Love your Freestyle Pull

The position of your arm as it is pulling is one of the most important topics you can pay attention to when trying to improve your freestyle stroke.  Getting the correct position will engage the larger lat muscles in your body, really pull power from the core to push your body forward in the water, and help to save your shoulders so you can swim longer distance for many more years.  So, let’s break down the pull.


 For a proper pull arm position, you should start from a rotated and extended lead arm, drop the hand and the forearm together so they are both pointing down, but keep the elbow up high and in line with the shoulder.  You want to come as close to a 90 degree angle as possible to initiate the lat muscles under your shoulder blade in your back. If you were to look in a mirror, the position would look like a scarecrow’s arms.

For the hand position, there are differing positions about a closed hand or a relaxed hand.  Some people believe the closed hand provides more power and others believe a relaxed hand forms a webbing of water between the fingers (like a duck’s foot).  I say experiment with both ways and see which one is more comfortable for you.  After all, if it’s not comfortable, we’re not going to do it.  Either way, you don’t want to actively splay your fingers out because then you are using muscles which are not adding to your forward momentum.

Straight Back

Once your arms are in the proper position, pull straight back as if your hand is on railroad tracks.  Your arm should run parallel to your body and pull all the way back to your thigh.  We used to pull under the body in an ‘S’ pattern but that pull has been shown to contribute to shoulder issues and is no longer being used.  If you learned the S pull, you are going to want to replace that with the high elbow straight back pull.


As your hand and forearm drop in the water, I want you to think about grabbing a rock above your head.  That rock is not going to move so you are going to grab the rock, leave it where it is in the water, and pull your body past your hand in the straight back motion.  Continue to pull until your hand gets back to your thigh.  Do not allow your hand to go behind your back at the end of the pull.

Some visualizations you can use to get the proper pull position are:

  • Paddling out on a surfboard,
  • Being a scarecrow,
  • Reaching above your head to grab a rock, leaving your hand there, bending your elbow, and pulling your body past your hand,
  • Railroad tracks, and
  • Digging in the sand at the beach.

Try out each visualization to see which one works best for you.

Connect the Power

There are several drills you can perform to connect the power you are generating from the core and the hips to the pull:

Single Arm Drill – For each length of the pool, use your regular rotation to each side, but one arm stays to the front while the other arm does the pull and recovery.  Do your regular stroke back and then switch arms for the next length.  If you’re having trouble keeping your hand to the front, you can put the arm you are not using to your side.  This drill lets you concentrate on one arm at a time.

Catchup Drill – Start with both arms forward in the streamline position. Do your regular pull on your strong arm and wait to start the weaker arm until the strong arm’s hand returns to the forward position.  If you have trouble waiting, you can tap your lead hand with the recovering hand giving the lead hand permission to move.  This drill is great to use both arms on each lap but concentrate on one arm at a time and working back into regular stroke.

Fist Drill – Close your hands to make a fist.  Swim your regular freestyle cadence, concentrating on the forearm catching the water on the pull.  This drill is best done with the fist drill for one 25, then the regular open hand for the next 25, and repeat.  Try to feel the difference in the catch of the water for the pull.

 Sailboat Drill – When your arm is in the recovery phase, pause with the elbow up, forearm and hand pointing down, roll your core and top hip, then have your recovery arm follow into the glide position.  At the same time, your opposite arm is performing the pull.  This drill gets the power going by having the top hip and core roll before the recovery arm comes forward and transfer power down the kick leg, up the glide arm, and over to the pull arm.  You’ll know when you have this drill coordinated because you will feel a surge of power pushing you forward.

Pull Buoy – When using the pull buoy you do not need to kick unless the workout calls for it.  Keep your glutes and legs engaged and right behind your body.  The pull buoy is placed between your thighs unless the workout requests you to place it at your knees or ankles.  This tool is great to isolate the pull and work both arms at once.

Make sure you work both sides on each drill with the focus of making your weaker arm as strong as your strong arm.  Always start on your strong side and remember to slow down when you are doing the drills to really concentrate on what is being worked on.

A note about paddles

Many swimmers rush into using paddles because they look cool and they make us go faster but paddles should only be used once the pull position is correct.  Using paddles before your form is correct can cause injury to your shoulders.

Once you have the proper position and the correct muscles working, then find a hand paddle that is comfortable for you and add some paddle workouts to your mix.  I wouldn’t use the paddles more than 10% of the time, though.  After all, we can’t race with them.

Practice before bed

When you’re trying to learn something new or something that is giving you trouble, it’s best to concentrate on the task right before bed.  Stand in front of a mirror and go through your pull and recovery arms with intent and correct form for at least 10 minutes.  The more you can do this correctly, the more your brain will put it together while you sleep.  It has been proven that what you think about for 45 minutes before going to bed is what your brain works on while you are sleeping.  So take that new or hard task and put some time into it during that 45 minutes before you go to sleep.

Final Words

The most important piece of advice I can give you for the pull is to not let your arms rush your stroke.  If we are working really hard to push power forward, why would we want to cut off the power by rushing to get to the next stroke?  We wouldn’t.  Once you feel that power start, see how long you can glide before you start your next stroke.  You don’t want to stall in the water but you also don’t want to cut that glide short by starting the next arm too soon.  Find the happy point in between the two extremes that is comfortable for you.

Well, that’s it for pull right now.  If I can do anything to help you reach your goals, please email me at Happy Swimming!