High Elbow Pull In Freestyle

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

TRC Methodology

Teaching swimming technique is very interesting. Every client we have at The Race Club is different. Some learn easily. Some don’t. For those that struggle more with adapting to changes in technique or stroke mechanics, we find that our success often depends on taking a different approach or by using a different description or drill. A concept that is easily grasped by one swimmer may be completely incomprehensible to another. Our methodology in swim camps and private sessions gets down to the bottom of what each swimmer needs. Teaching the correct high elbow pull motion in freestyle is a good example of this challenge.

For every event, other than the 50-meter sprint, the pulling motion of elite freestylers is strikingly similar. We often refer to that correct motion as the high elbow pull. Some call it early vertical forearm. I have written extensively about why it works, but that does not make it any easier to learn. There is really nothing very natural or intuitive about this motion. Some would consider it downright awkward. It requires flexibility. It diminishes propulsion to some extent. Yet it may be the single most important change a swimmer can make in improving freestyle technique.

High Elbow Pull in Freestyle

Of all of the freestyle pulling motions we see with our Race Club clients, I categorize them into four different techniques; the out sweep, the in sweep, the deep pull and the high elbow pull. Excluding the 50 sprinters, I would say that upwards of 95% of our clients manage to find one of the three wrong pulling techniques. Very few learn the correct high elbow pull without some help.

Through years of teaching, we have developed three of our favorite drills for teaching this high elbow pulling motion. Yet, even after spending a great deal of time and effort using these drills on this one important technique, many still don’t get it right. So we are always searching for new ways to teach an old subject.

Keep Your Elbows Pointing Forward

Recently, I was working with one of our clients who struggled to pull correctly, so I decided to give her some advice that I had never given before.

“Once your arm enters the water,” I started, “initiate the pull with the hand and the forearm, but keep your elbow pointing forward, toward the end of the pool for as long as you can…in the direction you are swimming.”

Presto, she got it. It made perfect sense. Suddenly, her upper arms, the cause of most of the frontal drag during the pull, were less in harm’s way. They weren’t sticking out so far. She felt like she was slipping through the water. Not surprisingly, she was swimming faster.

So now, when swimmers are challenged by the high elbow pull in freestyle or the correct pull in backstroke, I simply tell them to keep their elbows pointed toward the end of the pool for as long as they can. For many, it really helps them with both freestyle and backstroke pulling technique.

Sometimes, old dogs like me can learn new tricks.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

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

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5 years ago

I need a visual. I have seen my swimming improve with trying to keep a high elbow. I just can’t picture what you’re describing with keeping the elbow forward. Sorry, but I’m one of those very visual people.

5 years ago

Then why do most of the elite sprinters use a more straight arm stroke?

Reply to  Leto
5 years ago

If you’re talking about a straight arm recovery, that isn’t what this article is discussing. There are several other articles by Dr. Hall that talk about that.
Here, he is talking about the pulling motion and twice states, “excluding the 50 sprinters.”

Coach John
Reply to  Leto
5 years ago

did you read the article?

Especially Valueless Form
Reply to  Coach John
5 years ago

I recall this article in a slightly extended version where, and I’m paraphrasing, the client said there is no way she can point her elbow forward and Gary Sr. replied that of course you can’t but by me exaggerating the motion, you end up in the correct position.

In the real pool, the only way to keep the forearm vertical and the elbow bent is to sweep the upper arm out, creating a wide stroke. Internally rotating the shoulder was just someone’s idea of putting lipstick on a pig. This rotation contributes very, very little to EVF/high elbow pull.

But people keep taking the blue pill. And now it has them over a barrel.

OC Dad
Reply to  Leto
5 years ago

Because straight arm pull enables exertion of more force/power necessary to overcome the frontal drag, but this is not sustainable beyond the 50.