How to Improve Your Swim Stroke

By: Jamie Page Deaton
Kids cool off from the heat of the day in a swimming pool in Chicago, Ill.
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Everyone should know how to swim. It's a valuable and potentially lifesaving skill. Plus, there's just no better way to cool off on a hot day.

Swimming is a great leisure activity, but it's also a great workout. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that swimming is the third most popular sports activity in the United States. That's likely because a hard workout in your local pool's lap lane offers a number of benefits. When you swim, you're using your entire body -- as opposed to relying primarily on your legs, like in biking or running. Because swimmers have to control their breathing, swimming workouts can improve lung function, too. Swimming is also excellent for tightening and toning, especially your arms, back and shoulders. Finally, swimming is great exercise for people who, because of bad joints, pregnancy or other reasons, want to have a low-impact workout. In fact, because you're essentially weightless in the water, swimming is a no-impact workout. That saves your joints and can reduce your injury risk, as compared to exercises like running.


So, what's keeping more people from getting into the pool? One of the biggest barriers to an effective swim workout is technique. After all, if you decide to go for a run, there's not as much technique involved in getting a good workout. It's pretty much just left foot, right foot, left foot and so on. But in swimming, having good form and stroke technique can radically improve your performance and make the difference between a good and bad workout.

There are a number of ways to improve your swim stroke, but the most tested way is through stroke drills and practice. The added benefit of stroke drills is that they're a great workout as well. So while you're improving your stroke, you're still burning calories and getting all the other benefits of swimming, too.

Keep reading to learn more about how you can improve your swim stroke.


Freestyle Swim Stroke Tips

Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov (right), and Britain's Ross Davenport (left) swim a Men's 200m freestyle heat at the Swimming European Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on Aug. 10, 2010.
AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis

The most common stroke a lot of people who are swimming for fitness use is the freestyle, which is sometimes also called the front crawl. This stroke is popular because it's relatively fast, yet the level of effort it requires is sustainable -- so it's useful for building endurance. Other strokes, like the breaststroke or butterfly, are either slower or take too much effort for the average swimmer to maintain for a long workout.

There are other benefits to freestyle as well. It uses the full range of motion for both your arms and your legs. It also engages your core as you work to keep your body level in the water while switching arms from side to side. The freestyle is also a relatively simple stroke to learn -- once you've had a few tips.


In freestyle, most of your body will be just below the surface of the water. You'll want to position your head so that you're looking straight down. The water line should cut across your forehead.

To begin the stroke, start doing a scissor kick, with one leg going up and the other coming down. The motion should start from your hips and end with a little flutter from your lower leg. Don't lock your knees or ankles -- the motion should be fluid.

As you begin the kick, begin the arm movement as well. Reach forward with one arm. Try to avoid bringing it straight up out of the water. Instead, bring it forward with your elbow bent. This is called the recovery phase of the stroke. When your arm is extended in front of your head, slip (don't slap) your hand into the water and cup it. Pull back to your hip, (this is called the pull phase of the stroke) then start to bring the hand forward again. When one hand is entering the water in front of your head, the other should be exiting the water at your hip.

As your arm comes forward, turn your head to that side, look slightly behind you, and breathe. You shouldn't have to lift your head out of the water; turning your head will create a channel in the surface of the water around your mouth, allowing you to get some air. You can make your breathing time more efficient by exhaling while your face is in the water. Also, you don't have to take a breath with each stroke. Find a breathing pattern that works for you.

You want to keep all of your motions fluid and smooth. While some splashing is inevitable, keeping it to a minimum means that your stroke isn't to violent and you're keeping things smooth. Remember to keep your core engaged. As each arm goes forward, your torso should rotate slightly, raising that side. Your head, however, should remain still and shouldn't rotate, unless you're taking a breath.


Swim Stroke Arm Drills

Denmark's Lotte Friis swims a Women's 1500m freestyle heat at the European Swimming Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on Aug. 13, 2010.
AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis

There are a lot of drills you can do to improve your arm stroke as you swim. One of the easiest is a single arm pull. For this drill, start with both arms extended in front of your head. Perform your scissor kick, and slowly pull one of your arms back. Concentrate on rolling your trunk with the motion while maintaining your balance in the water. Pause with your hand on your hip before bringing the same arm forward. Pause again with your arm extended in front of you before you begin pulling back.

A variation on the single arm pull is the double arm pull. The motion is the same, but instead of doing one arm for a set distance, you alternate arms. You still need to keep the motion slow, concentrating on hand placement and trunk rotation. You can also do this drill with a pull buoy -- a flotation device that you pinch between your thighs so you don't have to worry about kicking.


The most efficient swimmers cover the maximum distance with each stroke. Try doing a single or double arm pull drill for one lap. Count each stroke you do. On your next lap, try to decrease the number of strokes you take without decreasing your time on each lap.

Another good drill is the fingertip drag drill. With this drill, you're still going to swim slowly and deliberately. As you bring your arm forward, drag your fingertips lightly in the water. This drill will help you get the proper elbow position for the recovery phase of the stroke, which in turn helps you learn the proper position for your hand's entry into the water.

Other freestyle arm drills involve playing with the rhythm of the stroke. Try doing two strokes on each arm before switching. Changing up how you do the stroke will not only keep your muscles engaged, but it will also force you to concentrate on your stroke, rather than just repetitively going through the motions.


Swim Stroke Kicking Drills

Competitors in the Triathlon Cup race start the swim leg in the 10th race of the international series in Sydney, Australia.
AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Of course, what your arms are doing is only half the story. There are a lot of drills you can do to improve your kick.

To improve and strengthen your kick, lie on your side, with your bottom arm extended above your head, and your head resting against your arm. Your bottom hand should be about eight inches (20.3 centimeters) below the surface of the water. You top arm should rest on your hip. Concentrating on pushing your bottom armpit toward the bottom of the pool; that will force you to push your hip up, and keep your core engaged. Perform your scissor kick on your side like this for a few laps, then switch.


You can also improve your kick by giving your arms a break. You can with rest your arms on a kickboard or extend them out in front of your head, turning your head occasionally to breath.

While swimming is mostly equipment-free, using flippers specifically designed for fitness swimming or swim training can improve your kick. The flippers will force you to keep your legs fluid and loose, and keep you from locking your knees and ankles.

Another drill you can do involves counting your kick. In these drills, each kick counts as a beat. In a six-beat drill, you'll want to perform six kicks for each arm stroke. As you kick, focus on rotating your trunk from your hips for each stroke. Like arm drills, you can improve your kick by playing with the rhythm. Try alternating kicking and stroking. Or, do two kicks, then a stroke. Breaking up your motions allows you to concentrate on each movement individually.


Swim Stroke Training Plan

A Chinese swimming coach watches his swimmers train from the pool deck in Perth, Australia.
AP Photo/Steve Holland

Almost any swimming coach will tell you that stroke drills are a key component to any swimming workout. This improves technique while also improving your strength and endurance. Whether you're swimming for fun, fitness or training for a triathalon, stroke improvement should be a key part of your plan.

Try to do at least some sort of stroke work each time you swim. Even if your workout for the day is primarily focused on sprints and training for a competition, you can still use stroke work to recover between sets. Plus, doing stoke work while you're tired will help keep your form from deteriorating when you're tired at the end of a race.


Beginning swimmers should do more stroke work than advanced swimmers -- though anyone can benefit from it. Concentrating on getting your stroke technique right when you're first starting out builds the proper muscle memory. If you're just starting to swim for fitness or for fun (or both) spend at least a third of each workout doing stroke work. Try the different drills and find the ones that work for you. It also helps to have someone else watch you swim and critique your stroke. As your stroke and fitness improve, you can do less stroke work in each workout, but it's something you should never give up. Even among world-class swimmers, stroke work is key, and there's always some way to improve your stroke.

For more information about swimming and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bayer, Jeff. "Swimming as a Total Body Workout." (Aug. 31, 2010) .html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Health Benefits of Water-Based Exercise." (Aug. 31, 2010)
  • Koskella, Kevin. "10 Steps to Improving Your Swim." (Aug. 31, 2010)
  • Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club. "Swimming Drills." (Aug. 31, 2010)
  • O'Brian, Kerry. "Free/Back Combo Drill." U.S. Masters Swimming. (Aug. 31, 2010)