Freestyle Pull Technique

SWIM TIP of the day- Let’s talk freestyle pull. In the water things are different than on land. You may think that goes without saying but rationally thinking this through dry and what we do in the water when you add a level of fear, trepidation or anxiety or even just uncertainty are two different things. Often what happens is we want to do in the water what we know works for us on land. Which would be some degree of forward vertical movement with our feet near or touching the bottom.

I often see new swimmers trying to lead with their feet. In the water our arms do the lion share of the work. Our arms and hands lead and our feet and legs follow. Ultimately you want the water to carry you not drag you down, so the more horizontal you can get, the more your can lead with your arms and allow your legs to come up to the surface the better your swim will. be. If you are starting out it helps to completely straighten the arms, allowing no bend in the elbows (eventually we will add the bend back in) Bent elbows often lead to short fast strokes that look something like doggy paddle, with poor or no shoulder rotation (shoulder rotation is a good thing)   The longer your stroke, the more water you pull, the faster and more efficient your swim will be.

Ultimately at the top and bottom of your stroke you want one arm reaching for the front wall and the other reaching all the way to the back wall behind you. It also opens up more time to breath (and breathing is a good thing). I have seen a lot of short fast pulls in the water with both beginners and more intermediate swimmers. There are two common reasons behind this. First the swimmer doesn’t trust their float and subconsciously they believe that their arms and legs must move really fast or they will drown. This is not the case. The water will carry you if your head is in the right place and your body is in alignment.

Secondly, pulling and kicking at the same time can often feel like trying to rub your tummy and pat your head. Your kick should be short and fast right on the surface of the water, with minimal resistance and drag. We get about 6 kicks in per stroke. Your pull should be long and your hands dig into the water finding and maximizing resistance. Often swimmers will try to match tempos with their kick and pull. Shortening and speeding up their pull to match the rhythm of their legs.

By straightening the elbows for a time we can begin to correct both of these problems. It will lengthen out your pull, give you a nice long window to breath and help you to find resistance and create great shoulder rotation. Another thing that happens on land that people will often do in the water is we separate our fingers to grab at something, especially when we are fearful. It often takes a good deal of practice and a lot of reminders to get a swimmer to keep their fingers together in the water.

You want to scoop, not grab the water with your pull. Fingers should be together gently cupped to maximize resistance against the hands. Sometimes swimmers will slice the water because it feels easier. When you slice you will pull faster but this isn’t an efficient pull. You should feel work in your shoulders, arms and upper back. Feeling your muscles engaged means you are doing it right.  

Eventually when you have found length and shoulder rotation we add the bend back in. There are now two freestyle pulls taught in competitive swimming. That’s a longer conversation and I’ll save it for another day. As a coach I analyze a swimmer where they are at, injuries, age, whether they want to swim competitively or recreationally to help them pick the best pull for their swim etc.

If you are adding elbows consult a coach to help you pick your best pull. Ultimately everyone uses high bent elbows when their arms are out of the water. Be careful, when you bend fingers and elbows your wrists often want to get in on the action. Wrists should always be straight. Ultimately the goal of the pull is long, efficient pulls in the water. Keep lengthening, your swim will get smoother, faster and more efficient!

Let us know how these tips worked for you! Happy swimming!

(Featured photo from wpaquatics.org)

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