Training > Swim

5 freestyle swim drills to improve your propulsion and feel

The propulsive phase is a key area of the swim stroke that’s predominantly executed below the surface of the water. Here, with the help of our underwater photo sequences, you’ll gain a clearer picture of the specific movements.

Session 1: The front scull

This is a great drill for teaching you how to improve your feel for the water at the front of the stroke. This is a sculling action and not to be confused with the front part of the swim stroke.

Arms are extended forward and palms pointing outward [1]. This drill is performed with straight arms. Keeping your arms straight, sweep wide with your arms and allow the pitch of your hand to face outward at 45° [2]. The outsweep concludes just as your hands have gone past the width of your shoulders. Now change the pitch of your hands so they face inward at 45°; the insweep occurs again with straight arms. Your hands then return to the starting position and you repeat the sequence [3].

Breathing on this drill is simple – just lift your head to the front to take a breath in. Try to avoid breathing on every stroke; a good target would be to breathe every four to six sweep strokes.

Session 2: The mid scull

This is an unusual but effective drill because it illustrates how you can create propulsion by changing the pitch of your hand under your body. It also helps you to get a feel for the sweeping movements of your hands and arms.

The easiest way to explain this drill is to imagine your arms as windscreen wipers moving across an imaginary screen underneath your body. Your elbows are loosely fixed, and your forearms and the changing pitch of your hands generate the power [1]. At this point your hands are turned in toward the mid line and are drawing your arms inward [2]. The insweep momentum generated by your hands causes them to cross before beginning the outsweep. The movement is all performed on the same plain [3]. Your hands once again sweep outwards with the pitch of your hand facing out [4]. Breathe every four or five arm movements. A light leg kick helps with the rhythm of the movement. Fins are very useful.

Session 3: The back scull

This drill really makes you concentrate on the back part of the push phase of the stroke, and is an excellent way of gaining feel for the correct positioning of your hands and arms during this all-important phase.

Start with your hands under your chest and your elbows tucked in at your sides. The drive backward is initiated by the contraction of the tricep muscles [1]. Straighten and extend your arms fully [2] before returning them to the start
position under your chest.

Session 4: The underwater catch drill

The catch is the all-important point at which you gain hold of the water at the front end of the stroke; if you rush this area you’ll be swimming at half power. 

The catch is about setting the lever and stability of your leading arm. This is a great follow-on from the first three drills, but will need practice because it needs to be accurate in order to be effective. Use fins for added benefit.

With one arm extended and the other remaining by your side, kick firmly and roll your body into the front end of the stroke while maintaining a streamlined position with the leading hand [1]. Press your leading hand outward and downward while establishing a slightly high elbow position. This is the ‘catch’ you’re looking for [2]. You should feel water pressure building on the underside of your forearm and hand, and as a result you should feel a forward movement occur from this very simple
and short action.

No sooner than you have got a hold of the water, let it go and return to the front of the stroke to repeat this drill. The movement is a sculling action rather than a stroke and is akin to a short and narrow single arm breaststroke pull [3]. Now start the drill over again [4]. Make sure that you reach and roll into the catch position as explained in step 1. Remember: your body position needs to be streamlined and your head is down in the water.

Session 5: The single arm drill

This drill will tie all the previous drills together and will allow you to practise the complete propulsive phase on one side of the stroke. The idea is to isolate the opposite hand with the use of a small float and keep the arm in a fixed extended position while the other arm practises the stroke cycle.

While maintaining a strong even leg action, feed the recovering arm into the water alongside the extended arm [1]. Remember to maintain a low head position. You should be rolling into the stroke as your hand extends under the surface alongside the float. Press downward and outward with your leading hand – you’re just about to enter the catch position, the point at which you gain purchase on the water [2]. Remember to maintain a high elbow as you start the pull phase.

This is the beginning of the push phase [3]. You can see the body starting to rotate, and the exhalation phase of the breathing cycle is about to begin. As the push phase is executed, it’s vital to keep the opposite arm nice and straight so that you maintain a streamlined body position. (The float will help you to achieve this.) Extend fully at the end of the push phase and rotate your body to the side to begin the inhalation phase of the stroke [4]. You should avoid a pause at the end of the stroke because the completion of the push phase is continuous with the start of the arm recovery. You can see how this drill helps to maintain horizontal alignment of the body. Hand, shoulders, head and hips are in close alignment to each other, ensuring that the streamlined position of the stroke is maintained.

Improved balance and the arm recovery adds a great deal to the momentum, rhythm and propulsion of the stroke, so that’s what we’ll look at overleaf. Balance keeps you streamlined, while the recovery drills put the body, elbow and hand into the correct position to maximise forward propulsion


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