Four phases of the freestyle swim stroke

Four Phases of the Freestyle Swim Stroke

By Stefano Razeto (formable coach)

Swimming is simply the combination of movements by various muscle groups to achieve effective propulsion through the water. A weak muscle group can slow you down just as much as a strong muscle group with poor technique. Both scenarios may result in an overuse injury. So how do we move through water safely and efficiently? By learning to master the correct technique, one which feels the water and not one that fights it. 

So, in order to achieve maximum efficiency, we must practice and improve upon each component of our swim form. Today, we are going to focus on the most technical aspect of freestyle swimming: swim stroke. 

There are four phases of the freestyle swim stroke. The catch, the pull, the push and the recovery. Each requires focus and attention, but with practice, you’ll be swimming faster and more efficiently, while reducing injury along the way.

Phase 1: The Catch

The catch is the first phase of the stroke and it starts when your hand enters the water. Make sure to keep your fingers relaxed and slightly open, this way you will have more surface to catch water with. Maintain a slight downwards slope with your fingers, keeping them below your wrist, while your wrist stays slightly below your elbow.

the four phases of the swim stroke

Image courtesy of Federico Traverso @skullphoto_aka_surfskull

The four phases of the freestyle swim stroke

Image courtesy of Federico Traverso @skullphoto_aka_surfskull

This position requires a great deal of shoulder mobility and rotation from the hips. The following drills/exercises can help strengthen these muscle groups:

Phase 2: The Pull

The pull is the second phase of the stroke. 

Nailing the transition from an almost fully outstretched arm to a bent arm position is very important. After the entry and extension phases of the stroke, begin to bend your elbow, creating pressure against your hand and forearm (thus creating the greatest surface area possible).

It's important to maintain a high elbow position while your arm pulls towards your hip. This is the point where you are propelling yourself forwards. Keep your hand in line with your shoulder and eventually, your arm will straighten out and your body will begin to rotate. Oftentimes when we pull, we think that the arms are solely getting the job done, but this is false. Imagine a canoer wanting to get full speed just by paddling with the arms. They will move forwards, but the efficiency level of every paddle would be quite low. Now imagine paddling using the torso, the power generated will increase significantly enhancing the efficiency of every paddle, hence making them much faster. This is the same principle when we swim freestyle in the water. Imagine you are pulling just as you would do when canoeing. Use the torso to generate power, this will facilitate the pull phase.

The four phases of the freestyle swim stroke

Image courtesy of Federico Traverso @skullphoto_aka_surfskull

The primary muscles used for the freestyle pull are your lats. Here are a few strength exercises you can do to strengthen your lats and supporting back muscles.

Phase 3: The Push

The push phase starts when your hand passes the line of your chest. During this phase, you will begin to rotate your body in the direction of your stroke arm and push past your hip until your hand exits the water. 

The four phases of the freestyle swim stroke

Image courtesy of Federico Traverso @skullphoto_aka_surfskull

Focus on pushing your hand back towards your hip before lifting your arm out for the recovery phase. Don’t cut your stroke short and miss out on power generated during this latter part of the stroke. In order to remember this, try to accelerate the force generated as you progress through the pull. Meaning the force should be the highest as the hand exits by the hip.

The pull and push phase of your stroke is what propels you forward, and as such, it is a critical part of your swim stroke. It's important to nail this part of your stroke, so here are a few drills you can do to hone your form. 

Phase 4: The Recovery

The recovery is the final phase of the stroke and it involves bringing your arm back to the starting position and preparing for the next catch. Keep your body streamlined to minimize drag during this phase.

As the name implies, you should use this time to recover. The movement should be natural and relaxed as you swing your arm and hand forward. But not lazy. Try to maintain a high elbow recovery where the tip of your elbow points towards the ceiling or sky and your elbow creates a 90 degree angle. As previously mentioned, using the torso during the pull phase will help you rotate the shoulders facilitating the recovery process in the stroke. A correct recovery phase ensures that your hand is in the correct position as it moves into the catch phase. 

The four phases of the freestyle swim stroke

Image courtesy of Federico Traverso @skullphoto_aka_surfskull

Here are a few things you can work on the next time you're in the water.

By understanding and mastering each of these phases, you can swim more efficiently making your workouts effective. Practice and repetition are key to improving your stroke, so don't be afraid to get in the pool and experiment with these drills. Remember this is just the structure of a correct pull, so as long as you are following these principles, feel free to play around with different techniques; everyone is built differently. With time and dedication, you'll be swimming like a pro in no time.


​​One of the best ways to improve upon your swim form is through a video form analysis. Check out my virtual form analysis packages here.

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