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The Strokes Simplified I- Introduction

Technique gets complicated. Teaching technique gets more complicated. If swimmers of any age are to improve, they need to improve their skill sets in conjunction with their physical conditioning.

While technique can seem overwhelmingly complicated, and in some ways, it is. We need to find a way to conceptualize skill to aid in our efforts to teach it.

In this article series, I’d like to distill swimming down to its critical components, focusing on what matters, not what doesn’t. This process was started in the article, On Models and Principles.

I’d like to argue that swimming fast is simple. Effective swimming arises from the interaction of three different task requirements. Swimmers must learn to maximize propulsion, minimize resistance, and achieve both tasks in a rhythmic, coordinated manner.

While not easy to achieve, the underlying principles are quite simple. Although effective solutions to these tasks are somewhat particular to each stroke, there are many commonalities that arise due to consistent underlying requirements for fast swimming.

In this introduction, we’ll look at the common effective solutions and what they look like in action. In subsequent sections, we’ll examine the specific strokes and the skillsets that swimmers have gravitated toward over time.

Maximizing Propulsion

To optimize speed through the water, swimmers should strive to create as much effective propulsion as possible.

This can be accomplished as swimmers attempt to-

  • Maximize surface area with the propelling limb.

  • Maximize pressure on the propelling limb.

  • Optimize the duration that surface area and pressure on the propelling limb are maximized.

To accomplish all of these tasks, swimming technique has evolved toward a common solution for creating propulsion, with subtle differences between strokes and individuals.

To maximize surface area, the arm is position more or less vertically so maximal surface area can be directed backwards.

To maximize pressure on the water, the positions achieved allow for the utilization of the large muscles of the torso (the lats and pecs). This position is characterized by an ‘open armpit’. To maximize the duration that the surface area and pressure can be sustained, the shoulder, elbow, and wrist are manipulated in way that allows for the above positions to be sustained.

For more detailed information, please refer to the article The Common Threads of Successful Swimming Technique. The author outlines the specific biomechanical actions occurring throughout the propulsive phase of all swimming strokes, as well as the advantages these actions possess.

Resistance Minimization

Minimizing resistance is the second major task each swimmer must accomplish to maximize velocity through the water. The term ‘streamline’ is often used in reference to the position achieved while moving underwater with the arm enclosed around the head and the hands grasped. In reality, ‘streamline’ is occurring during every aspect of the stroke cycle, as the body becomes more and less streamline at every instant.

We must move out of this streamline to some extent to create propulsion with the arms and the legs. However, faster swimmers are able to do so in ways that minimize the impact on whole body streamline.

Below are some tasks swimmers should strive accomplish to minimize the amount of resistance they experience as they move through the water.

  • Ensure the torso is as straight as possible, maintaining alignment of the spine.

  • Minimize vertical deviations of the torso.

  • Minimize lateral deviations of the torso.

  • Minimize disruption of vertical and lateral integrity when breathing.

  • Minimize motion of the limbs outside of the frame of the torso.

  • Any of the above principles should be violated if doing so results in propulsion that is proportionally greater than the drag that is induced or creates the opportunity to breathe.

Due to the unique rules governing each stroke, each stroke has unique challenges in terms of maintaining a streamline position through the water. These unique challenges will be examined during the specific stroke sections.

Common positions to all strokes include achieving a fully straight spinal alignment during some point of stroke cycle with straight legs and one or both arms fully stretched above the head.

There is also a tendency of for the legs to sink relative to the head in all stroke. Horizontal alignment must be maintained by overcoming this tendency by leaning into the water with the head and lungs. An alternative, yet inefficient, solution is to compensate with the legs.

In freestyle and backstroke, this is a relatively static problem as the horizontal inclination does not change over the course of a stroke cycle. However, in breaststroke and butterfly, it is a dynamic problem. The head must come up to breathe in these strokes and horizontal must be re-established after each breath. This is also true of the need to recover the arms, which may occur in concert with the breath, or independently.

Problems can also arise in butterfly and breaststroke from loss of horizontal alignment due to excessive diving of the head and arms after recovering the breath or arms. This is the opposite problem described above.

Backstroke and freestyle share common challenges of having limbs that move in opposition. This can create problems with lateral alignment if the recovering limbs are excessively asymmetrical. Problems can also arise the further limbs move outside of the body. As an example, wide and low swinging arm recoveries can cause the hips to move from side to side.

Problematically, some of these movements are very subtle and hard to detect.

Coordination Optimization

While we may not always appreciate exactly what is happening, we have all witnessed how fast swimming always seems to be effortless. This effortless speed arises from exceptional stroke timing, rhythm, and coordination. Fast swimmers do the right thing at the right time.

Swimmers should strive to move in a way that maximizes movement economy so that the outcomes they achieve use as little energy as possible. They can do so through the following strategies-

  • Use momentum of the recovering arms to efficiently facilitate changes in position or maintenance of velocity.

  • Use momentum of the undulating torso to efficiently facilitate changes in position or maintenance of velocity.

  • Couple the recovering arms with the rotation or undulation of the body to create propulsion.

  • Appropriately time phases of propulsion with periods reduced resistance.

  • Appropriately time motion of the limbs relative to motion of the body.

  • Appropriately time motion of the limbs relative to same or opposite side limbs.

  • Learn to optimize the trade-offs between creating propulsion and minimizing drag at various points in the stroke cycle to maintain velocity.

As coordination are is relatively specific for each stroke, fewer commonalities exist. However, the above concepts are applied in similar ways. Below are some specific instances where such commonalities exist.

There are many similarities between entry of the arm, timing of the rotation, and quick catch of backstroke and sprint freestyle. In both cases, this process is facilitated by how the recovering arm is timed with the rotation of the body. Similarly, consider how the recovery and the entry of the arms in breaststroke and butterfly can both help the swimmer achieve streamlined, horizontal body position.

In all four instances, the momentum of the recovering arms is used to achieve the subsequent body position. When, momentum is used instead of muscular energy, a sense of rhythm and flow begin to arise. It is about timing. We’ll explore how these skills are seen in each stroke within each section devoted to each stroke.


As important as it is to appreciate the biomechanical aspects of technique, it probably more important to understand technique visually. You have to know what it looks like. The following resources are valuable for improving a visual appreciation of swimming skill.

Brent Rushall has frame by frame analysis of many champion swimmers performing at their best. While you can choose to follow his analysis, or come to your own conclusions, it is important to see what is actually happening under water.

In the internet age, the majority of Olympic and World Championship finals are available on Youtube. Most include underwater footage. Watch it at speed and in slow motion. What do you see?

In the future, I’ll explore how these principles are manifested in each stroke, as well as the critical technical solutions that champion swimmers have converged upon.


Regardless of the stroke, swimming fast consists of maximizing propulsion, minimizing resistance, and optimizing coordination. While the specific application of these principles differs to some extent between strokes, there are many commonalities.

In all strokes, swimmers maximize propulsion by moving large surface areas as long as possible with the strongest muscles of the upper body, minimize resistance by reducing the amount of movement away from streamlined positions, and use momentum and timing to make movement rhythmic and efficient.

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