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Straight Arm vs. Bent Arm Part 3: Pros and Cons

By Gary Hall Sr. | June 20, 2016, 11:58 a.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.

Swimming freestyle with a bent arm recovery is a more conventional technique. That does not necessarily make it better. We do a lot of things by convention, not always for the right reason. Many coaches discourage or, in some cases, prohibit their swimmers from using a straight-arm freestyle recovery. To help swimmers and coaches, I have compiled what I consider to be a list of pros and cons for using each technique. These assumptions are based on using a nearly vertical, over-the-top, straight-arm recovery.

Bent-Arm Recovery

swim school1. The swimmer is more likely accustomed to using this method, so it may feel more natural.
2. For a given effort (force) of the recovering arm, it will create a faster hand speed and a shorter recovery time.
3. It may be less likely to impinge the shoulder and result in inflammation or injury.
4. It may be more likely to lead to a correct high-elbow underwater pull.
5. For a given recovery speed, it requires less effort than the same speed for straight arm.

1. It does not have as much kinetic energy as a fast, straight-arm recovery.
2. There is less transfer of energy to the body moving forward.
3. There is less counter force to pull against with shoulder-driven freestyle.
4. It can allow for a swimmer to use little body rotation.
5. It may lead to less-than-full elevation of the recovering arm/shoulder at hand entry.

Straight-Arm Recovery

1. When done fast, it can create more kinetic energy than a bent arm.
2. There is more transfer of energy to body moving forward.
3. There is more counter force to pull against with shoulder-driven technique.
4. It requires a good body rotation to do properly.
5. It is more likely to reach full elevation of the arm/shoulder at hand entry.

1. To get more kinetic energy requires more effort (force).
2. For a given effort (force), it results in slower recovery time.
3. It may impinge the shoulder in some joints, leading to injury.
4. It may be more likely to lead to a deeper drop of the elbow on the underwater pull.
5. It may feel very uncomfortable or unnatural to the swimmer.

In summary, unlike backstroke, there is no one right way of recovering the arm in freestyle. Each technique offers some advantages and some disadvantages. At The Race Club, we believe that a swimmer needs to have more than one freestyle technique for various distances and capabilities. Straight-arm recovery freestyle is just one variation of technique that may be right for you.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

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.