A common problem and one not difficult to correct is the dropping elbow as lead arm extends forward. The hand scoops or rises to surface, elbow drops, torso begins to sink – leaving swimmer with no purchase, little leverage and sinking at the catch phase of the stoke.   Similar to an airplane losing lift and going into stall, the body is losing buoyancy and sinking.  The source of a dropping elbow is often misdiagnosed as “over gliding”.  “Over gliding” is an overloaded term identified with swimming at slower tempo or turnover.  Coach Todd E wrote an excellent post on the “Over Glider” which best describes this term.

Blaming a slower tempo  or “over gliding” as the cause of the dropping elbow and subsequent stall is misleading.  One using this diagnosis is mostly unaware of the root cause.  I’ve heard a quick remedy is just speed up turnover and the elbow magically stops dropping.  The dropping elbow may not be as noticeable at a faster turnover, faster tempo may help a little with sinking, unfortunately the problems are still there and now with greater frequency.

I believe most (but not all) coaches agree,  in order to improve, correct, and/or change your stroke – you have to swim slowly correctly.  I’m not sure when and where it became taboo to swim more slowly (and correctly), possibly just competing programs that identify something they believe is wrong in one program rather than discuss the merits of their swim program and (or) methods.  Terry describes swimming slowly best in a recent post: The Beauty of Effortless. The Skill of Slow, “… swimming more slowly isn’t the object. Rather it’s to improve at swimming with consummate ease and to explore your ability to slow particular aspects of the stroke, while maintaining overall flow and body control” .

The source of the swimmer’s dropping elbow at forward extension is primarily following:

1. Stacking shoulders on recovery  Over-rotating 90+ degrees causing imbalance, losing control, body is unstable sinks.

2. Lifting recovery elbow over the body   Contributing to #1 stacked shoulders, sinking, lifting the elbow over body causes shoulder impingement (shoulder gets stuck), forearm remains folded and/or recovery arm swings away from body

3. Recovery hand/forearm drifts to center and/or crosses in front of head   Momentum of swinging recovery arm causes hand/forearm to drift in narrow or crossover.  Hand and forearm scoops toward or lays flat on surface, elbow drops.

Swimmers that over-rotate and drop elbow at forward extension may have bit more or less of  1 – 3 above.  Other possible contributing factors such as incorrect kick timing (kicking on the wrong foot) or frantic bicycle kick will magnify the error too.

VIDEO: Select this link or image below to video demonstration of dropping elbow

 Swimmer over-rotated, unstable, sinking, elbow dropping

 Swimmer over-rotated, unstable, sinking, elbow dropping at forward extension


THE FIX:  Although simple steps, correcting errors will take time and focus, and of course slowing stroke down to imprint corrections:

1. Flatten rotation and swing elbow wide – stabilize balance, maintain buoyancy. Don’t lift elbow over torso.

2. Land recovery arm on wide shoulder width tracks, don’t let recovery arm sweep out and drift inside of tracks or cross in front of head.

3. Enter recovery arm deep spearing to 3 o’clock target, fingertips down, recovery hand remains below elbow throughout stroke cycle.

VIDEO: Select this link or the image below to video demonstration of correct elbow position


Swimmer balanced, stable, good rotation, head-spine aligned, lead arm anchored in front, recovery hand below elbow

For those who struggle with over-rotation, sinking body, and dropping elbow at catch phase of your stroke – you have some tips to get you stable, recovery arm on wide tracks and spearing deep to 3 o’clock target.  Just work on one focus at a time and rotate through each frequently (i.e. swing elbow wide, wide tracks, spear to deep target).  Initiating the wide swinging elbow focus by shrugging shoulder toward ear will get the recovery arm moving forward and reduce tendency to lift elbow over torso. 

Please feel free to ask any questions or drop suggestions in the comments.

Happy Swimming!

Stuart McDougal