracting muscles on the front side of your body–specifically your bicep and chest muscles. In second variation (with two fingers), you should have felt a contraction of muscles more so on the back side of your body–specifically your triceps and lat muscles.

What just happened?

Without going into some hardcore anatomical terms, you just felt the difference between engaging a muscular chain that connects through the front of your body versus the back side of your body. When you performed the second variation, you engaged a system called the Posterior Oblique Subsystem (POS). The POS engages two main muscles in your body: the respective Latissimus Dorsi (of the side you flexed) and opposing Gluteus Maximus (the muscles that make up your bum).

What does the POS have to do with the Freestyle Pull?

The POS engages the corresponding lat and tricep muscles of the side you chose to contract. The contracted tricep is connected (fascially) to your pinky via the Ulnar Perosteum (and the Ulnar nerve). As shown in the second variation test, recruitment of your lat and tricep muscles is engaged when the pinky and ring finger are activated. Lightbulb, yet?

In conclusion, if you chose to not properly engage your pinky and ring finger during your Freestyle Pull: maybe you enter with your thumb, lead the pull with your elbow, or pull using your first three fingers—you are actually making your pull weaker. In order to fully recruit all the muscles in the POS system, the pinky and ring finger need to be flexed and slightly cupped backwards during the Freestyle Pull.

Stay tuned for Part III on how the pinky affects a swimmer’s kick strength and rhythm.

Part III: Okay, really—The Pinky can Affect a Swimmer’s Kick?

Welcome to Part III, our final segment about how amazingly awesome the pinky finger is! This week we are going to dive even deeper into how your pinky finger affects your lower extremities.

Last week we introduced the POS system. (Yes–it’s definitely a better idea to read Part’s I & II if you haven’t before continuing on 🙂 )

Once again, the POS system is composed of the gluteus maximus, latissimus dori, and thoracolumbar fascia. The POS system is affected by the pinky finger because it is fascially connected to the pinky via the Ulnar Periosteum (and the Ulnar Nerve). The pinky plays a role in the firing of this subsystem through the Ulnar Nerve.

To better understand how the POS system could possible affect a swimmer’s kick, we must understand one of the other three subsystems. The POS system works synergistically (in combination) with the Deep Longitudinal Subsystem (DLS). The DLS is composed of erector spinae, thoracolumbar fascia, sacrotuberous ligament, and bicep femoris. Simplistically, the DLS transfers force from the foot to the trunk and vice versa. When the POS system works in combination with the DLS system—they both help distribute the forces created through rotational activities.

Freestyle is a rotational stroke. Swimmer’s rotate around their longitudinal axis to create the speed and power necessary to get them up and down the pool. When discussing the pinky’s role in a swimmer’s kick, one must remember that the pinky of whatever hand is indirectly connected to the opposing gluteus maximus (the muscle in your bottom)—i.e. your right hand, pinky, is connected to your left glute and vice versa.

When a swimmer hand enters the water at the top of their freestyle stroke, a connection between the hand and lower body is made (through the POS system). Ideally, if a swimmer is entering the water with their right hand—their left leg should be kicking down. In order to augment the force created by this left leg kick, the pinky needs to be flexed and slightly cupped at entry.

But here’s the kicker:

If we take this even a step further– as a swimmer’s right hand starts moving backwards (during the freestyle pull), their body will be rotating from their left side back towards their stomach.

If you remember from earlier that when you combine the POS system with the DLS, they work together to transmit the forces created through rotational motion. If the POS system sends a greater force to the opposing glute muscle (through pinky activation), the DLS system then sends that greater force (along with any extra force created from the rotation) down to the feet. This means that every single kick happening in conjunction and after the hand enters the water will be stronger due to pinky activation throughout the swimmer’s pull.

In conclusion, if a swimmer enters the water with the right hand flexed and slightly cupped backward– their kick on their left leg will be stronger. But more importantly, every kick after that initial kick will be more powerful due to the continued pinky activation and the DLS system distributing the rotational forces.

How do I get the most power out of my Freestyle kick?
1.) Flex and slightly cup your fingers backwards throughout your Freestyle pull–see images
2.) Rotate side to side

Want to try out the Ping Pong Drill?

Try this set!

16x25 Freestyle

#1 Ping Pong Drill
#2 R Arm Only (left arm at side)
#3 L Arm Only (right arm at side)
#4 Build
~15-30 seconds rest

Work on middle finger entry with palm facing down. Also, engaging pinky throughout the set by flexing and cupping your fingers backwards during the pull.