Want To Improve Your Swimming? Follow These Steps

It’s no secret that swimming is a technique-intensive sport. Whether your goal is to develop a healthy, injury-free fitness routine or perform faster in races, good form is a fundamental prerequisite.

Giving advice without demonstrating in person is difficult. Below is my step-by-step process I follow with someone during their first lesson with me. If someone is an out-of-area client, I suggest they have someone video them and upload the links to YouTube so I can evaluate their form.

1.    Breathing

2.    Kick

3.    Body Balance Rotation

4.    Recovery

5.    Hand Entry

6.    Catch and pull

The first step is evaluating their breathing. They must be comfortable breathing before they can focus on body balance, which is needed before they learn swim mechanics. If they work on mechanics before they are breathing efficiently, they will be frustrated. If they can breathe, we move on to step 2.

If someone is having breathing issues typically they cannot swim more then 1-1.5 lengths before they are breathless. I have them use a kickboard and practice inhaling with their face above water and exhaling underwater. The key to breathing is a forceful exhale before inhale.

If someone cannot kick (they either show no forward progression or move backwards) we discuss kicking (pushing) from the quad and hip flexor. Once we’ve address any breathing and kicking issues, I evaluate body balance and rotation.  If they are dragging their legs on the bottom, if they are not rotating from left hip to right hip, on a few stroke drills to help correct that.


A common problem with most newbie swimmers is poorbody position, which can lead to legs sinking. We discuss pressing the weight of their body on their sternum and tucking their chin. This brings their legs closer to the surface of the water and produces a “downhill” swimming sensation. I often will demonstrate total immersion balance and kick on side drills.

Kick on side drill: This kick is done without a board, and fins are encouraged. Start off lying on your right side with your right arm extended above your head and your left arm at your side. Kick about six times; then initiate a stroke with the right arm and rotate to the other side.

With this drill, you are effectively freezing your body position after each stroke – one arm in extended entry position, the other arm in extended follow-through positionwhile continuing to kick. As you take a stroke to rotate to the other side, focus on gradually accelerating from the beginning to the end of that stroke. Finish with a nice snap of the hips as you roll the body to the side.

Another common theme among newbie swimmers is not rotating on the hip or side they don’t breathe on. Most often, they areone-side-dominant breathers. They consistently rotate on one side to breathe  and never fully rotate on the non-dominant side. I discuss the benefits of bilateral breathing, breathing on both left and right hips, and the value that provides with proper body balance and rotation. Basically, when your left fingertips enter the water, rotate on your left hip, when your right fingertips enter the water, rotate on your right hip, whether you are breathing on that stroke or not.

Once breathing, body balance and rotation are fine-tuned, I focus on the mechanics of freestyle. There are three main phases of the stroke: recovery, hand entry, and underwater catch/pull. I often see swimmers recovering with straight arms and entering the water with their palm and elbow at the same time. creating a straight-armed pull with no high-elbow catch. In the end high-elbow recovery sets them up for  a nice fingertip-angled entry when they rotate which,  in turn,  sets up a high-elbow catch and pull.

Recovery Phase

High-elbow recovery meansleading with your elbow and relaxing the phase of your stroke where your arm exits the water. I frequently remind swimmers to swim with their fingertips below their wrist and below their elbow, and to drag their fingertips along the surface of the water on the recovery.

Here are two keys drills I use to create a high-elbow recovery:

Thumbslide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fcoHbKagOc

Fingertip drag: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3ID1VtdLG0

Just as the same implies, fingertip drag is dragging your fingertips across the water and thumbslide is dragging your thumbs up the side of your body. Both drills create a narrow recovery with high elbow, arm close to your body.

Entry Phase

Entry phase means an angled, deep hand entry, which can help create a high elbow catch and pull phase. I often demonstrate fist and head-out-of-the-water drills to exaggerate the entry.

Fist drill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mi-4bsv6Psk

Head-out-of-the-water drill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2uUSEkX3v0

Just as the name implies, in the fist drill you close your hands into fists and swim. If you feel like you aren’t getting very far, remember to keep your elbow high during the “pull” phase of the stroke. Let your arm seek out the optimal position that grips the water and provides the most power. If you have a tendency to drop your elbow and just let your arm slip through the water rather than helping to pull you, this drill will provide the feedback you need to develop a better “feel” for proper arm positioning during your open-handed stroke.

Head-out-of-the-water drill is just as the name implies. Swim with your head out of the water, increase your arm recovery rate, and focus on anangled hand entry making surenot to reach and flatten your hand at entry.


Attention to body balance, rotation, high elbow recovery and hand entry will set you up to develop a stronger pull and power phase of the stroke. I will discuss that phase next time. If you make stroke drills an integral part of your training, you will be rewarded with fewer injuries and faster times.

Me swimming from above the water:



Me swimming, underwater view:



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