Freestyle Video: How to Pull Underwater

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Race Club (courtesy of TRC)Many swimmers rely on natural instinct when they learn how to pull underwater in freestyle. But if we stop and think about what happens during the stroke cycle with our arms and body, we might choose to pull in a different way. There is quite a range of possibilities in how to pull underwater. From a pull way underneath our bodies to a pull way out to the side, there is a sweet spot for all of us, depending on the swimmer and the race.

We have a saying at the Race Club that drag is the number one enemy of the swimmer. Therefore, we must pay attention to drag and feel all it’s forces in order to best deal with it in creating speed through water. In this #swimisodes learn the advantage of a deep pull equating to more power vs the advantage of the high elbow pull creating less drag but also less power during the underwater pull.

At the Race Club, we practice several ‘drag appreciation drills’ as seen in this #swimisodes. Watch 4 time Olympian Roland Schoeman, World Champion Junya Koga and Elite Marathon swimmer, Lexie Kelly led by Coach Gary Hall take it back to the basics allowing the swimmer to feel ‘drag forces’ that may often go unoticed. Compare and contrast the feelings of more power vs. less drag. These drills might help you understand how to pull underwater in swimming freestyle.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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6 years ago

I think the coach is right. Because of the lever effect when using the deep pull technique the upper arm creates lots of drag. If you picture the hands of a clock in your mind the end of the clock hand (the swimmers hand which is the anchor point) does move with the distance travelled by the swimmer but by comparison the upper arm (near the centre of the clock hand) is just dragging along cutting its path through the water as it doesn’t travel the same distance. So to say because you are moving forward as a swimmer with momentum there is no frontal drag on the arm is incorrect. Obviously the static arm drill is an exaggeration but… Read more »

Reply to  Sam
6 years ago

There no drag on an arm traveling backwards throu the water. Ignorent coaching I am sorry to say.

Reply to  Edward
6 years ago

There is drag created on all objects moving (except in space). The drag of the hand moving backward is propulsive drag, not frontal drag, and is desirable. That propulsion force from the hand moving backward is mostly caused from form or pressure drag, not friction (as was stated by one viewer above).

Reply to  Sam
6 years ago

Sorry, but the surface area of your arm stays pretty much the same, whether it is bent or straight. What the swimmer is experiencing is torque imparting on their shoulders (the fulcrum), not drag. A better demonstration of this is to have the swimmer standing upright out of the water and simply holding a weight (10, 20 pounds,etc.) with the arm fully extended straight out in front. Then hold the same weight with the arm bent to the side, with the weight closer to the fulcrum. Huge difference.

It takes more energy to hold that weight straight out in front than it does to hold it to the side. So for longer distances it’s better to swim FR with… Read more »

Reply to  PhysicsGrad
6 years ago

I am going to go with the Olympic gold medalist vs a physicsgrad on this topic.

Reply to  PhysicsGrad
6 years ago

Nearly all of the force of the pull is created at the hand. If the force from the hand moving backward during the pulling motion is greater in the deeper pull (which I believe it is), it has mostly to do with the angle of arm at the shoulder joint throughout the pull. With a high elbow pull, the shoulder begins the underwater phase in a negative angle and moves to a neutral or positive angle as the hand moves backward. The deeper pull keeps the shoulder joint in less of a negative angle through the pulling motion and relies on the biomechanical advantage of this position (utilizing more the latisimus and less the scapula muscles).

6 years ago

I think that Gary Hall Sr is a swimming technical genius and that he is right about the deep pull being disadvantageous but I think that his explanation is wrong. If your arms are moving faster than you are (and they will be unless you are really dying) then they are not dragging. The deep pull is slower because he hand travels a longer path that is torque limited (your arm can produce only so much torque and that translates to lower force farther away from the body) and wastes energy when the stroke propels water in a direction that is in the up/down direction instead of the forward direction

Reply to  E
6 years ago

There are many differences between the deep arm pull and the high elbow pull, not the least of which are the biomechanical forces (propulsion) and the drag forces which result from these two different motions. It is not difficult to deduce that the average forward velocity of the upper arm is significantly greater than that of the lower arm during either pulling motion. We also know that the upper arm is larger in diameter than the lower arm. The frontal drag of a moving object are related to its shape and exponentially related to its velocity. Both of these facts lead us to understand that it is the upper arm, not the lower arm, that contributes most to the frontal… Read more »

Purple Rain 99
Reply to  garyhallsr
6 years ago

Drag is (very roughly) going to be proportional to velocity^2. The velocity in question, though, is the velocity with respect to the velocity of the water. Lets say the water is quiescent and the swimmers body is moving in the positive direction. Then the swimmers arm are moving in the opposite direction.

Reply to  garyhallsr
6 years ago

During swimming, your arms are not static, meaning that they do not stay in one place. If drag caused by your arms is a concern, then wouldn’t it be better to minimize the drag altogether by streamline kicking? However, the arms are used as a propulsive device during a swim. And because they are used to propel you, you’d want as high a coefficient of friction as possible to maximize propulsion.

There’s a simple test for this. Using a pull buoy for a front crawl set, keep the feet still and using only the arms. In one set, swim with clenched fists and in another set, use open palms or paddles. The clenched fists are much more hydrodynamic than open… Read more »

Captain Ahab
6 years ago

Lexi Kelly looking good too

7 years ago

I remain unconvinced that the “drag appreciation drills” are a valid test for determining actual drag encountered by the arm. In a real pull, the arm is never stationary. In fact, the arm needs to be traveling faster in the backward direction than the body is moving forward (since there is no such thing as a 100% efficient energy transfer). If the arm is moving backward faster than the body is moving forward, how can there be a net frontal drag on the arm?

The reason one feels more drag with the straight arm when doing the stationary drag drill is because your arm is a longer lever arm for the water to apply torque to. It would be… Read more »

7 years ago

It seems to me that since the arm is part of the force moving you through the water, that more drag here would be better than less drag. Choosing the position with the least drag seems like it is not using all of the propulsion you could get. Your hand is part of the propulsion, and the correct hand position absolutely produces the most drag.

Reply to  oldandtired
6 years ago

Which is why sprinters go for the deep stroke – the powerful pull is more worth it than the increased drag coefficient. Problem is that can only be over come for a short period of time before the drag wins out exhausting the muscles. In distance endurance is king, therefore finding a stoke that has a lower drag coefficient while still maximizing propulsion is the goal.

It’s no different than say car racing: Top fuel dragsters use 6 gallons of gas for a quarter mile. While ignoring the impossibility due to physical limitations, That dragster would never be able to do the Daytona 500 at that speed. It would use 12,000 gallons of gas vs. Nascar cars using about 100-200… Read more »

7 years ago

Is it known why a straight arm drags more than a bent one of the same size?

T Hill
7 years ago

good to see this written/video. Been doing similar over the years, with how the hand/wrist/forearm entry – few fingers out of place can be felt. Doing tubing assist (aides at 1-1.5 sec. faster ) with the different catches or recovery in Breast or pull outs – swimmers can fell the difference. Also, chutes (with/w-o buoy) to experience difference in power in catch on all strokes. When we work with kids on head position & how that effects hips & legs that feel it right away – the key is making the change under more stress. The key is making the change while most kids are younger & don’t have ingrained bad habits. thanks for sharing !

7 years ago

The height of the elbow underwater can be limited by the ability of the swimmer to extend the shoulders backward. Generally the higher the elbow under water, the less frontal drag and less propulsive power. Swimming is a sport of compromises between power and drag forces. In attaining the high elbow pull one must careful to avoid either the out sweep or in sweep of the hand to initiate the pull. As this further reduces power.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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