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by Dave Samuelson

April 20, 2016

Correcting the freestyle limp improves balance and reduces injury

The majority of us swimmers like to breathe. In freestyle, many of us breathe every stroke cycle to one side or the other. Although it’s better to breathe on alternating sides, given that we do like to breathe, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of breathing more often to one side.

If you breathe every stroke, you’re likely to be unbalanced: your shoulder rolls higher on your breathing side than on your nonbreathing side. You roll your shoulder high to get your breath and, in all likelihood, you don’t roll it back down all the way because you’re just going to need to roll it up again in a second, right?

Because your shoulders are connected, your nonbreathing side is not rolling up evenly—it only rolls partway up. This leads to the “freestyle limp.” And it’s not just a cute movement, it has real repercussions for your swimming performance and your physiology.

  • After you breathe, if the breathing-side shoulder isn’t rolled back down, it isn’t in position to engage your powerful lats and pecs as you catch water. Instead, you’re using mostly your smaller shoulder muscles, which provide less power, and you’re fatiguing that shoulder too quickly.
  • At the same time, the nonbreathing-side shoulder isn’t rolling back up enough, causing you to carry it too low during recovery. Again, you’re limited to using only the small shoulder muscles to keep your arm above the water during recovery, instead of having a relaxed and sustainable ballistic recovery. This is also fatiguing and could cause persistent shoulder soreness. We see it all the time—it’s characterized by the low, straight, claw-arm recovery on the nonbreathing side and a lagging kick that usually loses coherence.

To remedy the freestyle limp, try swimming three-quarter catch-up—AKA “front quadrant” freestyle—with particular focus on extending the glide-time on the breathing-side arm. Glide longer to recover your head and shoulder position after breathing—waiting until the shoulder rolls back down into a power position and the (connected) opposite shoulder rolls up in balance. You want that feeling of engaging everything from your fingertips to your armpits and riding—or planing—on that breathing side armpit before you anchor and go. This produces a syncopated rhythm of repeat power points that we see in many world-class swimmers. (Watch any of Phelps’s world record swims and you’ll see the syncopation and power.)

The key to this, as with any stroke improvement, is to start it in warm-up when your mind is fresh. Focus on it there and it’ll carry over as you work through your harder sets.


  • Technique and Training