The real reason swim rotation matters and how to improve it

Get better at rotation in the water and it'll open up a whole range of movement to help you reach further and pull back harder. Andrew Sheaff explains…

Aerial view of male swimmer training in pool

Rotation is one of the fundamental skills of swimming, yet the core purpose of rotation is simple. It allows for ‘more’ range of motion in your shoulders.


Try recovering your arms up and out of the water without rotating your shoulders. You can’t do it because you can’t move your arm behind your body. But when you rotate, you can easily recover your arm.

If you don’t rotate when recovering your arms, you’ll end up dragging them through or just over the surface of the water. As I discussed in the article about ‘wiggling’, it’s these low recoveries that are often the culprit of a wiggling torso in the water.

More rotation and effective arm recoveries solves the problem. Beyond the impact on the recovery, more rotation allows you to get more out of each pull. You can reach slightly further and pull back slightly harder.

It’s an added bonus that comes along with much more effective arm recoveries.

How to improve your rotation in the swim

There are a lot of different exercises that can be used to improve your rotation. However, many of these drills are far removed from actual freestyle swimming.

The rhythm is very different, the range of motion of the rotation is very different, and the timing is very different. The problem with these exercises is they’re not helping you learn how to rotate to effectively recover the arms over the water.

I take a different approach. Rather than isolating and exaggerating the rotation, I like to simplify the stroke so that it’s easier to feel and implement effective rotation.

Good rotation is all about timing. It’s about rotating in the right amounts so that you can recover the arms smoothly.

To learn to do so, I use the exercise Underwater Recovery.

It forces you to rotate in the right amount at the right time to get the arm forward. Once you get the timing down, recovering the arms over the water is simple.

Step-by-step guide to effective recovery and rotation 

  • Reach straight forward with the recovering arm
  • Rotate forward as you reach forward
  • Pull straight back with the pulling
  • Rotate backward as you pull back
  • Perform these two actions in opposition; when one goes forward the other goes back

It’s a lot like a piston – drive forward on one side and backwards on the other side. You’ll naturally perform the rotation at the right time, syncing up the arms and the body.

Really focus on moving straight forward and straight back with the arms. Because the arms are being resisted underwater, you have to time everything correctly or it will feel like you’re not going anywhere. If it helps you use fins, do it.

Once you’ve made progress with Underwater Recovery, start adding in Over-Under Freestyle.

It helps smooth the transition to regular freestyle. When performing either exercise, add in some regular freestyle to test out your skills.


Top image credit: Getty Images