The High Elbow, Part 2
A while back I wrote a piece on the high elbow, or early vertical forearm. You can read it here. Turns out that it’s one of the most popular things I’ve written here. I still get questions though about it, because it’s tough for people to get their head around, let alone apply to their stroke. It’s probably the hardest aspect of swimming for me to get people to fix. I can usually fix someone’s body position in a 25 or a 50. Fixing the high elbow can take weeks. The habit is ingrained in your movements in daily life. It just feels so natural to do wrong and so unnatural to do right. After all, the idea of pulling through the water makes you want to pull through the water, just like you would pull a rope. Unfortunately, that’s a much different motion than you should be doing. The “pull” of the freestyle stroke actually resembles a push more closely than it does a pool. And when you think of it in terms of pushing, the high elbow starts to make more sense.
(Just as a quick recap, the high elbow is the part of your stroke, shortly after the hand enters the water, when you begin to pull. The elbow needs to be “high” in relation to the hand, about to the point where the forearm is vertical in the water. )
Need a visual or a working example? Next time you’re in the pool, climb out of the water. Where are your elbows while you get out? Now, hop back in and get out of the water while keeping your elbows pressed against your torso. In other words, first push yourself out of the water, then pull yourself out of the water.
What you probably noticed right away is that pulling yourself out of the water is next to impossible, whereas getting your elbows nice and high, so that you can use your lats, made getting out of the water pretty easy.
Same principle applies to your stroke. If you swim with a dropped elbow and literally “pull” yourself through the water, you will notice that your arms get tired quick and it’s pretty inefficient. Conversely, when you get your elbow up (and rotate, but that’s another day) you are able to engage that great big lat of yours and “push” the water with greater force.
Seems easy enough as you sit there and read it right? Problem is that silly execution. Your body just wants to pull that arm and drop that elbow. So try this. Put some fins on so you don’t sink, and start kicking with one hand extended. Now instead of pulling like you always do, start pulling with your hand but keep your elbow at the surface of the water. Pull until your hand is directly below your elbow and then stop. Now repeat it. Your hand will move independently of the elbow, and it’s going to feel very weird. It also might be a bit uncomfortable as it’s an unnatural movement with your lat fanning out. But that’s good. Keep swimming down the pool doing that, then use the other arm coming back. Remember not to finish the stroke. Just the hand moves till it’s under the elbow, then it stops and you do it again. If you add the rest of the pull, you start reverting back to your bad habits without even realizing it.
Now that you’ve practiced that a few times, add the rest of the pull, but keep it segmented. Do the drill above and when your hand is directly beneath your elbow, stop briefly, then finish the stroke with the elbow high. Why the pause? Because it forces you to think about finishing your stroke correctly. A continuous motion of an unlearned skill will quickly have you shifting back to the motion you know well. The wrong motion.
Need an example? Here are two great ones to watch. First take a look at Grant Hackett. From certain angles, he looks double jointed. He’s not, but it’s a great example of what you are aiming to do.
Next take a look at Sun Yang. Total Immersion folks are in love with this guy because of his slow turnover and great distance per stroke. I like his stroke because its a great demonstration of a high elbow and a two beat kick (among other things).
Still having trouble? Get some stretch cords or surgical tubing and try the pull on land. This way you can isolate each arm and focus on that specific motion. Once it gets ingrained on land, try it again in the water. It takes time so don’t get discouraged. Keep at it. With a little focus and lots of volume, you’ll look just like Hackett in the water. Except maybe the gold medals.