Fingers Together Or Apart?

Take a look at these two pictures of Michael Phelps (left) and Ian Thorpe (right), two of the greatest swimmers of all time. How are they holding their fingers? :

If you said 'slightly apart', are you sure? What about the other hand?

Many elite swimmers do spread their fingers slightly at the front of the stroke as they enter and extend forwards but once starting the catch and pressing the water backwards they bring them together to stop water slipping through. If there is a gap between their fingers, it is tiny.

You may have been told you should hold your fingers slightly apart in order to increase the surface area of the hand slightly and to feel relaxed but it is only with closeup photography or video we get a clear picture of what elite swimmers actually do once into their stroke underwater. The danger with trying to hold them slightly apart is that you end up spreading them too far and dramatically reduce your hold on the water.

The Thumb

One exception to this is the position of your thumb, which may move slightly out during the stroke. Here's Athens Olympian Jono Van Hazel doing just that:

Russian freestyle great Alexandar Popov held his thumb out in a similar way:

Meantime double Olympic Gold Medallist Rebecca Adlington keeps hers tucked in:

What should you do in your stroke? We recommend you simply hold your fingers lightly together and focus on the much more significant areas of your stroke technique. Unless you are knocking on the door of elite swimming you will almost certainly have plenty of refinements in your stroke technique to work on which will bring large gains to your performance, as will the right fitness training and open water skills development.

Should you spread your thumb? We suggest you go with whatever feels right to you, some people like the feeling this gives, others not so much. In all likelihood you're already doing whatever suits you best naturally.

Swim Smooth!


Christian Haarala Björnberg said...

Andrew Elcock said...

The resistance to flow of an object through water is affected by the cross section area normal to the direction of movement and by resistance on the sides ie around the perimeter. Both the cross section area and the perimeter are increased if you open your fingers. The cross section area of the fingers and thumb outside the palm of the hand does not change. But when you open your thumb the skin between the second thumb joint and the third joint of the index finger stretches to fill what would otherwise be a gap. Also there is a similar but smaller increased area between the fingers which is also stretched. So the area of the palm of your hand is increased. I found by tracing hand open and closed about !0% increase in total cross section area with an open hand. Tracings scanned into autocad and areas measured.

Jonas said...

I fully agree with this article, including the conclusion. I keep my fingers closed but not tense ! You should feel relaxed at all times. I keep my thumb together with the other fingers, but I cannot physically keep my litte finger of one hand close to the other fingers: so some physical factors also intervene here. I agree with the article that we should consider the whole body movement and here the most important thing is to stay relaxed and flow with the water: Jono van Hazel's free style swimming is the best I've ever seen. Thanks Swim Smooth.

Anonymous said...

I'm a thumb out swimmer. Kinda of like Popov but much slower. It's where my thumb falls when may hand is relaxed. If I try to hold it in i have to really try to hold it in place. I tell all my swimmers use what is comfortable!

Mike Alexander said...

I find the slight flex of the wrist recommended by SwimSmooth when moving towards the catch causes strain in my forearm muscles if I'm trying to tuck my thumb in. For this reason, I don't tuck it in!

Matthew @ Lasik for Your Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Race Club said...

Great article and examples of hand position. Here's a video of how to position your hand underwater:

Anonymous said...

I'd never really thought about my hands before, especially my thumbs, so I decided to have a look next time at the pool. It made me giggle as I have one thumb tucked away and the other sticking out!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Goodwin said...

Andrew Elcock's article is very persuasive. I have experimented by feel (obviously it needs to be done by more objective means), that is, pulling through water in the catch position with open, partially open, and closed hands. My "results" are that with fairly open fingers, the currents generated between adjacent fingers appear to interfere with one another, seeming to creat a "larger paddle". The effect is noticeably greater than with closed fingers so it should be possible to measure the force produced and obtain an optimum finger position. I was surprised at how wide I could go before begining to lose traction. Have yet to try thumb positions.

Peter Goodwin.

Unknown said...

Great article ... When I swim distance workout for freestyle it's at a 55 sec 50 yard pace. I was told to finish my stroke as if I were pressing down to lift myself out of the pool , that caused me to focus getting a feel for the water in the palm of my hand. While this article focuses on the fingers, what mention is made of feeling the water in the palms?

Adam Young said...

Hi Christ,

The danger with focusing too much at the rear is that you lockout the elbow which isn't a good idea - see more on that here:



Unknown said...

Adam, I put less focus to the palm and the finish, I seemed to snake less, less shoulder stress, and my pace was not impacted/improved slightly. Will continue to monitor ... it's working out. Thanks very much for the advice.

Adam Young said...

Great stuff Christ! I think you'll find over time it will help keep the flow and rhythm of your stroke going too - we often talk about a deadspot/pause at the front of the stroke but you can also have one at the rear with too much emphasis there.


Anonymous said...

This comment is mostly to help out others like me.

I used to be a good swimmer years ago. When I got back into it recently, my technique was horrible. Nothing seemed to work and swimming had detrimental effects on my health.

For me, the key was spreading my fingers apart at the top of the catch (as shown in the pictures of Phelps & Thorpe). As far as bringing the fingers together later in the stroke, if it happens for me, it happens naturally without me trying. Also, each person is unique, so what your hand looks with the fingers apart will vary.

Anyway, this allowed me to have a relaxed and flat hand. Once I did this, everything else came together, i.e. EVF, high elbow, not crossing over, not having my hand/arm below my body, my breathing, my kicking.

So, I highly recommend it. It was the difference between me having proper technique and not.

By the way, bad technique (for me) resulted in lower back pain on the left side, extremely tight and painful shoulders and even my legs being out of whack to the point that I had ankle pain and couldn't run or bike longer distances.

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