• Mark Durnford

Front crawl thumb entry or not?

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

So should we use thumb entry first or not when swimming Front Crawl?…………….Seems to always spark off an interesting debate among swimmers and coaches alike.

Shoulder pain from Front Crawl is often associated with poor technique but rarely in debate do we discuss other potential influences such as a swimmer’s posture, build, natural range of movement / flexibility through their joints or previous injury history. Granted, technique is of great importance but we must also open our minds to consider other factors prior to deciding on any final conclusions.

Before we blame ‘the thumb’ take time to consider joint mobility first as this will be of great benefit to perfecting the Front Crawl Swimming technique whilst avoiding shoulder injuries:A swimmer’s natural range of motion through various joints (especially the shoulders) will no doubt effect stroke technique. If shoulder mobility is limited it stands to reason they will struggle to perform full rotation. Trying to force through a full rotation is likely to increase the risk of shoulder impingement (injury).

A good coach will recognise this and suggest alternatives that will still contribute toward the efficiency of technique without compromising this risk of injury. They should also suggest a stretching routine that will safely support the development of range of movement to eventually improve shoulder mobility. There is also much to be said for reaching and rolling the body between strokes. Without a successful reach and roll it is likely that you'll put much unnecessary strain on the shoulders simply for the hands to clear the water on the recovery phase of each pull.

Like with any other element of fitness, flexibility requires regular practise and attention for it to improve. The reality is that stretching is often neglected and a thought process adopted that swimming practise alone will be enough. Swimming will help, however relying on this alone is not recommended. Can you imagine having very poor hamstring (muscles at the back of your upper legs) flexibility resulting in you being unable to raise your leg straight in front of you any higher than knee height? Now imagine how you’d feel if I suggested you take up Martial Arts to help improve this and that you should repeatedly perform high ‘head kicks’ and force yourself to do this in order to improve your kicking / hamstring flexibility?! A ridiculous piece of advice and only a matter of time before you’ll strain, pull, injure your hamstrings. This is likely to lead toward you incorrectly claiming that Martial Art high kicks are no good for you and they will always result in hamstring injuries. It wasn’t the kicks to blame but instead a poor approach that didn’t take your individual limiting factors into consideration. A very similar case has occurred with Front Crawl hand entry into the water. The incorrect statement being – THUMB ENTRY FIRST GIVES YOU SHOULDER INJURIES – Sorry everyone but this is simply untrue.You may chose to use thumb entry or instead enter the water with your finger tips first. Either is a perfectly valid option but please ignore the misconception that by using a thumb entry first technique will always result in shoulder injuries. There has been no research or substantiated evidence carried out anywhere that supports this statement. As with the martial art example I gave above, it’s far more likely to of been other factors that have contributed.Posture, genetics, gender and build of the swimmer will also effect range of movement and should be taken into consideration when deciding upon adaptation of technique to suit the individual.

I’m a firm believer that it is never ‘one size fits all’ and albeit there are various skilled moves to emulate in order to achieve power and efficiency through the water, sometimes not all of them are instantly possible. For example, some swimmers I meet have previously focused very heavily on building upper body lean tissue (muscle) without ever working on flexibility at the same time. The end result being a self-induced, very limited shoulder flexibility making it difficult for them to achieve the most efficient technique with the arms over water phase. So again, presenting limiting factor that must be taken into consideration before giving options to adapt the stroke where possible to achieve efficiency through the water. This being just one example of many.I am in the very fortunate position to of never suffered from any form of shoulder injury and I’ve been regularly swimming a lot of accumulated weekly distance throughout my life. This said, both the swimmer and the coach should take a very open minded approach to each and every individual case. Be aware of the limiting factors presented along with solutions to suit. Manage expectations and always aim to be the best swimmer YOU are able to be while keeping the risk of injury as low as possible, and ultimately, stop blaming ‘the thumb’!

For more guidance on how to perfect your Front Crawl technique and more download the series of swimming books by Mark Durnford.