Swimisodes – Freestyle – How to Pull Underwater

#swimisodes 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.

31 Responses to Swimisodes – Freestyle – How to Pull Underwater

  1. Pamela Falcigno MD, FACEP

    From a physics and fluid dynamics point of view, I disagree with the whole premise.

    The direction of drag is opposite what he suggests on the arm when swimming. The drag is the resistance the arm meets on the volar surface while pulling at a speed which is faster than the forward motion of the swimmer, i.e. the drag is a forward force against the moving arm which propels the swimmer. In which case the greater surface area of the deep pull helps increase the speed through the water, by presenting a larger surface area, much the same as occurs with paddles. (this assumes an equal rate of turnover) He is correct if the arm is stationary as the drag is from the front against the dorsal surface.

    He is also correct that the high elbow stroke is easier and less tiring but I this is because you are pulling less water. To pull the same number of square inches of water per length, the turnover would need to be proportionally faster. I would submit that the deep stroke would require more conditioning and, I suspect recruits more slow-twitch fibers where the high elbow stroke would require a faster turnover to accomplish the same thing and therefore require more fast-twitch fibers. With the deep stroke, you also get the benefit of engaging more of the large upper back muscles (rhomboids, trapezious and especially the latissimus dorsi) rather than stress the rotator cuff which is often a problem with swimmers.

    In the end, drills which optimize each individual swimmer’s performance should be far more successful than micromanaging techniques as we are all very different.

    Just my thoughts – Pam

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I appreciate your thoughts. There are two types of drag; frontal drag (forces slowing the moving body) and propulsive drag (forces that result in propulsion…ie Newton’s third law of motion).Propulsion is the result of some part of the body providing backward force relative to the water. In the pulling motion, it is the effective surface area of the hand that provides the vast majority of propulsive force, with very little coming from the forearm. If you do not believe this, try swimming with your fists closed.
      The propulsive surface area of the deep or high elbow pull are essentially equal, that of the hand, but you are very correct in stating that the biomechanics are very different. Not only does the deeper pull engage more of the larger back muscles, but it also avoids the negative shoulder angle in the early part of the high elbow pull, which is a mechanically weaker pulling motion.

  2. Rick Amira

    Nice explanation
    There are so many factors involved in the pull
    and I feel that as far as speed is concerned,
    The faster you kick the faster you go whether you have
    use a deep or high elbow pull. I also notice that some of the faster swimmers in NY where I am are able to get that perfect high elbow pull under water and yet others do not.
    I think that the most important that though is to be able to synchronize the body parts–
    Thick of throwing a baseball-/ one needs correct arm mechanics but if the synchronization is OFF then the ball will never get high speed —
    The same with swimming– one can have a good stroke mechanically but if the other body parts are off sync then the speed is reduced—
    So I believe that one must do a lot of short sprints in any workout to try to obtain the FEEL of the water—
    If you want to swim fast you must train fast–
    “Specificity of Training”- and most if competitive swimming events are less than 2 minutes—
    So, train slow and you go slow
    Train fast and you swim fast-/
    So basically speaking one must synchronize all body parts to move fast in the water
    I am still wondering if it is best to kick with or without a kick board in practice because if you do not use a kick board then you can obtain a better body alignment in the water
    So many factors to consider
    I would do slow swimming only for a month to just get the muscles accustomed to the work then the rest of the training would be lots of sprints with lots of yoga stretching before and after practice and supplemented with weights making sure no to get too bulky///
    Just some thoughts

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I agree with most of what you are saying, Rick. First, you are right about the kick. That determines the baseline speed of a freestyler or backstroker. Connecting the motions of the body is also critical. We call these coupling motions and the timing of them and the kinetic energy in them must be just right. Racing in practice is also critical to good meet performance…but one must take some time to slow down, use drills and get the technique correct. Otherwise, a swimmer will never get very fast. We also love yoga and stretching for swimmers..for many reasons.

  3. Rick Amira

    Think of throwing a baseball
    Not to get too bulky

    Sorry for the spelling errors
    Above are corrections

  4. Stanford Douglas

    Of course there is more resistance with your arm straight down vs a bent elbow. The swimmers with the straight arm even had most of their shoulders submerged, but with the 90º elbow the shoulders were out of the water and almost 1/3 of the upper arm too reducing the drag by almost 1/2! I would suggest that the straight arm pull is tiring not because of drag, but because of leverage. Try getting out of the pool using a straight arm vs with using your triceps with your arm bent; i.e., lats vs triceps. He is right that the upper arm is moving slower in the water than the upper part, but I doubt it is moving slower than the relatively still water which is not moving and therefore no drag there; you’re actually getting some pull from your bicep. What the balance is is a combination of using your lats and your shoulders and your triceps. IMHO

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      You are right in that at times the swimmers elevated the upper arm out of the water on the bent arm drill, and that certainly reduces drag. Even if they hadn’t bending the arm 90 degrees will significantly lower the drag forces compared to a straight arm. The upper arm is moving forward for most of the underwater pull, while the lower arm and hand move backward during the propulsive phase of the pull. So the upper arm is the cause of most of the frontal drag of the pulling motion. How the elbow bends on the pulling motion has a tremendous influence on the frontal drag forces.
      The reason we bend our arms getting out of the pool is because our body weight goes from zero in the water to whatever we weigh on land. We need to move the center of our mass closer to the force with that much change in weight. While swimming in the water, our body weight doesn’t change too much. The torque on the shoulder is always greater with the force from the hand further away from it.

  5. chip wyser

    So what about the fact that when reaching for a long pull we roll that side downward to prepare for hip roll and core engagment during the pull? The roll alao insures my recovering shoulder gets fully out of the water (out of the way = less drag). As an open water swimmer, I definitely think using a hip-driven stroke adds power and distance to my stroke, BUT my shoulder definitely dips below the water line to alnmost vertical…. creating too much drag?


  6. Gary Hall Sr.

    The tricky part about swimming is that you want the body rotation to create more kinetic energy in the coupling motion timed with the pull. However, you do not want the pulling arm to drop down during the rotation, causing more frontal drag. In order to keep the high elbow and still have good rotation of the body, the pulling shoulder must be in the extended position at the initiation of the pull. Swimmers that do not have good flexibility in their shoulders are either going to sacrifice with less rotation or more drag. They can’t have it both ways.

  7. ParaSport


    The straight arm pull requires more use motor units to be recruited (not only slow-twitch, but fast twitch as well) because the lever arm is longer. The bent arm shortens the lever arm, thus requiring less motor unit recruitment.

    This is not rocket science – finger tips to the bottom results in more surface area for the propelling hand. Longer lever requires more power requirements, but also results in a more powerful stroke – simple physics.

  8. Chuck

    One must remember the body is moving forward thru the water, therefor when the arm starts its downward motion (deep pull) the upper surface of the arm immediately crates drag, let us also not forget that the byproduct of lift is drag, also the angle of the arm in its connection to the body is creating drag (interference drag). What seems apparent is the high elbow pull is more of a sprint pull while dropping the elbow slightly deeper seems to work better for distance.
    It is easy to see the results of both types of pull, one needs only to look at you tube with Katie Ledecky swimming 200s and then longer events, her pull and kick changes. Have also experienced the differences with our daughter using both types of pull, though the elbow drops only slightly for distance. I remember someone once saying, if the hands are moving in any direction other than towards the feet they are not providing propulsion in the desired direction.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Very interesting comments, Chuck. While you are correct in the ‘byproduct’ of moving the arm/hand downward in order to create lift is to place the arm in a position of causing more frontal drag,the same lift force also elevates the body higher in the water, which reduces frontal drag. Yet another paradox!
      With respect to the high elbow in distance vs sprint, not sure I agree. It seems to me the highest elbows I have seen on the underwater pull are those of Grant Hackett, Sun Yang and Ryan Cochrane. While in the 50, some elite sprinters, such as Roland Schoeman, George Bovell and Fred Bousquet, have used a deeper pull. It would seem the longer the distance of the event, the more important lowering frontal drag becomes. Though it is important in ALL distances swum

  9. Kelly Bergeron

    I just love all the discussions. I learn so much from the videos and discussions. I am 68 years old and started swimming hard 5 years ago. Swim 4 to 5 days a week and all are a hard mix of kicking, drilling, sprints and distance with some IMO thrown in. As a result I look at videos and read about swimming and technique every day or so. Knowing what I know now, I would have been known as Kelly The Swimmer instead of Kelly the Maathoner, Martial Artist, Fighter, The Teacher, The Sonographer and the list goes on. Started swimming due to overuse injuries. Go figure! Everything from feet to shoulders stopped hurting when I started swimming. Recovery after a 20 miler took a day but after a 3 mile swim or even 3000 yards of hard swimming, I recover is an hour or so. Who ever heard? I am a Level II Masters Swim Coach now but mostly swim and coach when needed. Your information is priceless. Thanks-Kelly Peter Bergeron

    • Amy Hall

      Thank you Kelly for watching and your nice compliments! We look forward to learning more and releasing new #AquaNotes and #swimisodes!

  10. Pingback: Interview with Gary Hall Sr. - TSC Podcast #96 - Triathlon Swim Training for Beginners To Intermediate Triathletes

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  12. Timothy Powell

    A byproduct of arm position with regard to pull is leverage. I recently about a year ago completely changed my stroke technique from a deep style to a high elbow style. Along the way I worked through stroke efficiency and reducing drag.

    An easy way to look at it, generally you want to feel 15-20# of pressure on your hands during the stroke cycle. Now take a 15# weight, with a deep stroke style it takes quite a bit of effort to transition the weight straight above your head(hand entry) to ground level(deep stroke) to hip(exit and recovery).

    Now do the same do the same using a (High Elbow Catch) pattern. What happens is you use more muscle groups to transition the weight thus less perceived effort for the same weight. This coupled with body rotation increases the power and lowers resistance. Its a Win Win.

    • gary hall sr

      I appreciate your thoughts. In water, we weigh zero, so the analogy is not quite the same. The force of propulsion or lift is mostly applied by the hand during the pull. The further the hand is away from the fulcrum or pivotal point (the shoulder), the greater the torque applied to the shoulder. The power of the force applied by the hand is largely determined by the biomechanics of the pulling motion. So is the frontal drag force. The pulling motions to maximize power or minimize frontal drag are not necessarily the same. In general we believe it is more important to minimize frontal drag as opposed to maximize propulsion…therefore the high elbow pull results in a faster swim.

  13. Oliver K

    Dear Gary, as an amateur I follow the discussions on the high elbow now for some years, and I must say I have my doubts about it — for various reasons.

    My first “official” doubts on that issue arose actually from one of your notes:
    That one is about Lochte versus Agnel. To me the argument looked rather fishy (sorry ;-)) — “Frontal drag wins again….and so did France.” I concluded in the opposite direction: Lochte is not an idiot, and what is good for him might be *good enough* for me.

    Then came that NYT article
    (which again I learned about from one of your articles), about the deep pull. That re-opened the discussion on “Bernoulli versus Newton”. From a somewhat more abstract level, I think the argument can be phrased as follows:

    1. The *speed* of the pulling hand is a very important parameter. (And due to “Bernoulli” the point is NOT that we need to push the water backwards — it’s the “propeller” we want.)
    2. The straighter the arm, the greater the hand speed (due to simple geometry).
    3. At least a trained male swimmer has enough strength reserve to handle the straight arm — he is not operating at the edge of his strength, but quite below it. Thus also that standard argument of “pull yourself out of the water with a straight arm” is misleading, since we don’t need to do this! (I think you are also saying this above. In general I believe one should be very careful about all analogies (baseball etc.) — they might have nothing to do with swimming.)
    4. It “follows” that the straight arm yields best propulsion (potentially).

    I believe you also agree that the straight arm yields more propulsion; but then comes the drag.

    There is always the argument “drag is all important, and it gets even more important the faster you are”. So well, let’s look in the opposite direction — then drag gets less important the slower you are!

    I started swimming with the age of 35, in the year 2000. Unfortunately the first 12 years or so where not very efficient, and I got also severe health problems (endless office hours, sitting at the desk until the morning, less and less sports — degeneration of the neck, rotator cuff …). In a sense I started seriously September 2012 (my first video analysis), and around that time I could swim the 50m (kind of “all out”, always with water start) in around 40s. Now I am approaching 30s (hope that I can break that soon), where I am concentrating first on this short distance. Just to show you where I am; I think for my circumstances it’s not bad, but of course it’s a completely different world than the athletes you are considering. HOWEVER, that high-elbow stuff always shows up, for example in triathlon magazines etc., without making any differences of the levels!

    Shouldn’t that slow speed of mine then make the deeper pull (of course, not the most extreme form, the straight arm) much more attractive? Even for longer distances?!

    And what do I have to offer — strength or flexibility? You guess the answer is rather simple — though strength might also not be that great, however it’ll be for a 50 year old male (1m88, 80 kg) with a desk job MUCH better than flexibility. Shouldn’t that again be a push towards the deep pull?!

    Much of your argumentation, and basically all the videos, concentrate on elite swimmers. But there is, I believe, also somewhere an assertion that it also carries over to the amateur. And here I have my strong doubts (while obviously I can’t say much about the elite level). Again not about what typically is called the “master level”, which typically assumes a swimming background. But for example the late starters. Here I think the typical health problems, which for all males in my age seem somewhat similar, have to be taken into account. And that seems to make the deep(er) pull important.

    At least for me, since I don’t worry anymore about the “high elbow”, I swim faster (and happier!). All that “propaganda” (sorry, but at my end it arrives like that) on the high elbow creates a general feeling of guilt, “you ought to do that”. But there came the moment where this false idol was smashed, and I live happier since then. (I hope you have a sense of humour. But for an amateur, with all those restrictions, you open one magazine after the other, they all copy the same thing “high elbow”, and at some point you say to yourself ENOUGH — STRAIGHT ARM pull!! And actually that’s nice, but a bit extreme, for me only a kind of technical exercise.)


    (I follow your blog/video/notes now for perhaps two years, and I think I really learned a lot. So a bit unfortunate, that my first comment here is critical, but I hope you can understand the different perspective.)

  14. Gary Hall Sr.

    Thanks, Oliver. I appreciate your comments. Unfortunately, what is not told well enough through our articles is that in order to achieve a high elbow pull and the good body rotation required to augment the power of the pull (and kick)…what we call coupling, one needs extraordinary flexibility in the shoulders for extension. If not, either one or the other is sacrificed. In sprinting, it may be better to sacrifice the high elbow for more rotation, as that is a powerful component of the propulsion. However, I have found that a deep pull in any of the distance events is too much drag to overcome. As we say, frontal drag trumps power…except perhaps in the 50 m sprint.

  15. Andrew

    I’ve been watching many videos on the freestyle underwater pull but am still confused on the angle that the arm should be during the underwater pull. I’ve seen videos of Michael Phelps, where he pulls his arm essentially under his body and close to his body (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax77_hHq9Dc). Then I have also seen videos, where the fingers point down for the majority of the pull, with some slight inward pull towards the end of the stroke (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SONx52cyltI, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdZCCesDbDA). I was wondering if you could provide some advice on what angle the hand should take in the underwater pull when looking at the swimmer as he/she approaches you. I know the elbow must remain high to reduce frontal drag, but should the arm sweep be straight back with fingers pointed down, inward under the body or some combination of the two?

    Thanks so much for your time!

    • garyhallsr


      In our opinion, the only two forces which help are downward force, which creates lift, and backward force, which creates propulsion. Most of the lift of the hand comes at the beginning of the stroke, but since the hand is moving forward in the water at entry, the fingers need to be pointing forward. Once the lift force of the hand begins (which can be very soon with shoulder driven or delayed with hip driven), then the hand needs to change from fingers pointing forward to pointing downward, with fingers slightly separated, as fast as possible. There should be very little excursion (motion from side to side) of the hand during the pulling motion and the hand should not come under the body much at all. Hope this helps.

  16. Connor

    I have been watching these videos, looking to improve my freestyle technique. Recently while observing a few of my teammates who were faster sprinters then me, I noticed they favored a deep straight arm pull. I then changed my stroke from being the high elbow pull to incorporate that deep pull and now find myself leading our sprints. At the same time I have dropped time in my 50 free, I have noticed only a little improvement in my 100 and 200. Would this perhaps be due to these drag forces exhausting my muscles?
    I hadn’t seen this video and I honestly hadn’t the slightest idea of the effects the change could have.

    • garyhallsr

      Hi Connor,

      In observing sprinters (50 meters) and elite athletes competing in the 100 m and up, we believe that the only event where a deeper pull technique should be used is in the 50. For a short distance, a strong swimmer can gain more propulsion, even with greater frontal drag from this deeper pulling motion. Over a 50, the frontal drag will wear you down. It is more than ok to use different techniques in the 50 and 100 and above. It is recommended.

  17. O Thomas Johnson


    Thank you for doing the videos. I watch them often and I often show my swimmers your videos. My favorite video to this day is on You tube if is the Michael Phelps five camera view. probably has 5 million views and i bet 2.5 million are me. Any way I remember Mike Bottom present Three-style some time ago at an ASCA clinic. We tried to you both styles hip driven and shoulder driven in our races over a 50. It would depend on whether it was long course or short course. At we would transition t he technique based on his or her fitness level. But it was something we alps felt we had to incorporate in our practices. We also had to consider the 100/200 swimmers dropping down to a 200 Free Relay.

    The only thing that does jive with me is the “drag: created with the arm at its longest point. Personally I would want my freestylers to completely “straight” arm, at that point of the stroke according to Dr. Jan Prins who shared some of his research with me a couple years ago, that at that point we are creating the most force and have the most hand speed as we go through the middle of the pull. At that spot the arm is “moving”. As I watch Phelps and granted there are better freestylers-Adrian, Lezak. I think is really dependent on which freestyle race is being done, and at what point in the race. I re watched Katie Ledecky’s 800 free from Rio her last 150 looks different to me than her 1st 150.

    Thanks again


    • garyhallsr

      Yes, TJ, you are absolutely right. Different techniques for different distances is true. One cannot swim the 50 through the 1500 with the same technique and do well. Pulling motion, stroke rate, recovery motion and kick intensity must all change in order to maximize efficacy in each event. A deeper arm pulling motion, as generally used in the 50 sprints, provides more propulsion and more frontal drag, so it cannot be sustained for long. A high elbow pulling motion provides less propulsion and lower frontal drag and is more suitable for distance races.

  18. garyhallsr

    Yes, TJ, you are absolutely right. Different techniques for different distances is true. One cannot swim the 50 through the 1500 with the same technique and do well. Pulling motion, stroke rate, recovery motion and kick intensity must all change in order to maximize efficacy in each event. A deeper arm pulling motion, as generally used in the 50 sprints, provides more propulsion and more frontal drag, so it cannot be sustained for long. A high elbow pulling motion provides less propulsion and lower frontal drag and is more suitable for distance races.

  19. Rocky

    Life long swimmer now in mid-60’s transitioning from competitive pool swims to open water distance ~ 27:00 mile. Total technique reboot. Prior pull technique was to keep wrist below elbow and along body median, i.e., under the body but not past the center line.
    Experimented with bent elbow technique last night and felt more comfortable as hands stayed parallel to body on rotation but not under. Also felt less stress on shoulder than deeper pull which generally attempts to engage muscles in back. In other words, I did not think about engaging back on high elbow pull instead focused on maintaining high elbow and consistent body rotation.
    As the high elbow technique becomes more ingrained, how does one again focus on engaging the back to the greatest degree?
    Further, leg strength and flexibility lessen with age (and foot ailments). Any tricks to defeat the decline? Even videos featuring you don’t demonstrate the same foot flexibility as your younger colleagues. Just kicking faster is wearing vs. effective. Thank you for these training videos.

    • garyhallsr


      With respect to the pulling motion, we have to discipline ourselves to pull smarter and not try to overpower the pulling motion. The high elbow pull, though less propulsive than the deeper pull, shifts more of the burden of the motion to the muscles of the scapula. It also brings the hand closer to the shoulder joint (fulcrum) which lessens the torque on the shoulder…leading to less bicep tendonitis.
      Though my ankles are as flexible now as they ever were, my leg strength is not. I believe if I trained my legs enough I could develop a pretty good kick. Having the ankle plantar flexibility is an essential tool for the down kick (most powerful). You can increase flexibility of the ankle with stretches at any age….just endure some pain and be consistent.


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