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Why Pulling Underwater with a High Elbow Matters

By Gary Hall Sr. | Jan. 19, 2016, 3:39 p.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

The pull phase of your swim stroke is arguably the most important concept we must learn to swim fast freestyle and butterfly. At The Race Club camps, where we may teach up to 10 different points related to improving freestyle speed, I rank pulling with the high elbow No. 1, 2 and 3 in the priority list. It is that important.

The reason I rank the high-elbow pull so highly is not because it enables a swimmer to hold more water, or that it creates more pulling surface area or increases the propulsive power of the pull. It does none of those. It simply reduces frontal drag. Since frontal drag is the No. 1 enemy of the swimmer, it is worth the extra effort to pull in this manner. For a more detailed look at how it reduces frontal drag, check out this video.

swim strokeThe high-elbow pull must be set up properly from the moment the hand enters the water on each stroke. In order to initiate the pull correctly, the shoulder must internally rotate some to ensure that the elbow remains near the surface while the forearm and hand push down, creating lift. If the pull is initiated with more of a straight arm and without internally rotating the shoulder, it is too late to go back. The drag problem, caused mostly from the upper arm, is already starting.

Once the hand reaches a position below the elbow, while the elbow is near the surface, the hand begins the motion backward, creating propulsion (propulsive phase). In order to keep the elbow near the surface during this phase of the pull, while also rotating the body sufficiently along the axis of motion, the shoulder must extend backward in the joint. Not everyone has the flexibility required in the shoulder to either extend or internally rotate well. For this reason alone, dry land and shoulder-stretching exercises are important for the freestyler.

The underwater pulling motion is another example of the conflict between frontal drag and propulsive forces. While the deeper pull creates more frontal drag, it also allows for more propulsion than the high-elbow pull. Since the deeper pulling arm is a longer lever than the bent high-elbow pulling arm, this pulling motion also causes more torque to be placed on the shoulder, particularly the anterior (biceps) tendon. The higher elbow pull shifts the strength requirement more to the back of the shoulder and the smaller four muscles attached to the scapula.

While using the velocity meter, without any kicking involved, I measured my body speed using both types of pulling motions. With the deeper pull, my body speed dropped by 40 percent between the fastest point in the cycle, when the hand first entered the water, and the slowest point, at the start of the propulsive phase (hand is about one foot in front of the shoulder). With the high-elbow pull, the body speed dropped by 30 percent during the same period. A 10 percent difference in speed may not seem like a lot to you, but I assure you that when you are taking many strokes, it is significant.

For this reason, virtually every world-class distance swimmer pulls with a high-elbow motion. That is not true in the 50 meters, where one sees elite swimmers using a range from deeper pulls to mid-range pulls, opting for more power. Any race over a 50 is considered a middle or distance swim and for best results, should involve pulling with a high elbow. With practice and strength training, this important pulling motion can continue to get stronger and stronger, resulting in a faster swim. Here are a couple drills to practice the high-elbow pull. 

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.