Let’s start by pointing out that shoulder rotation is extremely important for the freestyle and backstroke. But take note, overdoing it can easily be counter-productive.
To illustrate this, let’s debunk a false myth or, in other words, the idea that full shoulder rotation minimises drag in the water. This claim is false, because the lower the body sinks in the water the greater the amount of drag against the body caused by the water itself. But that is not all, over-rotation will also spoil your swim stroke.
So let’s look at the swim stroke of the world’s best freestylers and backstrokers. What angle do their shoulders rotates at?
It has been observed that rotation is approximately 30° below the water surface for the freestyle and their arm strokes are more efficient when the pull extends just below their stomach rather along their side.
You might be wondering why a bigger angle of entry into the water is not advisable?
Because over-rotation would negatively affect your catch and pull!
The catch phase is the most important part of the stroke.
After your arm enters the water and extends, you must bend your elbow with your fingertips facing downwards. The aim is to catch as much water as possible, attempting to keep your hand/arm along the same line as your shoulder.
Doggy paddle drill: this is an excellent exercise for learning proper shoulder rotation and developing an efficient catch phrase. You can perform sets of 25 m or 100 m, alternating between a full stroke and a technical stroke. If you are an experienced swimmer you can also alternate swimming first with and then without a tennis ball. You will notice the difference in your catch.
Begin with your arms extended forwards and your head underwater. Very slowly start swimming with one arm only, bending your elbow and pulling your arm beneath your stomach to complete the stroke, making full use of your catch. Next recover your arm forwards, paying careful attention to the angle of your stroke. Repeat this movement with your other arm. It is advisable to keep your head underwater, so that you can control the movement you are making and keep your body as straight as possible.
As regards the backstroke, the best backstrokers have a shoulder rotation of approximately 25°/27°. As with the front crawl, complete rotation is not necessary. In actual fact, the aforementioned angle will guarantee the best possible pull, with your arms slightly bent and your fingertips pointing sideways and beneath the water surface. Greater rotation would take longer (slowing down the athlete) and would not produce a more efficient catch.
Sidestroke drill: this technical stroke is used to learn the right angle of shoulder rotation and consequent underwater catch and pull. The same guidelines apply as for the freestyle.
Begin on your back with your arms extended along your sides. Sweep one arm upwards (the other stays along your side), rotate your shoulders slightly and extend your arm above your head. Now begin the catch phase bending your shoulders slightly and continuing until just beyond your hips. Now realign your shoulders and complete the stroke with the final push phase. Repeat the movement with the other arm.
Further suggestions for controlling your shoulder roll more effectively:
Do not ignore excessive shoulder rotation, it may even cause damage to your joints. If you have read the article Protect your shoulders!, you will realise how many arm movements you make each day when swimming. That is why it is important your shoulders and arms are in a natural and correct position, as far as possible, when swimming. So remember: pay attention to your swimming technique and protect your shoulders!