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Understanding the Freestyle Swim Stroke

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STG Swim advice

Activities such as running and cycling involve simple and instinctive muscle movement patterns. With these activities, speed and endurance all improve dramatically by simply training more or harder.
Swimming, on the other hand, is very much a technique-based sport and learning correct technique is more important for long term improvements than physical conditioning.

What determines swimming speed?

The speed at which you travel through the water whilst swimming freestyle is determined by:

  1. The amount of propulsive force you can generate by moving your arms through the water, kicking and;
  2. The amount we can reduce resistive force acting against us due to the density of the water.

Did you know that due to the density of water, even world class swimmers use only 9 percent of the total energy they expend during swimming to move forward?  The other 91 percent is used to over come resistance due to the density of the water.  Less accomplished swimmers may use as little as 2 percent of the total energy expended to move forward.

A good freestyle technique will ensure you maximise propulsive forces whilst minimizing resistive forces.

The Freestyle Stroke

Whilst the freestyle stroke should be seen as one fluent movement it is easier to teach correct technique by dividing the stroke into phases. Once all the individual phases have been mastered we can put them together to form one smooth, continuous motion.

We have broken the stroke into the following 5 phases:

  1. The placement and entry
  2. The downsweep
  3. The insweep
  4. The backsweep
  5. The recovery

Other important movements during the freestyle stroke include:

  • Body position
  • Body roll
  • Breathing
  • Kicking
  • Sculling


The Five Phases of the freestyle stroke

1. Key points relating to placement and entry

  • Your hand enters the water in line with the shoulder just before full extension and then glides forward underwater.
  • Your hand should be relaxed and your fingers are held together.
  • The entry of your hand in the water should be smooth and cause as little splash as possible to avoid trapping air bubbles.
  • Your fingers must enter the water before your elbow.
  • Your wrist and elbow should enter through the hole created by your fingers.
  • As the hand enters the water the shoulder dips or “rotates” downward.
  • Just prior to full extension your palm should turns to face outwards at a forty five degree angle.
  • At this point get a “feel” for the water by pressing downwards and outwards in a “SCULLING” motion. This movement is referred to as the “catch”.  At the completion of the catch your hand will be slightly outside the line of your body and you will proceed into the downsweep.

2. Key points relating to the downsweep

  • During the downsweep the arm takes on the effect of a lever.
  • During the downsweep the elbow remains high and the elbow is bent to about 45 degrees.
  • Continuous downward and backward pressure is exerted with the hand and forearm during the downsweep until your hand and elbow is in the same vertical plane as your shoulder.

3. Key points relating to the insweep

  • Following the downsweep the forearm and hand sweep inwards toward the midline of the body. Note the hand and arm never cross the midline.
  • The hand leads the pull and travels in an upward, inward and backwards direction.  To do this the elbow must gradually flex to 90 degrees.

4. Key points relating to the backsweep (or push)

  • Just before the hand reaches the naval the pulling action becomes a pushing action.
  • Your hand and arm move in an upward, outward and backward motion or skull.
  • Pressure should be maintained on the water all the way to the thigh.
  • Your hips should rotate as your hand passes by the thigh to enhance the power of your stroke.
  • The backsweep is the fastest and most powerful phase of the stroke.

5. Key points relating to the recovery

  • Upon completion of the backsweep your elbow should come out of the water and point upwards towards the sky.
  • Your forearm should be relaxed at this point, with your fingertips dangling slightly above the top of the water.
  • Your arm should then travel forward in line with shoulders until you are ready to start the hand entry phase of the stroke.

Other important movements during the freestyle stroke

1. Body Position

  • Your body should be as horizontal to the top of the water as possible.
  • Your head should be on the top of the water.
  • The water line should be between your hairline and the eyebrows.

2. Body Roll

  • The body continuously rolls in a fluent motion along the mid line through the entire stroke. Think of yourself as a rigid screw being twisted clockwise and anticlockwise as you are moving down the pool.
  • The roll is generated by a twist at the hips, not a dip of the shoulders.
  • Body roll assists the swimmer to generate extra power in the stroke.
  • Body roll also minimizes resistance through the water, makes breathing easier and enables your arms to recover correctly.

3. Breathing

  • The breathing process should involve a minimum of head turn because the roll of your body turns your face out of the water.
  • Breathing (taking a breath in) should occur during the backsweep phase of your stroke as you roll onto your side.
  • All air in the lungs should be expelled evenly, starting from when your face goes underwater to when you roll onto your side to breathe.
  • A smooth breathing pattern will help you to minimize jerky, energy wasting movements.
  • The head should create a bow wave, which will in turn create an area for the swimmer to breathe from.
  • Whilst it is recommended that you bilateral breathe, it is also important to find a breathing pattern which allows you to breathe the same as if you were running or riding. If you are out of breath whilst your head is underwater you are more likely to throw your head out of the water and lose your streamline swimming position.

4. Kicking

  • An effective kick provides both forward propulsion as well as reducing resistance in the water.
  • Your kick begins in the thigh & is whipped into your in turned toes with a minimum bend in the knees.
  • If you are kicking correctly, from above, it should look like you are “boiling” the surface of the water.
  • The majority of the kicking action is under water.
  • The kicking action should be no deeper than the depth of your body and no wider than the width of the body.

5. Sculling

  • Sculling is the key part to all strokes
  • Sculling is a change in hand direction used to propel the body forward and create lift.
  • The scull motion involves an inward and upward motion and a downward and outward motion. “Thumb up Thumb down”