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Stroke Technique

The Elbows are Key to Finding Power in All Four Strokes

Your elbow position determines the amount of pressure you can put on the water

Scott Bay | June 7, 2017

Most of us think a lot about hand position in all our strokes, which is only natural. We feel the water with our hands, and they’re very sensitive to pressure on the water and where the water “slips” off.

But your hands aren’t the only surface that can apply pressure to the water. If you look at your forearm, the space between your wrist and your elbow, there’s a lot of area that can also put pressure on the water and create propulsive force.

The key to maximizing that propulsive real estate is elbow position.

Freestyle

Good freestylers all have what coaches call a high-elbow catch—they keep their elbows closer to the surface during the first part of their strokes. This puts the forearms in the position to catch the water right along with the hand. Because it’s not a natural motion for most of us on dry land (unless you habitually reach for things on the back of a high shelf), here are a few things to think about when initiating the catch in freestyle.

  • Where is the point of your elbow? As you extend your arms forward to begin the catch, the point of your elbow is typically down. Rotate the point of your elbow out and toward the surface. This will allow you to get the fingers pitched down and the elbow up, achieving the coveted early vertical forearm.
  • Gary Hall Sr., who won four medals across the 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympic Games, described the same motion a different way by saying you should keep pointing your elbow forward as you start the catch. This is a great mental cue and works for many swimmers who can’t figure out the idea of rotating the elbow.

Backstroke

Good backstrokers never lead with the elbow—when they enter the water, their fingers pitch down and to the side of the pool and the elbow stays away from the body rather than leading the hand through the stroke. Again, as with freestyle, the elbow will bend so the forearms can put pressure on the water. But in this case, the point of the elbow rotates toward the other end of the pool. There are a few different ways to think about it.

  • Many swimmers use the mental cue of grabbing an armful of water and throwing it toward the feet. The armful idea, rather than the handful, will help keep that elbow out and allow the forearms to put pressure on the water.
  • You can also think of think of dribbling a basketball over your head as your hand enters the water. You must keep the elbow out, away from the body to keep it bouncing straight up and down. If your elbow comes in toward your body, the ball will go forward instead of staying next to you.

Breaststroke

Breaststroke is always tricky when it comes to how wide and when to let go of the water, and it’s different for a lot of swimmers. One thing that’s true, though, is that after the outsweep of the hands, the elbows will bend throughout the pull and then next thing you need to think about is where are your elbows going to be. On the outsweep, most people will have the elbows pointed out. This is another case where rotating the elbows up will be helpful and get the forearms engaged as the hands pitch down a little.

  • Many swimmers like to think of the elbow position in relation to the hands almost like that of scraping the inside of a mixing bowl: sweep those hands out to scrape the sides of the bowl and get the elbows up.
  • Cokie Lepinski, the 2014 USMS Coach of the Year, has described this part of the stroke as having your arms almost make an M-like shape with the elbows close to the top of the water as the fingers pitch down during the catch and release phases of the stroke.

Butterfly

We used to teach that the hand path for butterfly was almost like a keyhole. Modern butterfly has swimmers anchor their hands in the water and rotate the elbows out or move them forward as the hands pitch down. This allows you to get the forearms in on the pull very early and get a lot more pressure on the water.

  • A good mental and kinesthetic cue is to think about where your elbows are when you press up out of the water to get out of the pool. To practice this, place your hands on the deck about shoulder-width apart and rotate the elbows out as you push yourself up.
  • Another good tip is to be thumbs down and pinkie up on the recovery. This keeps the elbows facing outward for the catch once your hands enter the water and a twist of the wrist (not the whole arm) puts your hands in the right place for a great catch with the forearms able to get vertical early as well.

Although it may seem a little complicated and awkward at first, you must remember that the elbow only bends one way. If you want to maximize the pressure you put on the water to move forward, think about where your elbows are. Always make sure they allow you to put your forearms and hands in a position of power.

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About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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