How to establish an early vertical forearm and improve your swim pull

To improve your pull through the water you need a good 'paddle', and there's nothing better than your own forearm! Coach Andrew Sheaff explains…

USA's Michael Phelps takes part in the men's 4 x 200m freestyle relay final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

If you’ve been trying to improve your swim, you’ve likely heard about the concept of an early vertical forearm to improve your pull. If you haven’t, or you need a refresher, think about it this way.


Your arm is your paddle, and if you want to move forward, that paddle needs to be moving backward. How effective that paddle is will be determined by how big it is. If you just use your hand, it’s only going to be so big.

However, if you can use your entire forearm as part of your paddle, it’s going to be a lot bigger!

That’s the idea behind an early vertical forearm. To move water backwards with the forearm, the forearm needs to be vertical in the water. That way it faces backward, allowing you to move water backward.

The ‘early’ part is important because the sooner you can get the forearm in that position, the more water you can move backward. It’s a pretty simple idea, even if it’s difficult to make it happen.

The challenge with actually executing an early vertical forearm is that it’s a counterintuitive motion. It’s unlike anything you do in everyday life or in any other sport. It also doesn’t feel like you’d expect it to.

For all of these reasons, simply thinking about the skill doesn’t always result in much, if any, change. To make a change, you need to be forced to move differently. The following two exercises force you to use your forearm.

Upside-down paddles

Next time you use a pair of paddles, rather than wearing them as designed, hold them upside down, as indicated in the video. It doesn’t matter what type of paddles you use, the impact is the same. Here’s how it works.

By holding the paddle upside down, you’re locking the wrist in place. That means that where the hand goes the forearm is going to follow. Because the hand is going to be directed backward, you’ll have to learn to manipulate the forearm so that it’s in the same position.

You’re forced to use the hand and forearm as one unit, exactly what happens with an early vertical forearm. Find out more about the value of using upside-down paddles in the video below:

Closed-fist swimming

Here’s a similar strategy that works in slightly different way. Swim with your hands closed. What’s happening here is that by closing the hand, you can’t use the hand to move you forward. If you want to move forward, something else has to pick up the slack. What’s that something? Your forearm!

Because your primary pulling option isn’t available, you’ll have to learn how to use your forearm to move water backward. When you open your hand back up, you’ll feel the hand and the forearm working together.

If you’re looking for other options for changing your hand position, you can check out this next video to see other ways to create a similar impact with your pull.

How to swim using your forearm 

While both upside-down paddles and closed-fist swimming are effective at promoting an early vertical forearm, don’t feel like you have to choose one over the other. Use both!

You can incorporate either of these exercises during regular swimming or during any drills that you find beneficial. Simply perform a few repetitions with the paddles or your fist closed, then swim with normal hands.

You’ll find that you naturally begin to incorporate your forearm into your swimming.


Top image credit: Francois-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images