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How to Swim Faster, Freestyle Swimming: Part 1 – Hand Placement

Technique Video Series for Faster Freestyle Swimming (part 1 of 5)

Learn how to swim faster freestyle with improved technique, efficiency, power and endurance from Masters Swimming World Record Holder and coach, Karlyn Pipes. In this no-nonsense swim clinic, Coach Pipes demonstrates five essential elements for faster freestyle swimming.  Her techniques are demonstrated using high-quality underwater video and on land using a Vasa SwimErg.

Karlyn’s winning techniques will lead you to develop a more efficient freestyle stroke and increased power. You’ll soon be swimming stronger, better, faster!

This clinic will be presented in 5 blog posts over the coming weeks, each with one of five essential technique focus points covered:

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 1: Hand Placement and how to set up the stroke

A proper set-up of the stroke is critical and enables the swimmer to get more power from the stroke. Masters Swimming World Record Holder, clinician, and coach, Karlyn Pipes describes how to achieve perfect high elbow catch / early vertical forearm in the freestyle stroke.

The first focus point is how to properly set up the stroke with hand placement.  This is very important since it lays down the framework for consistently achieving efficient swimming strokes.

To create a visual, imagine you are about to do a pull-up. Place your hands up toward the bar where you would grip it, hands just wider than shoulder width.

Start by reaching up as if to do a pull-up

Also imagine there is a cardboard box in front of you, with the flat surface at about eye level. Start by reaching your hands up to as if to do a pull-up.  Next, keeping fingertips to forearm straight in line, lightly set your hands on top of that box. Now you’ve just achieved an early vertical forearm (a.k.a. High Elbow catch) position, and that’s the catch point of a proper Freestyle stroke.

Hands pressure for Faster Freestyle Swimming
Imagine setting your hands on the flat surface of a box at eye level

Early Vertical Forearm

The term Early Vertical Forearm (EVF) is a buzzword mentioned a lot, and it’s often misunderstood.  What’s most important to understand is this position will give you the greatest access to generate more power from the lats and back muscles.

Straight fingertips to elbow, plus good range of motion, help set up a powerful stroke

If you’ve ever watched underwater video of Olympic swimmers or other great swimmers, you will notice they all perform a high elbow catch (early vertical forearm) which allows them to access greater power.  When you learn the high elbow catch for Freestyle swimming, you are also learning a stroke technique that applies to all 4 swimming strokes – Freestyle, Butterfly, Breaststroke, and Backstroke – this principle works well for each.

The hand placement and high elbow catch works well for all 4 swimming strokes

On land, the early vertical forearm can easily be practiced using a Vasa SwimErg (or a Vasa Trainer) swim bench.  To do this correctly, as you reach your arms forward on the Vasa, think about keeping your fingertips to elbow as straight as you can. Lift up your elbow and start pressing back. When you do this, your elbows will be kept really high. In the water, they won’t actually be that high, but the idea is to create a very shallow, drafted pull so you are not spreading out your energy too far.

On the Vasa SwimErg, it is easy to practice this one arm at a time or with both arms.  If you are getting your elbows into proper EVF position, you will notice the large muscle groups in the back will activate and provide more power (as opposed to pulling with arms & shoulder muscles).

Keep Fingertips to elbow as one straight line as you catch and pull through

Many swimmers’ strokes have a dropped elbow. This means is that instead of having a high elbow catch or early vertical forearm, they allow the elbow to drop down right at the catch. This creates a very ineffective, inefficient pull.  When letting your elbow drop down while using the SwimErg,  power output (watts displayed on the Power Meter)  will decrease significantly in comparison to using a high elbow pull.


Note the increased power (watts) resulting from a high elbow catch and pull using the Lats
Be sure fingertips to elbow form a straight line. Note the athlete above has bent his wrist, which is NOT ideal. Note the decreased power – watts

So one of the best ways to gain more power in your Freestyle stroke is to use the high elbow catch (or early vertical forearm).  This is one of the best ways to set up the framework for a stronger and better stroke.

Continue on to PART 2: Fingertip Orientation: High Elbow Catch

To view all 5 parts of the Faster Freestyle Swimming 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.