Ten Swimming Myths Busted
Myth #5. The reason we pull freestyle underwater with a high elbow is to increase the surface area of our arm.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I am preaching high elbows a lot. There is a reason. At each camp at the Race Club, I end by making ten or so points that improve speed and efficiency in freestyle. The most critical of these points always pertains to swimming with a high elbow. Dropping the elbow is like taking a drag suit into competition, only worse, because you don’t feel what is happening to you until it is too late.
So when I ask campers and coaches to tell me why there is so much importance placed on swimming with a high elbow, they usually believe it’s for increased power or increased surface area through the pull. I don’t think either one is right.
Throwing on a pair of hand paddles (which, by the way, my coach Flip Darr, reinvented in 1967) gives an increase in power from the added surface area. So by creating an Early Vertical Forearm (EVF), do we also increase the surface area of our pulling arm?
First, the only area that matters in terms of propulsion from the arms is the part of the arm that ends up moving backwards, creating propulsive drag. That is made up of the hand and forearm (until the very end of the pull), so we can exclude the upper arm for this argument. Now the question is, do we have more surface area on the hand and forearm in the EVF position than we do in a deep arm/elbow position?
We are primarily concerned with the surface area projected onto a plane perpendicular to our long axis, which is the area that is creating the propulsive force. A poor swimmer leads so much more with their elbow in a low position, that the surface area is reduced.
But with decent swimmers that is not what you see. From head-on, or from the rear, you don’t see much difference in the surface area of the forearm and hand regardless of whether it has been dropped, or is in the EVF position. The surface area of the arm remains the same.
In the Race Club’s recently released video, Life is Worth Swimming, one can contrast a high elbow pull of Bobby Savulich versus a deeper (sprint) pull of George Bovell. I can’t see that one pull produces a larger surface area than the other.
Therefore, I rest my case. The reason we like the EVF position is to reduce drag, and drag remains the #1 enemy of the swimmer.