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Cardio Series: Swimming - The Freestyle!

Most swimmers have learned some form of freestyle. But not many can appear to move down the pool as effortlessly as a world record holder ...

This is probably the most common stroke swam. It's the basic stoke they taught us in swimming lessons when we were 5-years old. It's also known as the "crawl," "front crawl," etc. Assuming that most people already know how to swim the freestyle, it would be a waste for me to just sit here blabbering on about how you swim it. So I thought I would just give you tips, drills and technique information so you'll be able to swim it better.

Freestyle Drills To Improve Technique

Swimming drills are specific movements, done repetitively, to get your technique "in the groove." They are generally included in all workouts. Most coaches feel that you can never do enough technique work. You should include some in your workouts, too.

Most swimmers have learned some form of freestyle. Not many can appear to move down the pool as effortlessly as a world record holder, but there are ways to move yourself closer to their form; refine your technique with drills.

This list of drills is far from complete. If you are an experienced swimmer, you may know these drills by different names, perform them somewhat differently, or know many more.

Important key to freestyle: you spend most of your time on your edge or side, not on your belly!

Imitate a sharp knife, on the edge of the blade, not a big soup spoon. Good freestyle, both swimming and drilling, requires you to rotate or roll your body along your "long-axis" or spine.

You should also try to take breaths on alternate sides to help promote this good body roll. In these descriptions, if an arm is called the "front arm" it refers to the arm pointing to where you are headed. That side or edge of your body (shoulder to hip) is generally oriented toward the bottom of the pool, like the keel of a boat. The opposite edge (shoulder to hip) is aimed more "up" toward the ceiling (or the sky if you are lucky enough to swim outdoors) like a shark fin.

Sit Upright On A Chair Or Stool

    Reach out with one hand as if to grab the railing on that side and pull yourself forward. As you pull, reach forward with the other hand and grasp the other railing. Do this several times, as if you were pulling yourself along between the two railings with alternating arms. Stand up and do the same thing ... reach, pull, reach, pull.

    Do you feel how much more relaxed, smooth and powerful this motion feels when you get your hips into it? You aren't just pulling with your arms any more. Your whole torso is involved - hips, back and abdomen. Notice how much longer each pull is - you can reach out and push back farther on each side. This is what we're trying to accomplish with freestyle: the same easy, relaxed power.

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    To isolate one arm, to practice a long stroke and a long body position. Swim like regular freestyle, except one arm is stationary, always extended forward (front arm), pointing toward the destination, while the other arm performs the stroke (working arm). When the working arm moves forward and "catches-up" with the stationary arm, they change places.

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3/4 Catch-Up

    Just like full catch-up, except the stationary (front) arm begins to work or move before the other arm fully "catches-up" - it begins to move after the working arm is about 3/4 of the way through a full arm motion.

3/4 Catch-Up
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Catch-up With A Board:

    Just like regular catch-up, only your front hand is holding a kickboard; as the arms trade places, they hand off the board to each other. You can substitute a pencil - or anything else that won't make you sink.

Catch-up With A Board
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Fingertip Drag:

    To promote a high elbow recovery and to make you aware of your hand position during recovery. Swim like regular freestyle, except your fingertips never leave the water as your arm moves forward during the stroke recovery.

    You drag your fingers forward through the water, slightly off to the side of your body, focusing on good body roll and keeping your elbows pointed up. Change how much of your hand stays in the water: fingertips, hand, wrist, even your whole forearm.

Fingertip Drag
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10/10 (simple):

    To promote good body roll and head alignment (when you add breathing - see the next drill). This looks like regular freestyle in slow-motion. One arm is extended forward, pointing toward your destination (front hand).

    The other is backward, pointing toward where you just left (back hand), with the arm resting against the edge of your body. You should be on your side, with the back hand side of your body up, the front hand side of your body down (toward the bottom of the pool).

    Your ear should be against your front hand shoulder, chin in line with your chest, eyes sideways (or even up a bit), mouth out of the water (so you can breath). Take 10 kicks, then stroke, so your body rolls and your hands switch places.

    The front hand takes a stroke underwater and finishes against your side, becoming the back hand. The back hand recovers over the surface of the water, becoming the front hand.

    Your head switches, rotating with your body (rolling down into the water and then up on the other side), and you continue, taking 10 more kicks, then everything switches again. When you have this drill figured out, move onto the next step, adding breathing (see the next drill).

10/10 (Simple)
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10/10 (add breathing):

    Just like regular 10/10 but you change your head alignment to mimic a relatively normal swimming position for freestyle. You look where you are going! Place your head so your cheek is against your front hand shoulder, eyes sighting down your front arm toward your destination.

    You need to roll your head to breath, then reestablish its position looking forward along the front arm. The breath should be taken away from the recovering arm (the one that is changing from back to front) just as that hand goes in the water; as your body rolls, roll your head with it.

    As you get better at this drill, play with decreasing the number of kicks taken while on each side of your body until you can move smoothly from the slow-motion drill (10/10) into regular speed freestyle (3/3 for a "6-beat" kicker)

10/10 (Add Breathing)
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    To promote "feel" for the water. Swim like regular freestyle, except you hold either one or both of your hands in a fist. Vary the pattern and the number of strokes that you are "fisted."

    When you unclench your hand, you should notice a difference in pressure on your hand - use this feeling to keep your hand holding water as you move through your pull pattern.

    When you are clenched, you should also try to press on the water with the inside (palm side) of your forearm - think of the lower arm, from elbow to wrist, as an extension of your hand. And don't forget body roll!

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    To focus on one arm at a time. Swim like regular freestyle, except only one arm is moving. The other arm is stationary, either forward (front hand) or backward, against your side (back hand).

    The moving hand takes a series of strokes, each arm performing a set number of pulls before they switch roles. Practice this drill with the stationary arm in both positions. When your stationary arm is on your side, breathe toward that side (away from the moving arm).

    When your stationary arm is forward, breath away from it (toward the arm doing the work). Again, time the breathing so as your body rolls, your head rolls with it for a breath, then your head should return to its forward alignment.

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Side Kick:

    Throw away your kickboard and learn to kick on your side. Extend your bottom arm forward, keeping the top arm at your side. Kick the length of the pool, then change sides for the return lap.

    You may find one side easier than the other. If you normally breathe on one side only, ask yourself if the difficulty you are having is related to breathing (you sink every time you take a breath) or if it's related to rolling your hips (your legs feel all tangled up and you can't stay balanced).

Side Kick
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Six-Count Kick:

    Count to six as you kick on your side, then take one stroke, changing arms as you roll onto the other side and extend the other arm in front. Count to six again, stroke and change sides. Make sure your hips don't "get stuck" as you change sides. The roll should be quick and smooth - a "snap" - as you go from side to side.

Six-Count Kick
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One-Arm Freestyle:

    Start out kicking on your side, as in the last drill. The extended arm -the "gliding" arm - stays in front. Bring your other arm - the "stroking" arm - forward, rolling onto your stomach to take a stroke.

    Use the big muscles of your hips, back and sides as you stroke, finishing on your side again, with your hand by your thigh. Remember, the gliding hand stays in front. (For comparison, try 1-arm freestyle lying flat in the water. See how isolated your arm is, as if you're pulling with your shoulder and arm only. Feel the power and momentum as you roll.)

One-Arm Freestyle
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Three & Three:

    Begin with three strokes of one-arm free on one side, then three strokes on the other. Snap your hips onto the other side as you change arms.

Three & Three
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Ice Skater:

    In normal freestyle, one hand enters the water before the other hand has finished the previous stroke. This is called "overlap". This drill looks almost like regular freestyle, except there is little or no overlap. As your hand enters the water, press forward and glide a bit before catching the water and starting your pull.

    Don't actually stop your arms, as you were for the 6-count kick; keep the motion continuous. Just exaggerate the gliding phase of your entry a little more. Think of the ice skater who pushes off the ice and glides along on one foot.

    The momentum for that glide came from the back foot, the one that dug into the ice and pushed off Imagine the same motion when you swim. Use the finish of each stroke to launch yourself into the next glide.

    Making a powerful, accelerated motion with one hand while the other is trying to be smooth and relaxed may seem awkward at first, but that's one of the secrets of fast, efficient freestyle.

    Apply power when you need to, and relax the rest of the time. Be sure to roll your hips as well as your shoulders and pull with the large muscles of your back and sides.

    The ice skater drill works particularly well when you feel yourself getting tired and sloppy in a rough workout or a long swim. Reach forward. Glide. Roll. Throw the water back to your feet. Swim from your hips.

Ice Skater
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There are plenty of variations for all of these drills, and many more that are not listed. You can also combine drills to work on several skills at once, or to add even more emphasis to a single element. Experiment with these drills and develop some of your own. Always work to improve your technique. Good luck!