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Coaching / Stroke Technique

From High Elbow to High Shoulder

Help your swimmers tap into their natural core power

Scott Bay | January 20, 2014

We’ve spent a number of years preaching high elbow. There have been various interpretations of this directive, and we’ll get into that shortly. But as I was working with a rather flexible athlete recently, a funny thing occurred to me: we never talk about where the shoulder should be. 

High Elbow Version 2.0

When they hear a coach say “high elbows,” most swimmers think we’re talking about the recovery portion of the stroke. That’s true, but most swimmers also assume we’re talking about a traditional bent elbow with fingers-down recovery position, and that isn’t true! High elbow actually means looking at the angle of the water in relation to your shoulder and elbow. The more vertical this angle is, the better. We disregard the lower arm simply because if it’s straight or bent, the center of mass is still over the center of buoyancy or close to it. All of this is an indicator of body rotation. 

High Elbow Version 3.0

When we talk about the spatial relationship between the hand and the elbow, the elbow should always be higher than the hand when the arm is in the water. Think about the pull: hand down and elbow up. This brings us to the last part.

High Shoulder Version 1.0

Moving beyond just focusing on the elbow, we teach swimmers that, after the extension on the front end, they must rotate the elbow joint from down on the entry to out or up on the catch. The minute you rotate the point of your elbow toward the sky, you also rotate your shoulder toward your jawline and ear. The shoulder gets higher and you engage the long and strong muscles of the core (we call these the flying squirrel muscles, but they’re actually called the latisimus dorsi). The movement is similar to pressing yourself up out of the pool.

If you have a few spare minutes to review some elite freestylers on YouTube, you’ll get an idea of what this means and you may be better able to explain it to your swimmers. Be patient when presenting this information; like all changes in movement and thought, change can be a difficult, but it’s a worthwhile process.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is an ASCA Level 5 certified coach and has been actively coaching for more than 25 years. Team Blu Frog Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All-Americans, and world record holders who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 USMS swims in just the last five years. Bay is also the chair of both the USMS Coaches Committee and the Florida LMSC, and is head coach of Father Lopez Catholic High School Men’s and Women’s Swimming.

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