Five Common Freestyle Errors and How to Fix Them

The masters swim coaches at UW Health's Fitness Center offer tips to help you improve your swimming form.


Swimming is a great form of exercise. It engages the whole body, is low-impact on the joints, it's a great aerobic exercise and is a versatile addition to any routine.


To make sure you're getting the most of of your efforts in the water, check your freestyle form to make sure you're not committing one of these five common errors. But if you are, there are also drills to help you fix and improve your form.


Mistake #1: Head Position


In this case - looking forward or having your head too far out of the water.


Fix: A balanced body position involves getting both your upper and lower body to line up horizontally at the surface of the water. Your hips will float higher in the water and the drag created by your body will be reduced, allowing you to glide faster through the water.


It’s helpful to practice where your head needs to be so that your body can attain a truly balanced position at the top of the water. We use the Prone Soldier drill below to help us find this “balanced” position.

Prone Soldier Drill


Placing yourself face down, float out away from the wall so your body is horizontal and hook/place your toes on the edge of the pool. While keeping your arms at your sides, position your head in a way that allows the back of your head, shoulder blades, and hips/rear end to stay balanced at the surface of the water. Keep this body position in mind when you practice sculling drills.


Video Demo: Head Position



Mistake #2: Kicking from the Knees

Fix: An efficient freestyle flutter kick involves primarily the muscles around your pelvis. Power originates from the hips, but propulsion forward comes from catching and moving water with the top of your foot. Keep your legs relaxed, but fairly straight and focus on moving the muscles around your hip (hip flexors and glute muscles).

Strengthen the muscles around your pelvis to make this kick easier to maintain during your freestyle swim using the Vertical Kicking drill.


Vertical Kicking Drill


  • You’ll need to be in pool with a deep end for this drill. 
  • Keep the knee and ankle joints loose. If you tighten up too much in the lower leg, you may get a cramp!

In a vertical or "treading water" position, practice the flutter kick. Keep your body tall, engaging the core by tilting your pelvis upwards and squeezing the upper thighs together; keep knee bend to a minimum (the motion should start from the pelvis, not the knees).


Video Demo: Vertical Kicking



*Disclaimer for this video: You do NOT need to hold your hands out of the water. Keeping them down by your side for extra support is fine.


Mistake #3: Swimming Flat (without body rotation)

Fix: In the freestyle stroke, rotation from the trunk is crucial to improve body position efficiency, and reduce shoulder strain. Use body rotation from your hips to increase the amount of time that you spend on your side while swimming. This will make you longer and skinnier, essentially cutting down your drag, and allowing you to move through the water faster.

Six Kick Switch Drill


The Six Kick Switch drill will help to show you of what it feels like to swim while rotating your body from side to side. It will also help you strengthen the muscles of your core and hips that help you to get into this position.


Kick consistently, pausing for six, quick kicks while stretched out on each side of the body (one arm extended forward, one arm left at your side). Just as with the Vertical Kick drill, ensure that the kicking motion is starting from your pelvis, with very little knee bend.


Video Demo: Swimming Flat



Mistake #4: Fast Stroke Timing


Fix: Coordinating the timing of your front crawl stroke will allow you to draw together all of the essential aspects of your stroke: your body position, kick, rotation, and pull. The result will be a front crawl that is efficient, smooth, and powerful; transitioning seamlessly from one phase of the stroke to another.

The Hesitation drill below will help you understand and coordinate the correct freestyle stroke timing. Ideally, each pull will begin only once your opposite, recovering hand is in front of your head. This timing will ensure that each pull can be coordinated with simultaneous hip rotation, which both strengthens your pull and allows you to achieve some glide through the water following each pull.



You want to look out for a timing that is too slow, or too near the full "catch-up" drill. Gliding too long before you begin your pull will result in "dead spots" or pauses in your stroke as your momentum begins to slow.

Hesitation Drill


During normal freestyle swim, pause with one hand in the catch position, the other arm in 3/4-recovery position (hand is about to enter the water). After the pause, quickly roll the hips and pull the arm through to finish the stroke. Pause on the opposite side and repeat the pattern.


Video Demo: Fast Stroke Timing



Mistake #5: Long Arm Pull


Fix: The freestyle pull can be manipulated to use your arm and core muscles together to catch more water and generate a greater amount of force as you push your body past that water. Transitioning from a long arm pull to a shallower pull with more elbow bend will help to make your pull more efficient and decrease shoulder strain. Ultimately, the end result will be moving your body past added water with each stroke, and faster (and easier) swimming!

Strong propulsion begins with an efficient catch at the front of your stroke. The Paddle Catch drill below will help you learn how to create the feeling of catching the water from the start of our pull by bending your elbow and using your hand and fore-arm to press back on the water. Not only will you grab more water this way, but your arm will be in the prime “strength position” to finish your stroke by “throwing” the water that you “caught” back rapidly.

Paddle Catch Drill


Swim in a normal rhythm. Initiate your pull by bending your elbow and pressing back on the water with your fist or paddle. The goal is to eliminate any downward motion with the fore-arm, so that all your energy goes toward pushing water straight back. Be sure to keep your fists or paddles in line with your body (ie. the right fist/paddle will start reaching out in front of your shoulder, then pull underneath the right side of the body).

*This drill can be performed by gripping paddles, or simply creating fists with your hands. Gripping paddles creates extra resistance so that the feel of catching water is somewhat enhanced.


Video Demo: Long Arm Pull



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Date Published: 04/19/2016

News tag(s):  fitnesswellnessfitness centerhealthy bodies

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