The best drills for perfecting your freestyle

Updated: Mar 18, 2021


Believe it or not, even Olympic level swimmers are constantly working on perfecting their technique after decades of swimming. There is always a coach on pool deck keeping an eagle eye on technique, which will always be more important than fitness or times.


Getting your technique right does not happen overnight. It takes patience and persistence. When it finally clicks together, not only will it bring you improved speed, endurance and sustainability ... but it also helps prevent soreness and injuries.


Firstly, let's take a look at the most frequent technique issues seen amongst beginner, intermediate and advanced swimmers before dissecting the best drills to overcome them.

Want to see perfect freestyle? We recommend watching Ian Thorpe's technique on YouTube!

The most common technique errors in freestyle


1) Wrong underwater catch

This is the most frequent issue. Around 90% of casual swimmers will pull with straight arms under their body. Not only does this place a huge amount of pressure on the shoulders, but it's actually weaker and catches less water than a bent elbow catch.


I've worked with hundreds of swimmers over the years as a coach, through injury rehabilitation and as an exercise scientist. Every swimmer who pulled with a straight arm reported shoulder, chest and neck soreness after sessions. Over long periods of time, this leads to shoulder bursitis, tendonitis and in some cases even dislocations and surgeries.


Why? It's because the deltoids, trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles along with your shoulder joint are doing most of the work. Over a long period of time, the shoulders will implode.


How do you correct this? Simple, a bent elbow catch that moves around the body. Not only does this use many more muscles such as the forearms and triceps, but it's also stronger, catches more water, is more sustainable and keeps you flatter in the water.


If you can imagine a line splitting your body in half from head to toe, your arms never want to cross over this line at any point in freestyle. If they cross over, this means you will 'snake' swim around 51-52 metres per lap in a 50 metre pool. Ideally, you want to catch the water and move your arms down the side of your body, not underneath it.

An example of straight arm catch and bent elbow catch

2) Lifting the head too high when breathing

This wastes a huge amount of energy. If there is a large gap between your head and shoulder when breathing, this will also cause your hips and legs to drop slightly. Ideally, you want to keep your ear resting on your arm as it extends out in front of you before pulling through the water with a bent elbow.


This ensures you stay flat and efficient through the water when breathing. The only movement of your head during freestyle should be small rotations to the side for a quick breath, not lifting upwards.


When your hand enters the water, avoid diving it down straight into your underwater catch as this will cause you to lose out on catching more water. It will also create a gap between your head and shoulder, leading to a lifting motion of your head and drop of the hips when breathing.


3) Not enough hip and shoulder rotation

Why does more rotation benefit your freestyle? Hold your arm straight out in front of your body. Now rotate the same side of your body as your lifted arm downwards and bring your opposite shoulder around towards your head. Your outstretched hand will move forwards an extra 10-15cm. Rotate like this when swimming and you'll gain that extra distance with every stroke.


The more you rotate laterally on to your side with each stroke, the more water you can also catch underwater with each arm. Without much hip and shoulder rotation, your arms and shoulders will also become sore over time.


As one arm enters the water, the opposite shoulder should rotate out of the water. As the left arm enters the water, the right shoulder and hip should break rotate to the surface. When the right arm enters the water, the left shoulder and hip should rotate to the surface.

Michael Phelps kept his head still while rotating his hips and shoulders

4) Hips and legs sinking

The secret to smooth, consistent and easy swimming is having your hips and feet high on the water surface. The moment your hips and feet lag downwards behind you, the more pressure your shoulders will come under to pull you forwards. Breathing then becomes a difficult matter of lifting your head upwards for air, rather than simply rotating the head sideways.


There are three main reasons behind low hips and feet in the water. The first is a weak underwater catch, caused by a straight arm catch or pulling the arm under the body rather than around it. The second reason is not enough shoulder and hip rotation, while the third cause is from too much knee bend while kicking.


How do you fix this? Have a bent elbow catch that moves around the body, rotate the hips and shoulders as much as possible with each stroke and have a strong, yet slightly bent knee kicking downwards with a relatively relaxed and straight leg as it returns to the water surface.


Don't believe us? Next time you do freestyle kick with a kick board, start bending your knees as much as possible as they move up and down. Your hips will drop like a stone.


5) Not exhaling underwater before breathing

Do you frequently feel completely out of breath while swimming? You're not alone. Many swimmers struggle with this and it's mostly because they do not exhale underwater before breathing. Swimmers who hold their breath underwater will then have to quickly exhale and inhale within half a second when breathing.


This means your lungs shrink and expand very quickly and barely get in enough oxygen, hence why your body will be screaming for air as the carbon dioxide blood saturation level increases. Exhale the carbon dioxide gently underwater just before breathing, so you can fully inhale and supply your working muscles with as much oxygen as possible.

An example of exhaling underwater before breathing

Easy drills to improve your freestyle


The following drill videos below are easy ways to combat technique errors in freestyle. If you struggle to do these, feel free to use a pull buoy between your legs or wear a pair of fins. This will help keep your hips and legs higher in the water to make it easier.


We recommend attempting these drills in the order of the videos below as this will provide the best progression of correcting your freestyle. 1. Sculling drill is a great way to practice the bent elbow position and warm up the arms.


2. Lateral kick promotes hip and shoulder rotation while keeping your head on the shoulder.

3. Long Dog helps practice moving the arm around the body in the bent elbow position.


4. Board Skim provides buoyancy while practicing the correct bent elbow catch underwater.


5. Single Arm Freestyle helps practice the bent elbow catch with hip and shoulder rotation.


6. Finger Tip Drag promotes a high, relaxed elbow during the recovery stage of your stroke.


Need one on one tips from elite swimmers on your freestyle technique? You can book into a Stroke Development or Swim Fit session with Swimclan and our professional coaches will take a forensic look at your stroke!


Click here to explore session locations and times with Swimclan.

Furthermore, we wish to thank Liam Smith for lending his very soothing voice to our drills videos. Liam, a highly accomplished swimmer, is a voice artist and content creator passionate about history, movies and education. He uploads content to YouTube Channel on a weekly basis and you can see more from Liam at Agent Smith Voice Productions

#jointheclan #openwaterswimming #technique #freestyle

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