High Elbow Pull in Freestyle

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.

9 Responses to High Elbow Pull in Freestyle

  1. Mario Gerhardt

    Ok, I tried this today and it seems to help in the freestyle. I am not sure I understand how to do this on the backstroke. My arm pull in the backstroke must be wrong.

    • Gary Hall Sr

      Same idea in backstroke. Think of pushing the water backward with bent elbow rather than pulling or scooping it backward.

  2. David McIntyre

    As an 80 year old former camper of The Race Club six years ago, I followed your coaching and adopted the high elbow freestyle stroke… and Bingo, my times improved noticeably. Your right Gary… Old Dogs ( master swimmers) can learn new techniques with your teaching! David McIntyre

    • Anita Hazeltine

      Thanks!! Headed to the pool to try this! I’m a deep/straight arm puller, hopefully…..

  3. susan huber

    Hi Gary,
    Do you have a video of this for demonstration for some of us who are visually oriented? I would appreciate understanding this better. Thank you, susan

    • Gary Hall Sr

      Our next release of videos will start in March with a new release every week. We will show several good high elbow drills.

  4. Tom Meade

    Makes sense for freestyle, but in the back only for the first half as too many swimmers roll their hand over in the second half of the stroke. I teach bringing the elbow into the side while the forearm stays perpendicular to the end of the pool as the hand pushes to the end of the pool rather than roll over.

    • Gary Hall Sr

      It is the first part for both freestyle and backstroke that the swimmer should think of pointing the elbow forward. Once the hand nears the propulsive phase the elbow and upper arm nes to be swept backward as fast as possible to reduce frontal drag.

  5. israel

    hello, I train my daughter swimmer using the energy systems so that each repetition does it 100%, my question is how long does it take to improve we have been trained in this way for 6 months and still have no improvements in their times, we are also working in the technique and the kick, using their advice and videos, we are currently training for 50 and 100 free, my swimmer is 16 years old


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