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  • Writer's pictureScott Wrigley

Master the Five Phases of the Freestyle Stroke

Understand and master the five phases to increase efficiency and speed in the water.

By Scott Wrigley, MSc, CSCS, CPT, FNS, PN1, USAT Level 1 Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, US Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach

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Across all sports, whether endurance-based, such as swimming, cycling, and running, strength-based such as powerlifting and bodybuilding, or team sports, technique is the foundation upon which athletic success and longevity are built.

Training the proper technique for a movement pattern places the muscles and joints in an optimal position to produce force (length-tension relationship), thereby enhancing athletic performance as the technique is mastered. Additionally, emphasizing proper technique puts appropriate stress on the muscles, connective tissue, and joints about which a movement occurs, decreasing the risk for injury.

Swimming is a highly technical sport. Improving your technique can make you more efficient and faster. Research shows that swimmers with better technical skills have a lower energy cost of swimming (swimming economy) and can reach higher speeds in the water (1,2).

In freestyle swimming, the proper technique involves understanding and drilling five phases of the stroke: entry, catch, pull, push/exit, and recovery. Each phase is detailed further below.

The Five Phases of the Freestyle Stroke

Entry Phase

The hand should enter approximately halfway between the head and the point of full extension. At full extension, the body should be rotated on the side of the extended arm with the hand roughly 6 inches below the water. Targeting a hand position of approximately 6-inches below the waterline places less stress on the shoulder joint. Additionally, this hand position allows the catch phase to start sooner, helping the athlete maintain a higher stroke cadence.

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Conversely, if the hand is closer to the water's surface at full extension, swimmers tend to push down before starting the catch. This wastes forward momentum by pushing the athlete up in the water instead of propelling the athlete forward. Furthermore, this position places more stress on the shoulder joint, increasing the chance of injury.

Catch Phase

When starting the catch, the shoulder should be close to the head. Focus on achieving a high and wide elbow as the shoulder joint rotates to drop the forearm so that the hand points directly down to the bottom of the pool. At the end of the catch phase, the forearm and hand should be parallel to the pool's walls and perpendicular to the bottom of the pool.

Pull Phase

Focus on maintaining a high and wide elbow with the hand under the center of mass. The shoulder should maintain a position close to the head. Stay on the side through the majority of the pull. Begin rotating on the back end of the pull just before the transition to the push phase.

Rotating too early in the pull phase emphasizes the deltoids, decreasing the amount of power the athlete can produce and putting more stress on the shoulder joint. Staying rotated on the side of the pulling arm increases latissimus dorsi engagement, allowing the athlete to create more power while maintaining a more streamlined position.

Push Phase

Utilize the core to drive a powerful rotation as the hand moves around the elbow to finish the propulsion phase of the stroke with a push. The push should finish at approximately the hip before raising the arm out of the water to start the recovery phase.

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Recovery Phase

The best way to approach the recovery phase is highly debated by both coaches and swimmers. There are two camps when it comes to the execution of the recovery phase: the high elbow recovery camp and the straight arm recovery camp. So, which is the ideal recovery technique? It depends.

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Both the high elbow recovery and straight arm recovery are valid and effective. You will see a distribution of high elbow and straight arm recovery styles among elite freestyle swimmers, with the straight arm recovery more common in short-course and the high elbow recovery more common in long-course as a generalization.

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So, what do I recommend for my athletes? Train both. There are pros to both recovery techniques. Bent arm recovery pros: more natural feel, quicker hand speed, decreased recovery time, decreased recovery effort, and better set-up for a high-elbow pull underwater (5). Straight-arm recovery pros: potential to produce more kinetic energy, increased transfer of energy to forward propulsion, increased force to pull against, and encourages adequate body rotation (5).

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Additionally, straight arm recovery is an ideal technique to avoid waves or other athletes in rough open water or when swimming in a pack. Many athletes also find that the straight arm technique is easier when wearing a wetsuit.

Unless you have a mobility issue or impingement with one recovery style, train both. When you actively train both styles of recovery you will have more tools in your toolbox and can reap the benefits of each when the situation calls for it.

The Takeaway

Proper technique is crucial for optimal athletic performance and injury prevention. In freestyle swimming, the proper technique involves understanding and drilling the five phases of the freestyle stroke: entry, catch, pull, push/exit, and recovery, as outlined above. Each phase can be broken down and improved by implementing drills into your pool time.


  1. Zamparo, P., Capelli, C. & Pendergast, D. "Energetics of swimming: a historical perspective. "Eur J Appl Physiol 111, 367–378 (2011).

  2. Zamparo, P., Cortesi, M. & Gatta, G. "The energy cost of swimming and its determinants." Eur J Appl Physiol 120, 41–66 (2020).

  3. Hall, Gary. “Straight Arm vs. Bent Arm Recovery Part I: Biomechanics.” Team USA, USA Triathlon. (2016).

  4. Hall, Gary. “Straight Arm vs. Bent Arm Recovery Part 2: Newtonian Physics.” Team USA, USA Triathlon. (2016).

  5. Hall, Gary. “Straight Arm vs. Bent Arm Recovery Part 2: Pros and Cons.” Team USA, USA Triathlon. (2016).

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