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by Scott Bay

August 11, 2021

Here’s how to determine whether an asymmetrical freestyle is right for you

Conventional wisdom regarding freestyle has changed over the past few decades.

Coaches long believed that fast freestylers needed to breathe to both sides, but Australian great Grant Hackett disabused them of that notion when he breathed almost exclusively to his right en route to winning seven Olympic medals.

Coaches also long believed that swimmers needed a symmetrical stroke, but swimming superstar Michael Phelps and countless others have been doing a giddy-up style of freestyle and had plenty of success. Just watch the NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving Championships, the U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials, or the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics if you want to see this technique in action.

The only thing conventional wisdom is good for now is this: Fast and efficient swimming comes in different styles, so trying something new might mean you’ll swim faster, and it might not, but there’s no harm in trying.

Quick Review

Swimming fast seems simple: Push water behind you using your hands and forearms to move forward. Propulsive force begins with your catch, and a good one starts with early vertical forearm, which means that you get your fingers pointed to the bottom of the pool with your elbow up high for your catch. This engages the surface area of not just your hands but also your forearms. The muscles used to finish your stroke are your lats, the powerful core muscles in your back that drive your movement.

The details of swimming fast, however, are more subtle.

As you reach forward with your hand and forearm, your elbow joint is in the wrong spot as you rotate onto your side. It won’t bend in a way conducive to the catch, so you need to rotate your elbow and shoulder, so the point of your elbow is toward the sky. This allows your forearm to bend and get that early catch. At this point, you’re really anchoring your hand and forearm and pulling yourself over the anchor point. Accelerate your hand as you pull over it to get speed.

Thanks for the Physics Lesson, But What’s the Hitch?

Are you right- or left-hand dominant? Do you like to breathe to one side more than the other? Experimenting with some of these variables can lead to more speed but in order to see if they do, play around a little in the pool. Here’s a short guidebook on how to experiment and see what works for you.

  • How to do it. If you like to breathe on one side more than the other, make the opposite side your power side. This is the side that provides the max propulsive force, but you must make sure you get a good catch by getting your face back in the water first. The other stroke will be easier but still provide power. Concentrate on maximizing the pressure on the water on your power side. Try some test 50s this way. Timing and feel will take more than a few tries.
  • Switcharoo. Now go opposite. Make your power side your breathing side. This might work for you. Again, focus on timing and getting your face back in the water for a good catch. This will also take more than a few 50s on the clock.
  • Double Switcharoo. Now experiment with a combination of power side and breathing. Maybe it is bilateral but you like putting power on your dominant side, or you’re faster with comfortable-side breathing and the nondominant side for power. It’s truly a guess-and-check thing.

Changes Can Go Either Way

You’ve no doubt been told the benefits of bilateral breathing, including prevention of muscular imbalances, being able to see the competition on both sides of you, etc. These reasons are all valid. But don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something new that may benefit you in the short and long term.

Be sure, however, that what you’re changing doesn’t lead to injury. If at any time you feel pain, it’s your body telling you something. As adult athletes most of you know the difference between muscle soreness from a new motion and pain from an injury. So, as you’re experimenting, if what you are doing hurts while you’re doing it, stop doing it! If it persists, consult a sports medicine professional.

Tweaking your technique is best done under the supervision of a certified coach (find one here) who knows what to look for and can guide you through the process.


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle