Elbows out or slicing straight? Which stroke sends you through the water more quickly?

Swimming is a sport that is constantly evolving. It’s not just the high-tech kit that evolves – it’s the swim technique too. For a triathlete, the most important stroke is the front crawl or freestyle. Lately, there has been a change in thinking about the best front crawl technique – a change that could potentially help you to swim even quicker. One that is simple enough that anyone can learn to make the change.

Here’s the catchTriathlon Training - Swimming

Freestyle has traditionally been taught with the arms being bent in the recovery phase and a high, bent elbow during the ‘catch’ phase. You can pick up any swim instruction book or talk to any coach, and they would probably explain the same bent-arm technique for freestyle. There is nothing wrong with this technique and the majority of international swimmers cope perfectly well with it. However, a few elite swimmers have recently made headlines for changing their technique to straight arms. This includes world-record holder Michael Phelps (USA) and Eamonn Sullivan (Australia). The main benefit of swimming with straight arms is to get more power through momentum.

This generates a quicker velocity over a short distance. As the arm exits the water at the back of the stroke, that momentum from the pull phase is followed through the recovery, without the elbow ever having to change its angle. The downside of straight arms is that it requires a lot more strength, due to the isolation of the shoulder muscles that you need to sustain this technique. So swimming with straight arms is more geared towards short-distance swimmers.

Record breaker

That said, Janet Evans broke world records for the 800m and 1500m back in 1987 with this swim technique, before anyone really gave it any attention. High elbow or ‘bent arm swimming’ on the other hand is considered more efficient when done in conjunction with body rotation. It recruits more muscle groups, and hence puts less emphasis on the specific shoulder muscles. This enables the swimmer to sustain their momentum through the water for longer, and delay any muscle fatigue. You’ll benefit from both techniques.

In an attempt to get away in a mass swim start and have clean water, you need to be fast in the first few hundred yards of a race. This is the time to utilise the straight-arm technique. Once comfortable, you can either settle down and use the bent arm technique for the rest of the swim, or continue with the straight arm if you feel you are strong enough. There is no right or wrong way in terms of which technique to use, but you may find one is faster for you than the other.


1 Straight Arm

Using swim fins, push off the wall and swim freestyle, with your arms as straight as possible above and below the water. You can do this as a single-arm drill, leaving your non-active arm extended in front of your body, or as a drill while swimming freestyle. A set of 10x50m is a good starting point.

2 Bent Arm

Using swim fins, push off the wall and start swimming freestyle. As your arm finishes the pull phase and breaks the surface of the water by your hip, keep your fingertips softly touching the surface off the water, but allow your elbow to move forward and carry your bent arm. As you reach the top of your stroke, and your hand enters the water, try to keep your elbow high and move your hand to start the stroke. You can do this as a one-arm drill or during freestyle swimming.