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Faster Freestyle Swimming Clinic: Part 2. Fingertip Orientation and High Elbow Catch

Technique Video Series for Faster Freestyle Swimming (part 2 of 5)

Learn how to improve your freestyle swimming technique, efficiency, power and endurance from Karlyn Pipes, swim technique expert coach and Masters Swimming multiple World Record holder. In this no-nonsense swim clinic, Coach Karlyn demonstrates five focus points essential for improving freestyle swimming.  In today’s clinic, she will focus on fingertip orientation and the high elbow catch.  Watch demonstrations using underwater video and on land with a Vasa SwimErg.

Karlyn’s winning ways will help you develop an efficient freestyle with increased power.  Follow her lead and you’ll soon be swimming stronger, better, faster!

This entire clinic is presented in 5 blog posts, each with one of Karlyn’s five essential technique focus points:

Part 1. Hand Placement: How to properly set up the stroke

Part 2. Fingertip Orientation: High Elbow Catch

Part 3. Wrist Awareness and The Power of the Y

Part 4. Umph at the Front: Where to apply the power

Part 5. Exiting the Stroke efficiently to reduce drag


Part 2: Fingertip Orientation: High Elbow Catch or Early Vertical Forearm

In order to gain the most power in the freestyle stroke, the fingertips need to be straightforward.  Coach Karlyn Pipes demonstrates how strength diminishes when the elbows are straightened or hands are pointed outward or inward. Keep the fingers pointed straight forward to obtain an Early Vertical Forearm (EVF).

In Part 1, we learned why it is important and how to properly set up the stroke with hand placement.   The second technique focus point is called Fingertip Orientation.

Start by reaching your arms and hands up, as if stretching to do a pull-up.  Next, while keeping fingertips to forearm in a straight line (like a canoe blade), lightly set your forearms & hands on top of that box. You’ll notice that your fingertips are oriented to point straight forward.

Figure 1 – Imagine a cardboard box out in front of you with the flat surface at eye level.

Your body position while swimming in the water (or while swimming Freestyle on the Vasa SwimErg) would position your hand & forearm pointed straight down toward the bottom of the pool (or floor). When a swimmer’s fingertip orientation is straight forward like this, there is greater access to generating more power from the larger muscles of the back, including the lats, as opposed to using the smaller muscles of shoulders & arms.


In Figure 2, the athlete’s fingertips are oriented facing forward.  When he presses down on Coach Karlyn’s hands, he’s strong & can generate power since he is pushing with the heel of his hands (not his fingertips).

Figure 2


However, in Figure 3, when he points his fingertips inward or slightly down, he cannot generate as much strength.  He loses a lot of power when he straightens out his arms and presses down as well.

Figure 3

In Figure 4, When we press down with his fingertips pointing outward, we lose power again.

Figure 4

When the fingertips & forearms are facing forward, you will be able to generate the most power.   Notice in Figure 5, the fingers are pointed towards the front, which in the water is essentially a high elbow catch position. Notice the fingers should not be pointed inward, outward or crossed over mid-line.

Figure 5

Be sure to avoid letting the hand get in front of the elbow as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

The dropped elbow with the fingertips pointed forward is not good and the most potentially damaging due to internal rotation.  This can be problematic to the upper shoulder at the rotator cuff.  If the swimmer lets the hand get in front on his elbow and pulls with force,  it could potentially injure the rotator cuff.

Figure 7

Figure 7 – avoid pointing fingertips inward or hands crossing midline.

Figure 8

Figure 8 – Avoid pointing fingers and forearm outward, which puts stress on shoulders.

Figure 9 Ideal high elbow catch position

Figures 9, 10 & 11  illustrate the ideal pulling position with a high elbow catch, fingertips & forearm pointed at the bottom of the pool (or floor), and as you pull back,  the armpit closes shut.

Figure 10


Figure 11

Continue on to PART 3. Wrist Awareness and Karlyn’s secret weapon: The Power of the Y

To view all 5 parts of the Swim Clinic, click on the links below:

Part 1. Hand Placement: How to properly set up the stroke

Part 2. Fingertip Orientation: High Elbow Catch

Part 3. Wrist Awareness and The Power of the Y

Part 4. Umph at the Front: Where to apply the power

Part 5. Exiting the Stroke efficiently to reduce drag

Bio:  Coach Karlyn Pipes is an excellent and very popular swim technique coach.  She practices what she coaches as an accomplished Masters Swimming World Record Holder. She has an appetite for success and it shows. Voted one of the top ten masters swimmers of all-time, she holds over 200+ FINA Masters World records, of which 47 are still current. In early 2017, she broke six more FINA Masters World Records while competing in Europe.  

Karlyn travels the world teaching swimmers and triathletes of every age and ability “how to swim faster with less effort”. She runs swim technique clinics and camps through her business Aquatic Edge, located in beautiful Kona, Hawaii. Recently, Karlyn was inducted into the International Swimming Hall Of Fame in 2015 and has released her new book, The Do-Over. We are proud to be associated with Karlyn and we commend her on all that she has accomplished throughout her swimming & coaching career.