Elbow your way to a better stroke

Copy of an article from Elena at eSwim

Elbows have leapt into the spotlight of late, what the demise of the handshake and the rise of the elbow bump.  We’re encouraged to press the button for the pedestrian crossing with our elbow, and sneeze into the crook of our elbow, so while it might be de rigueur to champion the elbow, I’d like to suggest that swimmers have been well aware of this jolly joint for quite some time.

We talk about the high elbow catch, an elbow led recovery, about medial rotation of the elbow and catching the water with the inside of the elbow, but what exactly does this all mean and why is this funny (or not so funny if you hit it) joint so important to successful swimming?

The elbow plays a very significant role in all of the strokes and correct positioning will ensure good engagement of your lats, assist in keeping the shoulder neutral and deliver better streamline, hand entry position and power.  So, let’s talk elbows!

In simple terms, the elbow is a break in the arm lever and can greatly assist in reducing loading on the shoulder joint if we position it correctly.  The most important thing to remember is that your elbow should stay high pretty much at all times throughout the stroke and this is true for ALL strokes.  By keeping the elbow high you are maintaining space in the armpit which, in turn, allows you to maintain engagement of your lats and prevents shoulder hitching and overuse of your upper traps – the muscles along the tops of your shoulders. The upper traps are total bastards and once they get tight from overuse you’ll know about it……headaches, stiff neck, migraines etc etc.

If we maintain distance between the elbow and the side of the body rather than allowing the armpit to collapse and the elbow to squeeze into the rib cage, we maintain a greater catch on the water and therefore set up greater propulsive potential.  While the elbow will eventually finish up close to the rib cage in all four competitive strokes (free, fly, back and breast) , the longer we can maintain elbow height the more likely we are to work with the water rather than fight it.

In freestyle, the elbow should largely remain static in the initial part of the catch.  A small downward drop as the forearm catches the water is ok but we’re aiming for a high elbow and a rounded catch profile as this lovely swimmer below demonstrates. She is not only grabbing a big ball of water with her forearm and hand but she’s also managing the trajectory of her catch with the inside of her elbow. It is the pathway that the elbow takes through the stroke that will best determine your power and capacity for propulsion. 

If your elbow sits too low or too close to your body you will compromise the amount of power you can produce in each stroke by reducing the volume of water your are shifting.  Remember that you trying to grab a big ball of water and then use that to propel your body forward, a bit like climbing the rungs on a ladder. 

To this point we have dealt with the underwater phase but almost as important is the role of the elbow above the water.  Why almost?  Well, there are some very good swimmers who swim very fast who break the rules on this and recover with straight arms but in general, these swimmers are usually sprinters, end up needing shoulder surgery and are also working towards the Olympics.  For the rest of us mere mortals, a bent elbow recovery is the way to go.  Exiting the water at the commencement of the recovery phase should be initiated y the elbow and the progress of the recovery arm should continue to be controlled from the  elbow and upper arm until such point that the elbow can’t go any further forward.

The high elbow on recovery will assist with good hand entry angle (approximately 45 degrees), encourage extension in the right direction (forwards) and produce a less turbulent entry at that (fewer bubbles). It will set your stroke up for the next catch and ensure the least number of muscle groups are involved in the recovery process. It’s called recovery for a reason!!!

So next time you bump your funny bone and curse the existence of this joint, remember just how important it is for effective swimming and kiss it better ready for your next aquatic adventure.

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