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Faster Freestyle Lesson #2: Fingertip Orientation & the High Elbow Catch

5 Steps to a Stronger, Better, Faster Freestyle [5-part series]

Lesson 2:  The CATCH – Fingertip Orientation & the High Elbow Catch: How to Get the Arm Into a Stronger Pulling Position

In Lesson 2 of our Faster Freestyle Swimming video series (below), coach Pipes explains more about Fingertip Orientation and achieving a high elbow catch.

Welcome back – Lesson 2!

open water swim race

In Lesson 1, we discussed the importance of the entry and hand placement for setting up a powerful, efficient Freestyle stroke.

The framework of that technique is the high elbow catch. When used correctly, it will allow you to access the power-generating muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and torso. You’ll also be able to press water in the right direction: behind your body instead of down at entry or up at the finish – both of which cause your body to “porpoise” up and down, creating too much drag.

Swimming with an efficient high elbow catch will propel you through the water with the least drag, giving you a stronger stroke without wasting energy.

In this lesson, we will discuss a fingertip orientation that positions the hand & forearm for the high elbow catch. The key to a great stroke is maintaining the right fingertip-to-elbow position.

What does Fingertip Orientation look like when done correctly?

Think of the fingertips, hand, and forearm acting together as a unit, one firm surface area, like a canoe paddle blade. Let’s refer to it as “the paddle blade”. This firm surface area is ideal for pulling with power, especially when connected to your torso and taut bodyline. Think of this sequence:

“Entry –> High Elbow Catch –> Accelerate the Pull –>Finish –>Exit the water –> Recovery.”

Remember the visual of the high elbow catch from the last lesson?

Start by reaching up with your arms and fingertips as if you were about to grab a pull-up bar. While keeping your fingertips-to-forearm “blade” in a straight line, rotate forward at the shoulders to set your forearms and hands on top of an imaginary box in front of you at eye level.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

Imagine drawing two lines from your forearms through your middle fingers, aimed toward the other side of the room before you. Those lines will be parallel if you’ve made this move correctly.

If those lines are angled inward, your forearms are not parallel, which is not ideal. In the water, that would translate to crossing midline. Additionally, if those lines angle outward, the “paddle blade” will pull too wide, which can put undue stress on the shoulders. Be sure to adjust if necessary.

The video below shows an ideal “catch” position from the entry:

Now, pay particular attention to how your fingertips are oriented. They should be pointing straight forward and aligned with your forearms. Notice if forearms are angled out (too wide) or angled inward (S-pull); neither is ideal.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

CORRECT: Fingertips & forearms should point at the bottom of the pool.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

INCORRECT – Fingertips are pointing IN too much & hand crosses the midline.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

INCORRECT – Fingertips are pointing OUT too much

When oriented correctly, the fingertips will be pointing toward the bottom of the pool. If you are swim training on a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer, be sure your fingers aim toward the floor at the catch. This position will engage the stronger muscles in your back, lats, and torso to generate more force with each pull, from catch to finish with each stroke.

Imagine “reaching over an imaginary physio ball with your “paddle blade”- shown below.

How and When to Accelerate Hand Speed in Swimming

It is worth repeating if the forearms and fingertips are pointed too much inward and cross midline or too far outward past shoulder width, the smaller, weaker and more vulnerable muscles of the shoulder & biceps will be tasked to do most of the pulling. Unfortunately, that will give you less powerful strokes and they fatigue faster, too.

Worse, the continuous improper positioning of the “paddle blade” has been shown to create or irritate a shoulder injury, premature muscle fatigue, and other issues that result in diminished performance or an impairment.

What Does the Hand & Wrist Entry Position look like when done correctly?

For freestyle swimming, the fingertips, hand, wrist, and forearm work as a unit (the blade) and remain in a relatively straight, yet relaxed, line. It’s almost as if the blade does a shallow dive as it enters the water, and the shoulder shifts forward while the torso rotates to that side.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

The palm faces down, and the hand, wrist & forearm, working as one straight unit, enter the water at about a 10-15 degree angle. Imagine your forearm is diving over a barrel or small physioball that is just below the surface. As your arm extends down and forward, the elbow stays high as you get into the catch with fingertips, hand & forearm pointing down toward the floor.

How to Improve your fingertip orientation and high elbow catch

If the elbow drops and the fingertips point inward and forward, it will cause an over-rotation to the shoulder rotator cuff, resulting in an inefficient catch and pull.  It can also increase the risk of shoulder and biceps tendon injury.

Correct fingertip, forearm orientation, and pulling with a high elbow catch will produce the most power because the large back and torso muscles will be engaged.

If you notice too much drag while you are in the water, or pain in your rotator cuff, shoulder or arms during training, reexamine your fingertip orientation to ensure that you are not producing excess drag. Seek out a qualified coach to observe your stroke and help you make corrections.

Coach instructs a swimmer pool side

Common Issues That Affect Proper Hand and Fingertip Positioning

Several issues can also lead to a less effective high elbow catch.

First, the space between your fingers relative to each other matters.

Finger spacing, for the majority of swimmers, spans approximately ⅛ inch (0.32 cm) apart for optimal propulsion. While this may seem too technical initially, the more you practice, the easier it will be to feel how your finger spacing affects power and speed.

Keeping fingers slightly apart will feel more natural and create a spread that will pull in more water, giving you more thrust. It is also useful to maintain a relaxed hand and fingers. They don’t need to be stiff and rigid on entry, and they naturally will get more rigid at the catch & pull.

Second, your thumb position and proximity also matter.

Many swimmers have what is sometimes called “Hitchhiker’s Thumb,” meaning that the thumb has a natural extension when the hand is in position.

But a Hitchhiker’s Thumb can lead to an inefficient catch, as “bubbles” can form between the thumb and hand.

Therefore, it’s ideal to have your thumb in a neutral or slightly flexed position. Achieving that might require more focus at first, but eventually, your thumb position will become more natural.

Third, avoid having a “Claw hand”.

Avoid having a “Claw hand”, whereby the fingers are curved, the hand cupped, and the wrist is bent. Swimming using any of those characteristics will likely create more drag and diminish your propulsive force.

Fourth, avoid flexing the wrist.

For those athletes who have developed a habit of flexing at the wrist, it’s worth the effort to retrain this part of your stroke position, even if it means some exercises to strengthen that area.  If you have developed the habit of using a “Princess wave”, which means twisting at the wrist, that must also change! Any extra motion other than a straight insertion of the paddle blade into the water in front of your shoulder wastes energy and potentially creates more drag.

Finally, your bodyline will affect your hands and fingertips. Make your bodyline long and taut.

During the high elbow catch, your fingertips and forearm must point downward. Think of extending your forearm over a barrel or physioball to get into the right pulling position. As you pull back, your armpit will close shut.

Remember, “perfect practice makes perfect.”  Furthermore, if you’re not sure whether or not your hands and fingertips are in the right position during dryland training, have a coach or seasoned swimmer watch your technique while you practice ensuring that everything is in the proper place and that you’re setting yourself up for success.

In Lesson 3,  we will go into more detail about wrist positioning and how to use what coach Pipes calls “The Power of the Y” for a stronger stroke.

Be sure to practice the points in this lesson, either at the pool or while using a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer.

“The beauty of the Vasa SwimErg is its simplicity and adjustability. I am no expert, but we have crafted SwimErg workouts and routines for all abilities. Experiment and stay safe. Honestly, it is almost impossible to get it wrong. Pull in the wrong direction with the wrong musculature, and the bench barely slides, or the movement just feels wrong. Wrong pull on the Erg and power (watts) will be low. The feedback that would not be felt in the water is immediate, and changes to technique come so much easier.” – Daniel Bullock, Elite-level swim coach, and British Champion Open Water masters swimmer


  • Be sure to practice the points made in this lesson at the pool and with a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer.
  • For at least half the workout, focus on Fingertip orientation, especially for the Entry to Catch segment and Pull to Finish. Be sure to use the black line at the bottom of the pool to help you avoid crossing the midline.
  • If training on a Vasa on land, consider placing some masking tape lines on the floor under your stroke path, parallel to the monorail and about shoulder-width apart. Then use this to trace your fingertips along the line.
  • In the pool, consider using a pull buoy and swimmers’ snorkel, as this will eliminate the variables of kicking and side breathing so you can focus on correct arm strokes.

Until next time, happy swim training, and look for the next Lesson to arrive in your email inbox.

P.S. Get Vasa’s latest “how-to” training and technique information – join 12+ million athletes and coaches using Vasa content to get Stronger, Better, and Faster!