Ten Swimming Myths Busted
Myth #4: The reason you keep the elbows high during the underwater pull is to increase power.
I often hear this myth from both coaches and swimmers. When one looks at the underwater shots of the world’s fastest swimmers, sprint or distance, you find a similar high underwater elbow, also called Early Vertical Forearm (EVF). The elbows are not simply elevated, they are noticeably high, with extreme extension and an internal rotation of the shoulder joint. This is accentuated when coupled with the body rotation in the opposite direction. The position of the elbow and forearm at this position is curious — can one really be stronger in this almost contorted position? I believe the answer is no. To test this, you may go into a gym and use the Free Motion pulleys that many gyms now have. Pull as much weight down with your arm as you can, first with your arm relatively straight forward, then with your arm at your side. Keep your shoulder extended and elbow up and you will not be able to pull as much weight in that position. With the shoulder fully extended, a high elbow is not mechanically superior.
So if this weird high elbow position is not about power, what is it about? Drag. By changing the position of the arm as it moves through the pull cycle, one can reduce the drag coefficient significantly. To prove this, kick with fins all out for 25 yards extending one arm above the head and the other straight down toward the bottom of the pool. You will soon learn how significant the drag of your protruding arm becomes when it is at right angle. In fact, you will strain to keep the arm in the position and with any speed at all, it will shake in the water like a palm tree in a hurricane in the Keys. Now try the same drill, but instead of putting your arm straight down, let it protrude straight out to the side but bend the arm 90 degrees at the elbow, as if you were swimming with a high elbow. You will feel considerably less drag in this position. It is using the same arm, a slightly different position, and a lot less drag.
Why does a high elbow position create less frontal drag? It has to do with the upper arm, not the lower arm. Only the upper part of the arm is moving forward throughout nearly the entire pull. However, the upper arm is also the largest part of the arm and changing its orientation with a high elbow in the water also reduces the drag coefficient. Achieving an EVF is simply maintaining the upper arm in a position closer to the body’s line, which also results in the least amount of frontal drag.
How does one learn to pull with the EVF in practice? At the Race Club, we use the high elbow sculling drill, the human paddle drill and the one arm drill to teach high elbow position. We also use the FINIS Forearm Fulcrum, the Agility Paddles, and use the Rangs Jr, wrapped tightly around the biceps (not the legs) to reinforce the EVF through the pull.
The good news is that most coaches are giving their swimmers the right advice: pull with your elbows high underwater. Now you know the real reason that you should.