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by Scott Bay

April 9, 2018

Some of these were staples and with a few new twists can be again

A lot of drills that coaches came up with or used back in the day—pick your own decade—simply aren’t used anymore. Why?

Well, for one thing, we started to learn more about human performance and how the body works as well as physiology and mechanics of the body. Some drills imprinted a pattern of movement that later became either obsolete or downright harmful.

Other reasons these drills fell out of favor are that swimmers don’t know how to do them well or have forgotten why they’re meaningful. A little tweaking can bring these classic drills back to life with new and better meaning for modern swimming.

The most important thing to realize is why you’re doing a drill. The idea is to try to change the way you normally move through the water by doing something that is thoughtful and different. Focus on the movement and the process and not the distance or the clock.

The following will be a sort of mental guide to help you focus on what’s important should you try some of these modern versions of the classics.

Two by Four (Butterfly)

This is a variant of the two-kicks-and-one-pull breaststroke drill. For breaststroke, we do two kicks and one pull, so since we do two kicks already for butterfly, we just double everything. To do it you do two full strokes butterfly and then four butterfly kicks.

The key points are to pay attention to your body position and your hands—too deep and you’re up and down on your stroke. It’s critical to keep your bodyline long. This is a kinesthetic awareness drill. Fins can be used as an assist.

Backstroke Catch-up

This is a new variant of the same classic, since it is applied to a different stroke. As with the freestyle catch-up drill, you’re really trying to be aware of where your body parts are.

Do this drill by swimming backstroke and having your hands “catch up” at the top of the recovery—out of the water and just above your chest. As you visualize it, you might be thinking that you’ll sink if you wait too long doing this, and you would be right, so it has the added benefit of making you a super strong kicker. Again, fins can help as you’re learning this drill.

Benefits of this drill include better rotation, a more efficient pull from paying attention to it keep from sinking, and cleaner hand entry.

Right-Left-Together (Breaststroke)

The classic butterfly drill but now adapted for breaststroke! Crazy, right? Maybe not so much.

The key is to swim regular breaststroke and just pull with the right arm, the left arm, and then both arms together. The reason we did this for butterfly was ostensibly to concentrate on the pull and the same is true for breaststroke.

The idea is to pay attention to the pitch of the hand and where the fingers are. You want to feel maximum pressure on the water so play around with it a bit. The idea is if you are moving too much side to side, then you’re not putting the ideal pressure on the water to move forward. As with others, try it with fins and a dolphin kick to get the idea if it is too complicated.

Modern Catch-up Stroke (Freestyle)

The classic catch-up drill fell out of favor with many coaches because kids and adults were constantly overreaching their hands across their centerline. So why bring it back and how do we make it better? Simple.

The point of the drill was to teach that the hands should always pass in front of the head with one hand waiting to “catch up” to the other making the swimmer long and skinny with each stroke. For modern catch-up, the new twist is the thumbs.

Take your open hands and hold them in front of you so that your index finger and thumb make an “L” shape and a backwards “L” shape. If you raise them above your head and reach really high, you will more often than not find that your hands are right above your shoulders and head width apart—great position for initiating a catch upon entry.

Modern catch-up is done pretty close to the original except just your thumb tips touch (the two “L”s between your pointer finger and thumb should form a “U.” Be sure not to look at your hands but use your kinesthetic awareness of movement to bring the thumb tips to touching. This is a slow drill so you may want to put fins on to help.

Final Word

The drills that we did in that past still have merit. They were developed by coaches looking to program their swimmers’ brains for a certain pattern of movement or a movement habit if you will. The most important takeaways are: 1) Drills are a great part of your swimming routine and can help prevent injury, 2) Thoughtful swimming is better than grinding it out, and 3) You can always swim better even if you aren’t getting stronger or fitter!


  • Technique and Training


  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills