One of the most misunderstood elements in swimming is the "high elbow." For most of my life that phrase has been spoken with the intent of the elbow remaining high during the swimmer's recovery, that is, when the swimmer's arm is out of the water. The listener also, more often than not, thinks of recovery when he hears "high elbow."
In fact, most really good swimmers I know don't give much of a hoot what you do with your arm when it's not in the water. High elbows are important, but not during recovery. They're important during the pull phase of the swim stroke. Why is this? Perhaps it's better just to forget the elbow for a moment. Let's consider what it is you're trying to accomplish when you swim, and then we'll return to the elbow and it'll make more sense.
I don't look at the swim stroke as an exercise in pushing water. When you consider what the best swimmers do, their "pulling surfaces" experience very little "slip" in the water. It's amost like climbing a rope, hand-over-hand. Once you "anchor" your hand onto the rope your job is to pull yourself up. Your hand doesn't move the rope. The rope stays put.
Rotate that paradigm 90 degrees, and imagine the rope is parallel to the ground. Now you're pulling yourself horizontally, and the rope is still stationary. That's pretty much what good swimming is like. You're really not moving the water, if you're a good swimmer. You've anchored your arms in the water, and you're pulling your body across or over your arms, with the water itself staying put.
Anchoring oneself to the water is not something every swimmer can do. First, how do you "set" this "anchor?" We'll get to that in a moment. But stipulating for the moment that you're able to do so, let's go back to the image of the rope climber. Imagine the strength required to climb hand-over-hand, without using your legs. That would take immense strength, and that's the problem you "buy" when you're able to grab and hold a lot of water. Now you must pull yourself across it. In other words, it's not enough to have good swim form. You've got to have the strength to use it.
I broach this issue in an article I wrote a couple of years ago called, The High cost of good form. If I was able to stick a USB cable into your ear and instantly upload good swim technique into your brain, yes, you'd go faster. But you'd also be discouraged by your fatigue level. Good form must be nurtured, and the strength required to use it takes time to develop. This is why I break my own swim workouts down into aerobic sets versus speed sets. In the former, my "leave interval" is more aggressive. In the latter, I give myself more rest, I swim a shorter interval, and I practice swimming with good form.
Now then, back to this concept of anchoring my no-slip pulling surface in the water. This is the purpose of that high elbow. In another recent article I steered you toward Grant Hackett's website, and the video links to his 2005 World Championship distance swims (even easier to see is the mpeg of Hackett a forum reader pointed us all to). Nobody executes the high elbow better than Hackett and the underwater shots of him easily illustrate that. But don't simply look at this as high elbow for the sake of high elbow. Try to see what it is he's doing. After the obligatory glide phase that follows the catch, Hackett establishes, or "sets," his pulling surface. Hackett applies his entire arm -- just about everything below his shoulder -- perpendicular to the water. This is why the arms of these good swimmers do not move in the water. They remain immobile because they represent a large surface area set against the water. The arms are locked onto the water, and only the body's streamlined "hull" moves. It travels right over the arm, just as the rope ciimber's body moves over his anchored arm.
The problem with the rope-climber analogy is that you don't climb a rope with a high elbow. So I needed a better image. I have thought about this motion over the years, and what it might be analogous to. The best I can come up with is swimming over wine casks. Imagine a whole sea of wine barrels (filled with a nice Spanish Rioja, preferably). Imagine them on their sides, with their ends perpendicular to the direction you're swimming. They're all fixed in place, rotating around spindles running through their centerlines, like counters on a huge abacus.
If you were to swim over these barrels, you'd have to eventually get your hand in front of the barrel, so as to push straight back, not allowing the barrel to spin on its axis. But the barrel, by virtue of its bulk and volume, requires you to keep a high elbow, that is, your arm must get itself around the top of the barrel. And then, when you do find yourself "over a barrel," so to speak, you can apply pressure directly backward on the barrel with your entire forearm.
For me, swimming over these barrels, one after another, is something I think about. My forearm "climbs over" these fat barrels with every swim stroke, and right when I finally get my forearm perpendicular to the barrel, that's when I commence pushing against the barrel (or the water) with all I've got.
As stated earlier, when you've got this much pulling surface applied to the water, you need some real strength in your pecs and especially your lats to make this work well. This is why I spend a certain amount of time on sets that specificallly enable me to hold my form. When you're just coming into good swim form, you'll need these form-specific sets, because you haven't built up the muscles necessary to hold this good form for long sets on short rest.
The high elbow isn't the "big secret" to fast swimming. It's one of many things world class swimmers do with ease, as second nature, that you and I struggle to achieve. There's the catch, the kick, breathing while keeping your body streamlined, and the "finish" of the stroke, (what you do with your hand from the chest to the thigh). And more. Further articles will explore these elements of swim technique.