Straight Arm vs. Bent Arm Recovery Part I: Biomechanics

By Gary Hall Sr. | May 17, 2016, 5:14 p.m. (ET)

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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 subject of using a bent versus straight-arm recovery in freestyle is one of great controversy. I am not sure who should get the credit for being the original straight-arm freestyler. I have seen photos of George Breen, who won the bronze medal in the 1500-meter freestyle in Melbourne in 1956, using one straight and one bent arm recovery. In the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Janet Evans powered her way to world records and gold medals in the 400- and 1500-meter freestyles using her unorthodox straight-arm recovery. Many others have followed since, mostly for sprints and some (Cesar Cielo and Lotte Friis, for example), like George Breen, using one straight and one bent arm on the recovery.

In spite of many successful straight-armed recovery freestylers, many coaches seem to be dead set against using this technique. I believe the reason may lie in the mechanics of the shoulder motion. We certainly know that all backstrokers use a straight arm recovery, so there must be some mechanical advantage to recovering in backstroke with a straight versus bent arm (Adolph Kiefer in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin used a bent arm recovery; he might have been the last one who did). If that is true, why don’t all freestylers use a straight-arm recovery? If the shoulder joint would extend (move backward) as easily as it flexes (move forward), I believe they would. But it doesn’t.

The characteristic of the shoulder joint is that if one tries to recover the arm straight above the shoulder without bending the elbow, the joint becomes impinged unless one simultaneously rotates the body backward in the direction of the recovering arm. Repeatedly impinging a joint may lead to inflammation and injury. If a swimmer wants to use straight-arm recovery without impinging the joint, then he or she must either swing the straight arm to the side (as in butterfly) or rotate the body so the shoulders are more vertical and swing the arm over the top. Of the two options, the second one is much more favorable.

In the past, I have described two reasons why rotating the body along the axis of motion in freestyle and backstroke are desirable. The first is to mechanically increase the power of the underwater pull, leveraging more back muscles in the process. The second is to create a counter force or an anchor to pull against. In addition, the same rotation helps facilitate a straight-arm, over-the-top freestyle recovery. It is almost as if the shoulder unlocks when we rotate enough, allowing this motion to occur.

There are four major objectives of the freestyle recovery:

  1. Allow for the muscles involved in the underwater pull to recover maximally before the next pull is attempted
  2. Transfer as much kinetic energy to the swimmer’s body moving forward as possible
  3. Provide a counter-force for the pulling arm with shoulder-driven freestyle
  4. Avoid injuring the shoulder

With respect to the first objective, you might be surprised to learn that a straight arm is a more relaxed position than a bent arm. The act of bending the elbow and maintaining the bend requires contraction of some of the same muscles being used in the underwater pull. You can see for yourself by rotating your body to the side and pointing your arm straight up in the air, so all of the bones of the arm are lined up vertically. Now, bend the elbow and feel the biceps muscle contract as you do and the triceps muscle contract to hold the bend in place. So one could make the argument that a straight-arm recovery may allow for the arm muscles to recover better than a bent arm recovery.

With respect to the fourth objective, the vulnerability of the shoulder to injury with a straight-arm recovery likely depends on the anatomy and flexibility of the swimmer’s shoulder joint. For those that have good extension of the shoulders and are able to rotate their bodies well, straight-arm recovery may not be any more traumatic to the shoulder than a bent arm recovery. As all backstrokers have discovered, for those gifted with the ability to hyper-extend their shoulders, there are, in fact, other reasons to recover with a straight arm in freestyle. Those relate to the second and third objectives of the freestyle arm recovery and have to do with Newtonian mechanics, not biomechanics. We will discuss them in part two of this aquanote.

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.