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Faster Freestyle Lesson #1: High Elbow Catch – Entry & Hand Placement

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

In Lesson 1 of our Faster Freestyle Swimming video series, coach Pipes explains Hand Placement and how to set up the high elbow catch for success.

Click on the video below to learn how.

Want to become a stronger, better, faster freestyle swimmer?

swimmer freestyle in pool reaching out

Better freestyle swimming occurs when applying power with the correct muscles and efficient stroke mechanics, such as a high elbow catch. Both can be improved when training out of the pool or open water.

To become an efficient, powerful swimmer, it’s best to understand the specific swim techniques that optimize propulsion and minimize drag in the water.

Hand entry position, a high elbow catch, and a long, taut body position affect the outcome. That’s only half of the equation.  Mindset, attitude, and a willingness to train consistently are also required to see results.

That’s why we’ve developed the Vasa Faster Freestyle course. It will help you understand the critical elements necessary for improving your swimming.  You’ll learn about the tools and the mindset needed for maintaining consistent swim training year-round, whether you can get to the water or not.  Becoming a stronger, better, faster swimmer requires consistent training to develop an efficient stroke that you can sustain with power.

What Makes a Powerful High Elbow Catch Swim Stroke?

Force application at the right time in your stroke and a taut, streamlined body will allow you to minimize drag to glide through the water efficiently.

To do that, however, it helps to understand the ideal stroke path, such as fingertip orientation, “paddle blade”, shoulder alignment, and overall body orientation. If one of those elements is off-kilter, the swimmer risks creating excess drag in the water, which reduces speed and efficiency.

To combat drag and create more power, you need to put the parts of your body in the correct positions. To begin, we often recommend that swimmers learn how to properly set up the stroke to perform what’s known as a High Elbow Catch (aka Early Vertical Forearm, also known as EVF). A high elbow catch creates a powerful and efficient pull in every swim stroke.

What Is the High Elbow Catch?

The high elbow catch swimming technique requires a vertically positioned “paddle blade” (a.k.a. fingertips, wrist, and forearm as on blade), with the elbow and upper arm slightly below shoulder level. Your elbow will be “aimed” to the side rather than down or back. Note that fingertips, hand, wrist, and forearm – acting as one unit together – must be straight without bending at the wrist. Think of this unit like a canoe paddle blade – one straight surface to pull through the water.

setting up the high elbow catch

A high elbow catch is ideal for all four swimming strokes – Freestyle, Butterfly, Breaststroke, and Backstroke.

This works well for two reasons. First, it maximizes the surface area used to pull against the water. Second, this position will allow you to access greater pulling power by engaging the larger, stronger muscles in the upper back and torso. It ensures that you get the most pulling output at the right phase of the stroke path while minimizing the amount of drag.

It also reduces the stress on the smaller muscles in the shoulders, arms, and biceps tendon, which fatigue faster and is more vulnerable to overuse injury.

Learning the high elbow catch position requires practice. The good news is that you can practice it in and out of the water to achieve the best results.

So what does the high elbow catch involve and look like exactly?

Let’s create a visual of the correct arm position at the catch. (see photos below) Imagine that you are about to do a pull-up. Reach your hands up as if to grip the pull-up bar, with the palms of your hands facing away and arms positioned just wider than shoulder width.

Next, with your arms still in that pull-up grab position, imagine a large box floating in space just in front of your face with the upper flat surface at your eye level.

Now move your arms from the pull-up grab position, bend them slightly at the elbows, and set your hands & forearms on that upper flat surface of the imaginary box in front of you. Keep the fingertips to forearms (“the paddle blade”) in a straight line as you rotate the arms forward at the shoulders.

setting up the high elbow catch

This motion creates the structure for a high elbow catch.

There are, of course, more things involved with perfecting this motion. It does help to have flexibility in the shoulders, and the position of the hands, fingertips, shoulders, and body during the rotation in Freestyle will also impact the effectiveness of the stroke.

To create a powerful catch and pull technique,  practice the high elbow catch with proper positioning. Too many adult-learned swimmers were mistakenly taught to enter the hand and arm and glide onto that side.

Correct High Elbow Catch and Pulling Technique

These elements will ensure your high elbow catch gives you the power you need.

#1:  Entry with extension

Your fingertips, hand & forearm orientation will impact the effectiveness of your catch and pull since you can use this to optimize the size and shape of the pulling surface. Fingertips should be outstretched and enter the water first, with the fingertips pointing forward. Note: avoid “the Claw” whereby the fingers are curved and gapped, hands cupped, or wrists bent and distorted. Those reduce the surface area needed to pull, thereby “leaking” your propulsive force. As you reach forward with a shoulder shift and slight body rotation, the fingers, hand, and wrist should be in an open and relaxed position. We will cover this in greater detail later on in the course.
setting up the high elbow catch

#2:  Catch & Pull

Once your “paddle blade” (fingertips-to-forearm) points toward the bottom of the pool, use a high elbow catch to begin a powerful pull.  The large muscles in your back and shoulder will be set up to accelerate your pull with power.  With your bodyline long and taut from head to toe, press the water back toward the hips rather than pushing downward. This action will activate the large muscles of the back to provide lift and propulsion without wearing out the minor shoulder and arm muscles. Note: pushing downward lifts your front up, drives your legs down, and creates a lot of drag – so avoid that!

At the catch, it’s crucial to pull through quickly and straight back with acceleration toward the finish of the stroke. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck using the dreaded “mono-speed pull,” – which is when the swimmer’s hand speed does not increase or accelerate from catch to finish. The “monospeed” phenomenon is very common in adult-learned swimmers.  To learn more about correcting this common limiter, see the video in this blog article.

setting up the high elbow catch

#3:  Finish, Exit, & Recovery 

Concentrate on pressing the water straight behind you with your “paddle blade”. Ideally, you will feel pressure on the wrist and forearm as you pull through the water.  If you feel more pressure at your fingertips, you have not set a high elbow catch.  Combined with a taut bodyline and well-timed rotation of the hips & torso, this will give you a long, efficient stroke that minimizes drag and prevents injury. We’ll be discussing this in the final lesson of the course.
setting up the high elbow catch

With all these elements combined, you will have a stronger, better, and more sustained power in your strokes.

Stay tuned for the next lesson to learn the most effective fingertip & hand orientation.


  • Be sure to practice the points made in this lesson at the pool and on land with a Vasa SwimErg, a Vasa Trainer, or Vasa Swim Cords.
  • Plan to select one of the focus points – Entry, Catch, Pull, Finish & Exit – and swim just 1 or 2 lengths of the pool while practicing that aspect of the stroke. Then do the next one.
  • We recommend using a pull buoy and a swimmers’ snorkel to remove the variables of kicking and side breathing so you can focus on performing the correct stroke path and powerful pull.

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

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