Hierarchy of stroke improvement

Whenever people come to me for help with their swimming I do an initial assessment to work out where their swimming currently stands. There is normally a fairly predictively series of faults, here is a list of the most common faults and the order I will correct them in.



Here I’m looking for a smooth, controlled exhalation underwater followed by a slight tilt of the head to quickly take a breath. Holding your breath underwater increases the build up of C02 in your lungs, resulting in you tiring quickly.

Body position

A flat, hydrodynamic body position is critical for efficient swimming, sinky legs or swimming with your head out of the water make us work considerably harder than we have to due to increased drag.


Arm recovery

For an effective freestyle stroke your arms must exit the water after completing the propulsive phase, as air is far less resistive than water. Ideally we’re looking for a high elbow recovery to set us up for a great hand entry.

Kick mechanics

Many age groupers neglect their legs as wetsuits give us incredible buoyancy, but our leg kick also give us propulsion and balance to our stroke. A subdued, but assertive kick will yield great improvements. Working on your kick is especially important if racing in waters where wetsuits run the risk of being banned.

Tier 3

Hand entry

Your hand should enter the water in a relaxed fashion, just short of full extension. We’re looking for your fingertips (not thumb) to enter the water first, followed by your wrist, and then your elbow. It’s important to stay relaxed as energy used in this phase is energy not being used to pull yourself through the water.

Body roll

Also known as rotation, a slight roll from side to side as you swim will allow a greater extension of your arm, as well as providing a more stable, hydrodynamic platform to pull yourself through the water with.

Tier 4

Catch mechanics

Improving your catch is the fastest way for a swimmer on a plateau to improve. The catch is the short phase of your stroke between hand entry and the pull. When you tilt your wrist and forearm down while bending your elbow to give the largest possible area to pull back on the water with.

Body alignment

Your hands should enter the water in line with your shoulder and pull back, keeping your hands in line with your shoulders throughout. If your arms cross over the centre line of your body at any point this will destabilise your body, and your body will try to counter this with a scissor kicking action.

Stroke rate/length

Ensuring strokes are not to long, and not too short and finding a sweetspot that is sustainable over the distance of your event. A stroke that is too short will not move enough water, but a long, lingering stroke is an inefficient way to swim and promoted bad mechanics such as a wrist first hand entry.

Tier 5

Propulsive power

The majority of your stroke power comes from the propulsive, or pull phase, as your hand travels the length of your body, exiting at your thigh. It is important that the rest of the stroke is as relaxed as possible to ensure our energy is used here more effectively.

Kick timing

Adopting a 2 beat, 4 beat or 6 beat kick is a largely personal choice and different kicking patterns suit different situations, for instance most people will increase their kick rate when they approach a buoy in open water. Finding what works for you and changing things up is an advanced skill but crucial for efficient swimming.

This article has been simplified significantly to pick out areas to improve in, but in swimming every area of our stroke is linked to everything else, and it is the trade of swimming coaches to work to work out how different elements of your stroke are affecting others. If you are interested in a swim analysis session, check out the services tab at the top of the page.

This article is loosely based on a similar model by Swim Smooth.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.