How to pull straight and effectively though the water

A straight-arm pull is now considered the fastest way to swim freestyle, but triathletes struggle to make it work. Here Andrew Sheaff explains the real reason you can’t pull straight and how to fix it

Senior Swimmer

Many triathletes struggle with their arm pulls in the water. While a back-and-forth S-shaped pulling pattern used to be the model technique, pulling straight back is now considered the best way to swim fast freestyle.


It’s actually a simpler skill, yet many triathletes struggle to make it happen, even if they’re trying to fix it! It seems like that no matter what they try to do, their hands keep sliding back and forth.

Unfortunately, using more focus and more discipline isn’t really going to solve the problem. That’s because it’s not a pulling problem, it’s a balance problem.

When you’re swimming, you’re suspended in a fluid without anything solid to grasp onto. There’s no point of stability. If you can’t find stability in the water, you’re going to do whatever you can find that stability.

That includes using your arms to find stability, even if you want to use them to pull! When your arms are sliding back and forth, they’re acting to keep you stable in the water.

If you want to pull straight and pull effectively, you must learn how to find stability without using your arms.

How to pull straight and effectively though the water

1. Get stable

The first step to straightening out your arm pull is to learn to find stability in the water. There are two components to this skill.

The first is that you must be able to feel your lungs supporting you in the water. Your lungs are your ultimate source of stability, and you need to be able to feel them first. This exercise below is great for feeling this support.

Once you can feel the support of your lungs, you need to learn to create leverage over your lungs so that you can establish stability. You can perform this next exercise below while floating…

…Or you can perform this exercise while swimming actively:

With stability established, you’ll be much more effective at pulling straight back.

2. Watch out for your breathing

Once you have your stability set, there’s one more obstacle to overcome – you need to make sure you maintain that stability when you breathe.

A lot of triathletes will lift their head and pull it to the side when they breathe, which almost guarantees a loss of stability. Your arms are going to compensate and that means your arms are going to be out of control when you pull.

To address the issue, my favourite exercise is paddle cap freestyle because it lets you know instantly whether you’re pulling your head out of alignment:

You can also try stroke and roll:

3. Work on your pull

Once you’ve found some stability and you’ve learned how to maintain that stability when breathing, then it’s time to start working on pulling straight back.

My favourite exercise for starting that progression is power pulls with a buoy:

You can focus on pulling straight back without worrying about anything else.

Start working on your stability, start working on your breathing, and lock your pull in. You’ll be pulling straight back and swimming faster before you know it!


Top image: Getty Images