Coaching Controversies- The High Elbow Catch Part I
You got to have a high elbow catch.
Swim like you’re wrapping your arm around a barrel.
Create an early vertical forearm.
These are all instructions that coaches provide their swimmers to improve their propulsive arm actions. The key to fast swimming seems to be centered around having a great catch, and that a great catch is all about getting the elbow high and the forearm vertical.
However, beyond simply stating that as a goal, and talking about it at coaching clinics, I wonder how much effort is really put into creating these positions, if those attempts are successful, and whether a ‘high elbow catch’ is really what swimmers should be trying to achieve in the first place.
In this article, I’d like to explore what’s really happening in effective arm actions, what simple concepts can and should be communicated to swimmers, and how we can help swimmers learn arm actions that are effective, regardless of what those actions look like.
The ‘catch’ itself is problematically named as it implies that swimmers are supposed to ‘hold’ water or ‘grab’ water or begin to create force. This isn’t really what’s happening. It’s more about effective and patient re-positioning of the entire limb to create the conditions for an effective arm action.
A second issue is that we tend to describe arm actions based upon what they look like, rather than what they feel like FEELINGS LINK. For the most part, swimmers will not be able to see what they are doing with their arms, at least if they plan on swimming fast. We need to communicate what it should feel like, and do so accurately, so swimmers can understand what they are trying to accomplish.
While the name ‘catch’ does imply a sensation, unfortunately, the implication is wrong. It’s not a forceful action; it’s actually characterized by a lack of force. The more force a swimmer puts into the initial aspect of their stroke, the less success the remainder of the pull will be as position is compromised.
A third issue is that different swimmers have different physical constraints. Limb length, muscle strength, and joint mobility can and will differ greatly between swimmers. For some, what is described as a high elbow catch may be a wonderful solution. For others, it’s not even a physical possibility.
Does that mean the latter group can’t swim fast? Watching international competition demonstrates that this isn’t the case, and I doubt those same swimmers would go faster if they made a change. If this is the case, what are the parameters that allow for effective arm actions, ‘high elbow’ or otherwise?
Finally, we are confusing cause and effect and the relative importance of different actions. A high elbow catch CAN be a good thing, not in and of itself, but because of what it allows to happen. It is a satisfactory solution to the problem of good arm actions. However, it is not the only one. If we can figure out what the goals of good arm actions are, we can then determine the range of solutions swimmers can use to swim fast.
Let’s take a look at what’s really going on with effect arm actions, what to look for, how to communicate with swimmers, and how to create situations where they have the best opportunity to learn these skills.
An effective arm action must allow for two outcomes to be accomplished-
1. Create as large a surface area as possible to displace water backwards.
2. Create as much force as possible.
If both of these objectives are achieved, swimmers are going to have effective arm actions and they don’t need to worry about traditionally suggested technical advice and positions. This advice represents potentially effective solutions, not required objectives.
Create as large a surface area as possible
Many swimmers swim use their hands as the primary and solitary source of propulsion. While the hands are certainly important, and perhaps preeminently important, swimmers have more options available to them. Failing to effectively use the entire arm is failing to maximize surface area.
This is where the concepts of wrapping your arms around a barrel, vertical forearm, and high elbow catch come into play. They all tend to create a situation where the forearm is moving directly backwards, aiding the hand in contributing to propulsion. By understanding what these respective movements are achieving, we can appreciate how to best modify them for each swimmer. Additionally, it can help us to interpret the effectiveness of what our swimmers are currently doing.
Beyond achieving a large surface area, it’s ideal to maintain that surface area for as long as possible. By moving as much of the arm backwards as possible, for as long as possible, we can maximize the amount of leverage that is created on the water.
These actions were described by Charles Silvia as early as the 1950s.
The arm reaches forward, the elbow bends, and the shoulder rotates internally. The relative degree to which these events happen will depend on the individual and the event they are swimming. At one extreme, you have Ian Thorpe with a lot of elbow bend and internal rotation. At the other extreme, you have Anthony Ervin with much less of both.
Create as much force as possible
To go fast, we need to create large forces. To create large forces, we need to use as much muscle mass as possible. In the upper body, the largest muscles are the pectoralis and the latissimus muscles. The pectoralis muscles bring the arm towards the body, as does the latissimus. In addition, the latissimus serves to bring the arm behind the body. These actions sound a lot like the arm pull because that’s exactly what’s happening as the arm moves towards the midline and behind the body.
As these are the largest and strongest muscles in the upper body, it makes sense to perform stroking actions that optimize the use of these muscles. These muscles are capable of creating the largest forces and are the most resistance to fatigue. By prioritizing these muscles, swimmers can swim faster, for longer.
These muscles are best recruited by starting from a lengthened position and moving to a shortened position. This is best achieved by moving the arm into a position that is relatively wide and deep to the body. This re-positioning is what is known as ‘the catch’. It can be visualized by an ‘open arm pit’ (credit to Cecil Colwin), where there is a lot of space between the arm and the torso. This space implies a lengthening of the important propulsive muscles, and thus a great potential for shortening.
When creating this position, there is no one ‘ideal’ position, but a range of positions that can effectively accomplish the task, dependent on the individual and the desired speed. The deeper the arm is, the more torque that can be created. However, this comes with a greater force requirement. For those that are strong enough to do so, and compete in events short enough to allow for it, this can be an effective strategy. This results in a straighter arm, although still bent.
In contrast, a bent elbow, and thus a shallower, yet wider pulling path, requires less force for those incapable of creating it. A shift towards this position can also be beneficial for those swimming longer distances that demand efficiency over effectiveness.
A narrow and deep position, as well as a shallow and wide position, and everything in between are all effective at creating force. Which solution is best for any individual will depend on how much force they can create, how much range of motion they possess, and the duration of the event they are swimming.
It some situations, swimmers may need to reduce the maximal surface area at certain points of the stroke to create more force, or obtain better surface area at the expense of force production. In shorter races, swimmers may not take the time to set up optimally positions so that they can create higher forces earlier.
Maximizing surface area early in the stroke will typically require a shallower pull, which can compromise how much force can be applied later in the stroke, and vice versa. The former may be more efficient for long periods of time, whereas the latter may allow for the higher forces needed over short distances.
One is not better than the other; it is more about achieving the effective solution for the situation. Understanding how these dynamics work can inform coaches about why their swimmers are moving in certain ways, as well as how they might better guide their movements.
Keeping It Simple
Different swimmers have different limb lengths, different degrees of mobility, and differnt levels of strength. They also compete across different events. As such, different pulling strategies are going to be more or less effective for anyone one swimmer.
Rather than creating rigid guidelines for swimmers to adhere to, it’s more productive to provide swimmers with a conceptual framework about how to move. Regardless of individual differences, there are still general biomechanical principles that must be adhered to in order to accomplish the goals of creating a lot of force with a large surface area. In general, the following actions are what coaches should look for, and as necessary, can help swimmers learn to achieve. However, the degree to which the following actions are demonstrated will depend on individual characteristics.
Understand that there can be a LARGE range of movements that satisfy all of these concepts. By providing the concepts, creating great tasks and an engaging learning environment, we can help swimmers find which solutions are best for them.
For coaches, the value of these concepts is that you can generally see what is happening from the deck. You don’t need underwater cameras and you don’t need to pull kids out of practice to film them and see what is happening, although this can be valuable. These are all action coaches can see, if they take the time to look.
The hand should be deeper than the elbow.
If this doesn’t happen, there is zero opportunity to use the forearm to create propulsion at any point in the stroke. This means that hands will be used exclusively. While a lot can be done with the hands, there are very few swimmers than can consistently make this work.
As such the hand needs to be deeper than the elbow. That ensure that the forearm is being using to some degree to create forces that are moving backward. The deeper the hand is relative to the elbow, the more the forearm will be moving directly backward, moving the swimmer directly forward.
At least through the middle of the stroke, more is better here. That will change at the front end and the back end of the stroking cycle. As discussed above, it’s not necessary that the hand be very deep, it just should be as deep as possible relative to the elbow.
If the hand is quite shallow relative to the elbow, swimmers are swimming with their hands. This can take two forms. In one case, the swimmer is leading with the elbow in the classic ‘dropped elbow’ position. Not only has the surface area been greatly reduced, the ability to effectively use the strong muscles of the upper body is compromised as well. As a result, it’s not a great strategy for swimming fast.
In the second case, the swimmer might not be leading with the elbow, but they are crossing over the body and the hand ends up really shallow. While this strategy keeps the forearm involved in creating propulsion, sweeping across the body compromises the ability to use the lats and the pecs. Because this strategy still maintains surface area, there are some swimmers that can maintain some level of success.
Swimmers with more strength and those competing over shorter distances are typically able to keep the hands deeper throughout the pull. In contrast, those individuals with less strength and swimming over longer distances tend to swim with a shallower pull. Mobility can also affect how deep the arm can go. If mobility limitations are present, it can constrain swimmers’ options, and they may be forced to choose an option that is not in line with their physical strength or their events.
The hand should be inside the elbow.
As described above, the general ‘catch’ action should be a wrapping like action where the elbow bends and the shoulder rotates inward. This should result in the hand being down, the elbow pointing to the side, and the hand inside the elbow. Some swimmers find a way to achieve the first two positions without achieving the third, especially in freestyle and butterfly.
The problem is that this results in the swimmer pushing down and out into the water. This is not going to help swimmers move forward. As importantly, this action will put the brakes on the natural rotation timing in freestyle, which is going to kill the rhythm of the stroke. Lastly, it’s going to cause swimmers to bounce up and down in both freestyle and butterfly.
If all of these problems are happening, why are some pretty decent swimmers still doing this? Because it FEELS strong. Pushing down and out on the water with a relatively straight arm feels really strong. It feels like you are creating a lot force. The reason it feels so strong is because the position is so weak. The leverage is so poor that it feels like a maximal contraction (it is). Unfortunately, the mechanics prevent swimmers from doing anything with that force.
To change these movements, we have to change the perception of effective pulling by giving swimmers a new and better solution. Importantly, we have to demonstrate that the new strategy, which feels weaker, is actually stronger. We usually have to prove it to the swimmer with performance.
The elbow should be pointed to the side.
Once the hand starts to go deep and the elbow stays inside the elbow, the elbow should start to move to the side. This position can be thought of as an ‘open arm pit’. The arm pit should be open for as long as possible and closed aggressively.
When trying to visualize what this will look and feel like, imagine there is a really large balloon in your armpit. That is an open armpit. Now, try to pop the balloon by closing the armpit and squeezing the balloon. You should feel your pectoralis and latissimus muscles contracting. That is what it feels like to pull using the lats and the pecs.
This also works well with a basketball or a soccer ball. Having swimmers practice squeezing the ball can give them a sense of what the contraction should feel like.
By conceptualizing the motion as keeping the elbow to the side, it allows swimmers to keep the arm pit open and pull effectively. This is easy for swimmers to understand, and as importantly, it’s easy for coaches to see. How far the elbow would point to the side will be determined by how deep the hand goes. The deeper the hand the less the elbow will be bent and the less the elbow will be point outwards.
As with hand depth, more is not better or worse. It is about what is appropriate for the swimmer and the events they swim. The degree to which the elbow is bent is less important than where the elbow is pointing. Some sprinters can swim with a very straight arm and still keep the elbow slightly bent. A ‘high elbow’ is an elbow that points out, regardless of how deep it is in the water.
The elbow should be pointed to the side for as long as possible.
As soon as the elbow is pointing back or in, the lats and/or the pecs have shortened and lost their ability to continue to create force. If this happens early in the stroke cycle, there is going to be a significant period of time where force will be applied ineffectively. Keeping the elbow out ensure that force can produced with both muscles for as long as possible.
In addition, by keeping the elbow out to the side for as long as possible, swimmers ensure that propulsive surface area is maintained for as long as possible. The wide elbow/deep hand position keeps the forearm in a relatively vertical orientation. If the elbow comes in really quickly, this likely means that the forearm has move towards a more horizontal orientation.
This tends to be very easy for coaches to see and swimmers to feel. In many cases, this focus will create an action similar to a ‘high elbow pull’, but will do so in a manner that is easier to conceptualize and much more difficult to interpret. Coaches can see this action, and swimmers can feel it, with the option to look at it as well.
In backstroke the same concepts apply. However, the elbow should be pointed towards the bottom of the for as long as possible. How straight the elbow is will be secondary to the individual.
Hopefully, you can see that changes in one area lead to changes in another, and certain movement seem to change in concert. Deeper hand leads to straighter elbow with less of an angle outward. Shallow hand leads to a greater bend with more of a lateral deviation. Finding the right path, provided these concepts are met, is what we’ll explore later on.
Going back to the balloon analogy, place the balloon back in your armpit. With the balloon in your arm pit, get the hand ‘lower’ than the elbow and the elbow wider than the hand. Your hand should be pointing straight in front of you. This implies that the forearm is ‘vertical’ and propulsive surface area is being increased.
You are maximizing surface area by using your fingertips, forearm, and some of your upper arm to move water backwards. Further, you are creating force by contracting the strongest muscles of the upper body through a large range of motion.
That is effective pulling. This is all that is required.
Now, straighten the elbow and move the hand ‘deeper’. Then go back to a shallow hand with a wide elbow. Finally, find an intermediate position. From each of those positions, close your arm pit and squeeze a ball, noting the muscular feel, as well as the orientation of the arm.
This should demonstrate that all of these positions can use the strong muscles of the body while maintaining effective surface area for propulsion. The orientation of the arm will be different, and the big ‘contraction’ of the upper body will be felt at a different point. However, all strategies are effective, depending on the individual. They all satisfy the requirements.
You can choose to keep the hand deeper and the elbow straighter, as many sprinters choose to do. Watch Florent Manadou racing a 50m freestyle in the video below around 1:25 for an extreme example of how to do this.
In contrast, watch Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe racing over 200m at around 4:55 in the video below to see a demonstration of a very high elbow position.
A frontal view of Ian Thorpe is viewable below.
In all cases, the strokes appear different, yet satisfy the same mechanical constraints required to swim fast. They create large surface areas for propulsion and use the large muscles of the upper body to create large amounts of forces.
These champion swimmers achieve this by getting the hand deep, the hand inside the elbow, and the elbow pointed out to the side, even if only accomplished to a subtle degree.
Effective arm actions are determined by a lot of different factors, and there are a lot of different ways to create effective arm actions. However, there are simple underlying principles that determine the ‘rules’ for creating these arm actions. By understanding what is happening, and why it is happening, coaches can go about facilitating the process of changing skills in a manner that actually improves performance.
In part II, we’ll explore how to apply this information in a practical setting to ensure that swimmers are equipped with the tools to create change, and placed in environments that are ideal for doing so.