How to Start Swimming with a High-Elbow Catch

SSS freestyle catch

Reader Larry R. wrote in with this detailed question on how to work on a high-elbow freestyle catch:

This is a great book, and the videos help a lot, too. I hope you come to Portland so I can take a clinic of yours! It is also great that you let us contact you as a lot of authors don’t, and I am trying not to abuse it!

I would have liked the video, the book, or the tubing exercises to have shown how to get into the starting position from full extension to bent elbow. I think this is the part that you describe on page 52, that you say most people can’t do.

I did search online for the phrases medial rotation and high elbow to find this GoSwim video on the high-elbow catch.

Until I saw this video, I did not completely understand or even think a high-elbow catch was possible. I can kinda of do this. But my wrist does rotate when I rotate my shoulder, but if I work at it I can rotate the wrist back without the shoulder doing likewise. I am hoping with time I can rotate just the shoulder.

Sheila replies:

Hi Larry, Great question! Thank you for writing. Here are a few thoughts in reply:

How to Extend Your Arm Before the Catch

Upper-arm extension begins with the muscles that surround your scapula (also known as the shoulder blade or wing bone). The key muscles that attach to the scapula are the deltoids, biceps, triceps, serratus anterior, and rhomboids. You should feel all of those muscles extending as you reach. Physiologists would say the muscles should extend to about 20 pounds of tension and no more.

What you’ll actually feel when you are extending from the shoulder is the feeling of the scapula raising (if you’re standing upright) or moving forward (if you’re in the water). Your back will feel wide, flared out like a cobra snake, if you engage all those muscles.

Another sensation you will feel is the collarbone rising a bit. The collarbone (clavicle), scapula, and humerus (upper arm bone) are all attached, so when you extend your arm from the shoulder, you will feel the collarbone move.

In Swim Speed Secrets, I described all these movements as “medial rotation of the shoulder”, which it is, but I realize that some people begin the arm extension from the trapezoid muscles instead of from the key scapula muscles.

So try to think more about the scapula as you extend. Note the feeling in the collarbone. Don’t overdo it. Reach from the shoulder to a point that your arm is still useful, active, strong. Don’t stretch so far that you have no power, obviously!

Swim Speed Secrets underwater pull
The high-elbow catch.

How to Place Your Lower Arm and Upper Arm Early in the Catch

To properly position the arm to make that high-elbow catch — either in the water or doing a Halo tubing drill — the swimmer must position the upper arm (shoulder to elbow) differently than the lower arm (elbow to fingertips).

Your upper arm should be raised in the water early in the catch, with the elbow pointing up toward the ceiling and out on an angle. In order to point the elbow out, the upper arm must make a small sweeping arc outward during the recovery phase of the stroke.

Larry, you’ve keyed in on this on your own already! Nice job!!

That arc motion swings the upper arm to the side so that the elbow sits approximately 3-4 inches wider than the side edge of the body. From this point in the catch, the elbow (and upper arm) must remain stable in this position for the entire pull.

Not only is the upper arm arced just a bit to the outside during the catch, but it is also held high, with elbow pointed up. The level to which the upper arm is raised is dependent upon the strength and style of the swimmer. I find it manageable to hold my upper arm up to where my elbow joint is approximately 3 inches lower than my shoulder joint to feel for the catch. If I hold it higher than that then I go too rigid and cannot move as well.

While the upper arm is up and arced just outside the lateral body line, the elbow gradually bends to guide the lower arm (forearm/hand) downward to feel for the catch. This is not an abrupt motion.

Swim Speed Secrets Olympian Mike Troy underwater freestyle catch
Mike Troy and the underwater catch that helped him win gold

I realized after years of coaching that a swimmer who sees a still photo of the high-elbow catch at its most dramatic point (as on p. 46 of Swim Speed Secrets showing forearm and hand pointing completely perpendicular to the bottom of the pool) might work feverishly toward attaining only that exact position and miss the parts that bring a swimmer to that position. Don’t do that!

Instead, please review pg. 53 of Swim Speed Secretswhich shows an underwater stroke series of Olympic gold medalist Mike Troy’s high-elbow catch phase. Take particular note of the second photo in the series, because it shows the beginning of the elbow bend which directs the lower arm into the vertical position. At this point the lower arm is on the forward-like pendulum swing that “Tarzan” swimmer Johnny Weissmuller so perfectly describes. It is not until the next photo, the third in the series, that the high-elbow position has reached its most dramatic point, with forearm and hand completely perpendicular to the bottom of the pool.

The high-elbow catch phase is not a locked, rigid position. It is a flowing phase during which the arm moves fluidly from extension in front of the head to a downward pointing forearm. Find coordination and strength at the elbow joint to gradually bend for the catch.

Hope this helps.

And ironically I fly to Portland this week for an event at Intel. Wish I had time to do a swim clinic while there. Next time!

In Swim Speed Secrets, 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, and triathlon world champion Sheila Taormina reveals the swim technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers. Find new speed in the water with Swim Speed Secrets.