The high elbow catch, also referred to as the bent elbow catch or early vertical forearm (EVF), is often championed as being the most efficient, sustainable and propulsive technique.
But is it the only way to swim? Here we will discuss the pros and cons and how to find your best technique based on your experience, distance and ability.
The high elbow catch
The high elbow catch is simply the underwater phase of the freestyle stroke where the hand is positioned below the elbow.
After the entry and extension phases of the stroke, swimmers should begin bending their elbow, creating pressure against their hand and forearm and setting up a strong propulsive pull with the greatest surface area possible.
This position effectively turns the entire lower arm into a paddle by shortening the lever arm (or length of the pulling arm), thus allowing the strong propulsive lat muscles to pull harder across the decreased length and faster via a shorter path. Due to its sustainability, it’s a technique and position favored by the world's best freestylers, particularly those swimming distances over 100m, like middle distance pool competitors, triathletes and open water swimmers.
Getting into this position early, requires a tremendous amount of shoulder mobility, both from the shoulder blade upwardly rotating towards your ears, and the shoulder joint internally rotating. For many adult-onset swimmers, who did not develop this mobility and technique in their youth, the shoulder and brain may be stubborn in achieving this position. Furthermore, it requires excellent rotation from the hips, rocking the body from hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.
The good news is the ideal technique for you exists on a spectrum, and with time and practice you can develop the best position for your stroke.
The straight arm catch
The straight-arm catch is popular among sprinters. It takes advantage of a longer lever arm, or arm length, and requires maximum torque or force from the lats around the shoulder through a longer stroke path. The pay-off is increased force and speed but it comes at the expense of sustainability.
While this technique also places the hand below the shoulder, the long arm position requires tremendous strength. Straight-arm freestyle swimmers maintain pressure on their hand and long arm, throughout the path of the stroke, creating tremendous force and speed for short lived efforts, such as the 50 and 100 meter sprinting events. This position requires less shoulder internal rotation, but more thoracic or upper spine rotation, coupled with a flatter hip position and a strong kick.
Maintain a high elbow position
A common technique flaw in freestyle is dropping the elbow. When this happens, swimmers initiate the pull from the shoulder, drawing the elbow back first, instead of bending at the elbow and pulling with the hand and forearm. The small surface area of the elbow catches significantly less water. Many swimmers with this flaw eventually get vertical with their forearm, but not until later in the stroke, wasting a lot of front end propulsion.
To help maintain proper elbow and arm position, consider incorporating the following catch drills into your training routines.
- Catch up (pool drill): Push off the wall with both your hands shoulder width apart in front of you. Do one stroke at a time while your other arm is always leading you in front of the body, resting on the water surface. Don’t let your lead arm sink towards the bottom while you are taking a stroke with your other arm. Keep your elbow of the leading arm as close to the surface as possible at all times.
- Pool Push-up or Press-up (pool drill): Keep hands below your elbow and push your body up and out of the water; exhale as you push up. Contract your abs, keep your shoulders down and avoid locking your elbows
- Pull-ups (dry land): Place hands on the bar (palms facing away from you); to initiate the pull, depress your lats and start pulling upward to bring your chin over the bar. Note: while the pull up is arguably the most important dryland strength exercise for swimmers, the elbows back first strategy is not what we want to pattern in the water.
- Focus: lats
- Pull-dows (dryland): Pull the bar down until it's level with the chin. Exhale on the downward motion. Keep your feet flat on the floor, engage your core and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull.
- Shoulders, lats
It’s important to make the distinction between the best exercises for developing strength in muscles that have carryover to swimming and patterns used to improve technique in the water. Again, the pull-up is the best exercise for developing strength and power in the lats (the muscles used primarily in swim pulling) but additional technique pattering drills are needed to teach the joint actions and sequencing of the freestyle pull, where the demands and forces are a bit different.
The high elbow pull is likened to that of a muscle-up, or press-up out of the pool, which involves pressing the hands into gym rings, or the pool deck, and pulling them below the elbow, as the body is pressed up against gravity.
In the water, swimmers looking to improve their catch would benefit from five to ten minutes of catch drills, like some of the examples above, in the beginning of the session to set their catch and improve their feel for the water. If you sense your pull is not translating into the forward movement you desire, give some of these drills a shot.
Be patient, and know that the best technique is the one suited to your experience and goals. The best swimmers employ a variety of styles, rooted in a few principles, but all finding the best style for their bodies and events.