10 Swimming Myths Debunked – Myth #4

The reason you keep the elbows high on the underwater pull is to increase power.

I hear this often from both coaches and swimmers. When one looks at the underwater shots of the world’s fastest swimmers, sprint or distance, one finds the recurring position of high underwater elbow, also called Early Vertical Forearm (EVF). The elbows are not just high, they are unusually high…almost in a contorted position with extreme extension (negative angle) of the shoulder joint, particularly when coupled with the body rotation in the opposite direction. it begs the question, can one really be stronger in this almost contorted position? I believe the answer is no. To test this, one can go in the gym and using the Free Motion pulleys, that many gyms now have, pull as much weight down with your arm relatively straight forward, then try it with your arm at the side, shoulder extended and elbow up. You will not be able to pull as much weight in that position. With the shoulder fully extended (negative angle), it is simply not in a good mechanical position of strength.

So if this weird high elbow position is not about power, what is it about? Drag. By changing the position of the arm as it moves through the pull cycle, one can reduce the drag coefficient significantly … not eliminate it. To prove this, kick with fins all out for 25 yards extending one arm above the head and the other straight down toward the bottom of the pool. You will soon learn how significant the drag of your protruding arm becomes when it is at right angles to your long axis. In fact, you will have to work to keep the arm in the position and with any speed at all, it will shake in the water like a palm tree in a hurricane in the Keys. Now try the same drill, but instead of putting your arm straight down, let it protrude straight out to the side but bend the arm 90 degrees at the elbow, as if you were swimming with a high elbow. You will feel considerably less drag in this position. Same arm…different position…a lot less drag.

Now I realize that this is not quite the same as while swimming, when only the upper part of the arm is moving forward throughout nearly the entire underwater part of the pull cycle (In order to cause frontal resistive drag, the object must be moving forward). However, the upper arm is also the largest part of the arm and changing it’s orientation in the water also reduces the drag coefficient. Achieving an EVF is simply maintaining the upper arm in a position closest to the line of motion and thus creates the least frontal drag.

The good news is that most coaches are telling you the same thing, pull with your elbows high underwater. Now you know the real reason.

Gary Sr

5 Responses to 10 Swimming Myths Debunked – Myth #4

  1. Dan


    Thanks for this amazing site it’s an awesome resource. Due to time and location I have very little opportunity for any knowledgeable coaching in person, but I’m constantly striving towards a better stroke. I have 2 points I would like to lay down here so sorry for taking up so much server space on TRC.

    1. I’m wondering if you could please expound on the initiation of the catch with an EVF. When I’m at full extension and about to begin my catch my first move from a straight/extended arm is to naturally want to add a bit of elbow bend before my hand and forearm move into that EVF position. Simply, my arm doesn’t want to bend straight down from an extended position. Is this indicative of a positional/technique issue I need to work on? Hopefully I have conveyed my point well enough to be understood(writing novels was never going to be my career path!).

    2. At full extension do I want my shoulder ahead of the socket? Think reaching up to unscrew a light bulb? Versus say a comfortable reach that is maybe 3-4″ shorter? This is perhaps tied in with my 1st question as to why I feel I need to add some elbow bend in my arm before moving it from an extended position.

    Thanks for the site and your time,

    • Garyhallsr


      Regarding 1. look at our latest secret tip video which describes how to initiate the high elbow catch. This EVF position is neither strong nor natural…so it takes some practice and determination to swim there.
      2. As with streamlining, it is best to hyperextend the shoulder before initiating the catch in order to get full extension. With hip-driven freestyle, this motion occurs after the hand enters the water and with shoulder-driven freestyle, before the hand enters the water. On longer distance, high stroke rate freestyle, there isn’t time to get into this hyperextended shoulder position.

      The reason you need to bend the elbow immediately upon initiating the catch is that doing otherwise puts the upper arm off the axis of motion and creates an enormous increase in the drag coefficient.
      I recommend both of our DVD’s to give you excellent visuals of these techniques.

      Gary Sr.

  2. Nancy L. Machinist

    In response to your advisories on high elbow and head down, the two prime directives to decrease drag can feel oppositional initially.The high elbow as you have noted can feel contorting (EVF) . I have noticed that if i am not focused on both simultaneously, especially working to get the elbow high can naturally seem to result in lifting  the head out of the dropped position. In fact, on examination, keeping the head down facilitates the EVR and is  the  easiest and perhaps only way to lift the elbow maximally.Keeping the head down allows for the maximum length of neck and openness of  shoulder in which to effect the  ” EVR contortion”.  My current task is to relate the head and the elbow neurologically so they work together to keep me moving forward efficiently and powerfully.

  3. Nlmachinist

    On the top currently of my  list of questions I wish Gary would address has to do with the rhythm of the Pull. I have been experimenting with a much slower early part of the pull so that my body has almost fully rotated with the EVR in place when I start to increase the push out the back. Prior I had been trying to pull harder in the earlier part of the stroke without the benefit of the fuller rotation being in place. Thanks for including in your discussion when it is the proper time.

  4. Marco

    Garry, I realize this posting and the comments are from quite a while ago. (This is more a chance encounter with these notes.) I can’t help adding even now, however: If I understand the note at all, you are saying that the EVR reduces unwanted drag by reducing the arms surface area against the water, that is, unwanted resistance that will slow you down.
    However, for this to make sense, the assumption must be that the arm moves slower in the water at that time than the surrounding water. That assumption seems fundamentally wrong. The early pull phase certainly does not have as much power as the later phase. Yet, the pulling arm will, soon after entering the water, be FASTER than the surrounding water. Otherwise, we’d never swim forward. If without EVR, drag of the arm is higher, then, only looking at the factors you consider, nobody should use EVR. More (reverse) drag = propulsion of the arm that is moving faster than the surrounding water would be great. You want higher drag!
    The secret must rather be in a better effort-to-propulsion ratio plus angel when using EVR. The straight arm is much harder to pull through the water, as your free motion pulleys will also be happy to confirm. And the steeper angel of the lower arm against the water with EVR may produce more propulsion on top.
    I’m not totally convinced about EVR and would gladly read any verified research on it, though. Upper arms, for example, have an angel with EVR that’s less effective for propulsion… Still I must be misunderstanding your note or it’s the wrong explanation in favor of EVR. Would be happy to understand my misunderstanding.


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