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Thoughts on the Catch, Early Vertical Forearm and Straight Arm

January 13, 2014

High Elbows, Low Hands, Fast Vs. Slow
I was at the pool yesterday watching one of my colleagues work with a swimmer who was struggling mightily to pull water.  She demonstrated what folks often call a “dropped elbow”.  When describing fast freestylers we often describe how they appear to have “high elbows”, meaning that their elbows are “high” relative to the surface of the water.  What we don’t mention as often is that a corollary to the “high” elbow is a “low” or “deep” hand.  With the elbow at a shallow location and the hand at a deep location, the result is what we often describe as “Vertical Forearm”.  Figure 1 shows a really great demonstration of this (courtesy of the folks at SwimSmooth.com).

Figure 1: Rebecca Adlington’s left arm at the “catch” portion of the freestyle stroke. Via SwimSmooth.com http://www.swimsmooth.com/catch_adv.html.

However, not all fast swimmers have this exaggerated an elbow bend, and indeed, scientists are now beginning to say that there is evidence to suggest that a straight arm pull in the underwater portion of the stroke may actually be more propulsive.  Glen Mills over at goswim.tv has a nice article summarizing these developments – http://www.goswim.tv/entries/6658/freestyle-the-deep-catch.html.  Of course, scientists theory and reality are not always in lock step, but my own personal experience suggests that there is something to this “deep hands”.  A couple of years ago I wrote a blog that described my impressions after watching a oarticularly talented young swimmer – I was struck by how his hands seemed to dart into the water and reach their deepest point very swiftly (see here http://www.findingfreestyle.com/?q=h2okiesvo2).

Some Hypotheses
I was wondering about this whole topic yesterday, because while the scientists predict that straight arm should be faster, experience tells us that so many, indeed, probably a majority, of fast swimmers tend towards the high-elbow EVF model instead of the straight arm underwater (Janet Evans being a notable exception).  So, what commonalities do they have, and/or what deficiencies in the straight arm does the bent arm make up for.  Here are some hypotheses:

  • Rigidity – An effective paddle is rigid (this is in contrast to a hydrofoil or wing, which relies upon some measure of pliability).  That’s why oars are not flexible.  An EVF, by rotating the arm outward, helps to lock the elbow making the arm move as a single, solid unit through the water.  A “dropped” elbow by contrast, behaves more like a wet noodle in the water with the hand trailing along behind.
  • Rotational Stability – The high-elbow is actually a result of an internally rotated shoulder (http://www.swimmingscience.net/2011/11/shoulder-internal-rotation-for-swimmers.html), which creates a tension that helps to prevent the rotation of your paddle, enabling you to maintain a hand that is perpendicular to the direction of the pull – in other words it keeps your hand from turning to the side and “slice” the water.

So, in sum, I will suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a straight arm pull.  Also, there is nothing inherently virtuous with a bent arm pull.  The commonalities between successful swimmers of either ilk is that they maintain a rigid and rotationally stable paddle – how they manage that is a matter of individuality.  However, to start by learning straight arm might be a really good way to develop basic feel for the water since it is a hell of a lot simpler, less abstract, and easier to achieve than EVF.

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