Unique Swimming Methods at The Race Club

Keep Your Elbows Pointing Forward

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 pulling 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.

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.

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 Unique Swimming Methods at The Race Club

  1. Chris Boensel


    Thank you for this great information. Great visual queue to use. Is there a video that is available that shows this? It would go a long way to helping the swimmers I am coaching.

    Thank you,


    • garyhallsr

      Hi Chris,

      We just completed a photo shoot last week for our next series of swimisodes. There are some beautiful examples of high elbow pulls from both Olympians and campers. Stay tuned as we launch the next series starting this summer.

  2. Ted Newill

    Hi Gary,
    This old dog will try this new trick tomorrow.

  3. chris eidsvik

    Thx for this great tip. I tried it today and it works very well for me. I have been initiating the pull too early and struggling with it for some time. As a result of early invitation my body position is forced too high in front, bum too low at back. This resolved it, plus I now have a benchmark to monitor when swimming long distances if I feel I am slowing down or getting passed by others.

    Thx again, great tip. It works very well for me.

  4. Bharadwaj

    Sir – Got quite confused here. How can the elbow point in the direction of the swim. It can, at best, be pointing 90 degree to the right or left (depending on the arm you are using to pull). I guess, I have got something grossly wrong here

    • garyhallsr

      No you are correct. We cannot keep the elbow pointing directly forward during the pulling motion with the hand and forearm. But by internally rotating the shoulder and maintaining a high elbow position in the water, we can keep it closer to our line of motion than by pulling deep or dropping the elbow. This position will reduce frontal drag significantly, enabling you to swim faster with less propulsion. Hope this helps.

  5. Kelly Nix

    Gary, I love this note. It was an ah ha moment for me. I have been trying to work on the high elbow for my left arm, my weak link. I have been using a paddle on the left to try to get the feel of the high elbow and the catch with the hand and the forearm. The right does it automatically but the left side feels foreign. The paddle gives me a sense that I am catching and pulling the water not sliding my hand through it. Will the one paddle technique cause any problems?

    • Gary Hall Sr

      Not at all. The paddle does help a swimmer with the high elbow pull and if you are struggling on one side only, it is perfectly fine to use the paddle on one hand.

  6. Gary Hall Sr

    Not at all. The paddle does help a swimmer with the high elbow pull and if you are struggling on one side only, it is perfectly fine to use the paddle on one hand.


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