Do’s, Don’ts, and Drills for Every Part of the Freestyle Swim Stroke

Breaking your stroke into parts will help you identify where your weaknesses are and how you can quickly fix any inefficiencies.

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The Reach

Illustration: Oliver Baker

The reach is a tiny part of freestyle that occurs after the arm drops into the water and before the start of the stroke. It occurs in a fraction of a second but can make minutes of difference in your overall swim time. Adding a few inches of forward reach to each stroke will create a more streamlined effect, better body position for a strong catch and pull, further distance per stroke and reduce stroke count. Most importantly, by extending the lead arm forward for a moment longer, the opposite arm is able to finish a strong pull and exit the water at the thigh.


•  Relax your shoulders next to your chin
•  Point fingertips toward the other side of the pool
•  Keep arm/elbow/hand/fingers 4–6 inches under the surface
•  Extend your arm straight from the shoulder


•  Let your elbow drop below your hand
•  Slide your hand along the surface of the water
•  Reach your hand across your centerline before starting a stroke


Streamline off the wall. Keep your left arm extended while taking complete strokes with your right arm. Reach your right hand past your left before the catch. Focus on good rotation during each stroke. Swim a 25 with the right arm and then switch for the next 25. Repeat for 4×50.

Stick Drill
Use a 12-inch piece of PVC pipe, a half-inch in diameter. Hold the stick with both hands and push off the wall. Release your right hand, take a complete stroke, grasp the stick and repeat with the left. Keep hands near the edges to prevent crossing the centerline. Focus on reaching the stick toward the other side of the pool. Alternate stick drill with regular swimming for 8×50.

Swim Golf
This fun set will improve reach and efficiency in the water. A swim-golf score is the sum of total number of strokes and seconds you use to complete a 50. During a set of 6×50, descend stroke count and/or increase speed to produce the lowest possible score.

Tip: Try not to use underwater kicking to improve your score. The focus is on developing an efficient arm stroke.

Pull & Finish

Illustration: Oliver Baker

The most powerful part of each stroke is the underwater pull. Many triathletes are challenged in the water because they are not getting the maximum amount of forward propulsion with each pull. Incorrect arm movements under the water can steer you off course, cause shoulder pain and waste energy. An easy way to understand the correct movement is to imagine drawing a question mark on the bottom of the pool with your fingertips.


  • Relax your fingers underwater and allow a small gap to form between each. Similar to holding your hand out the car window to catch the air.
  • Finish each underwater stroke with your arm close to your body and your hand next to your thigh.
  • Utilize swim-specific exercises in the gym, such as pulls with resistance bands, to build stronger “pull” muscles.


  • Bend your wrist at the beginning of the underwater stroke. Keep your wrist strong and straight.
  • Let any part of your arm cross under the centerline of your body.
  • Flick your hand out of the water during the finish. Instead, lift your elbow right before your hand reaches the surface.

Step by Step

Catch the water by letting your elbow pop up at the beginning of each pull while your fingertips angle toward the bottom. Keep your wrist strong and unbending. This motion will naturally force your hand and arm to sweep outward, away from your centerline.

Pull your arm back by rolling your torso toward the arm anchored in the water. You will feel your lats, pecs and upper-back muscles engaged.

Finish each stroke by letting your arm naturally sweep back toward your body as you lose power in those large muscle groups. Your triceps will take over and push your forearm and hand toward your thigh. Do not push your hand out of the water.


Tennis Balls
Hold a ball in each hand and swim freestyle. By canceling the force on your palm, you can feel how important the rest of your arm is for creating propulsion.

Hand Paddles
Grasp the paddle upside down without using the straps and check that the top of the paddle extends past your wrist. When you swim freestyle, the paddle will prevent your wrist from bending as you catch the water.

Single Arm
Use fins to make this drill easier. Place one arm at your side and swim a lap only using the other arm. This will allow you to concentrate on the complete stroke. Watch your arm underwater to verify that it is maintaining the correct position.

Recovery & Entry

Illustration: Oliver Baker

The recovery phase of the freestyle stroke is aptly named because it is an effortless and relaxed movement. The priority of the recovery is to quickly and efficiently return the arm to a streamlined position in front of the body after exiting the water. After the underwater finish, lift the elbow and swing it forward. Relax most of your forearm until it is almost completely straight in front of the shoulder. Without pausing or slowing down, let everything drop into the water with fingertips pointing forward.


  • Have a high-elbow recovery with fingertips near the surface of the water.
  • Make this a quick and almost thoughtless motion for greatest efficiency.
  • Listen for a “plop” when your hand and arm drop into the water.


  • Try to lead with your hand. Instead, drive your elbow forward to start the movement to avoid shoulder pain.
  • Keep your hand near your body during recovery. Let it swing wide.
  • Gently set your hand in the water. Let your entire arm splash as it enters.


Fingertip Drag Drill
During the recovery portion of the stroke, keep your fingertips in the water. As you move your arm forward, drag your fingertips through the water. This will reinforce a high elbow and low fingertip recovery. The difference between this drill and actual swimming is 2 inches. During the drill, your fingertips are 1 inch below the surface. During regular swimming, your fingertips should be about 1 inch above the water.