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by Matt Donovan

November 2, 2018

Proper freestyle swimming technique can help save your shoulders from injury

The term “high elbow” has been used over and over again by coaches, but they’ve sometimes focused on the wrong time swimmers should have high elbows. I’ve been guilty of this. It’s time to move beyond this concept.

Let’s start with what’s right about the term high elbows. It’s true that during the freestyle recovery (while the arm is above the water) your elbow should be the highest point of your arm and your wrist and shoulder should make up the two base anchor points along the surface of the water.

But the rest of the stroke is where we need to change our thinking.

The Wrong Time for High Elbows

The issue with an exaggerated high elbow, usually encouraged by some traditional drills, is that you’re putting your elbows much too high, which puts a tremendous amount of stress on your shoulders.

Stay away from drills such as thumb drag (sometimes called zipper drill), in which you drag your thumbs along your torso during the recovery phase. It’s also best to avoid fingertip drag drill, in which you drag your fingertips across the surface of the water close to your torso during the recovery. The strain on your shoulders is too much and can lead to injury.

When drilling or swimming freestyle, the ideal triangle between your shoulder, elbow, and wrist is a scalene obtuse (yes, I broke out my seventh-grade math book for that one). Essentially, while the elbow is still the highest point of your arm above the water, it’s only slightly higher (maybe two or three inches) than your wrist and shoulder.

During the recovery phase, your elbow should be the first part of your arm out of the water and the last part to be submerged. Your arm should swing over the water similar to how it does in butterfly. This will put the least amount of strain on your shoulders and will allow you to do a higher volume of swimming.

The Right Time for High Elbows

Underwater is where the true value of the high elbow comes into effect. This occurs at the end of the catch and through the power phase of your stroke.

After the catch, your arm shouldn’t take the shape of a triangle; instead, it should be positioned in more of a straight-ish line. At this point, your shoulder becomes the highest point of your arm, but it’s vital that your elbow stays above your wrist.

The easiest way to check that you’re doing this correctly is to know where your fingertips are pointing. If they’re pointing to the bottom of the pool, your pull is in the best position. If your fingertips are even slightly off to the side, your elbow has dropped, your propulsion has slowed, and the strain on your shoulder has increased dramatically.

Here are two great things that you can do to work on this.

Knuckle Paddles Drill

For this drill, take off all of the straps on a paddle and grip the top of the paddle so the base of the paddle is flush to the wrist. This is similar to fist drill but allows the surface area of the paddle to do more work than a closed fist. Remember to keep the top of the paddle where your knuckles are pointed toward the bottom of the pool and make sure your elbow remains above your wrist through the end of the stroke.

Stroke Count

This is a simple way to make sure that your stroke is efficient over an extended distance. The key is to get to the other end of the pool with as few strokes as possible. In the beginning, adding a snorkel helps to eliminate thinking about breathing patterns. To lower your stroke count, you’ll have to increase your kick rate. It’s OK to add fins if you’re struggling, but you’ll need to wean yourself off them sooner rather than later.

Final Thought

Most shoulder injuries are due to misuse, not overuse. If you protect your shoulders, you can swim for extended periods of time. Take some time each day to do effective swimming, and you’re certain to see results come meet day. If nothing else, your shoulders will thank you.


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle
  • Stroke Technique