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by Scott Bay

February 28, 2022

Your head is the key to good posture and more power

Many seasoned Masters swimmers were taught head positions that don’t match up with the current thinking of elite-level swimming. Here are some ways to find your proper head position while doing freestyle and backstroke.


You might have been taught that the waterline should be right at the top of your goggles for a proper head position while doing freestyle. You might’ve been told to “look where you’re going.” But is this head-up position the right way to go, or should you look down?

The answer is: it depends. There are several examples of fast swimmers who keep their head up, with Australian legend Ian Thorpe being just one.

Here’s how to find if a head-up position works for you.

  • Head-up/Tarzan drill. This is exactly as advertised. The point of doing this drill is that it reinforces that the higher your head is, the more your hips sink. It definitely affects your speed, energy output, and what your kick does in terms of being propulsive or just keeping your hips up.
  • Sky to toes. Start a 25 freestyle looking up as far as you can, and over the course of the length, drop your head slowly until you’re looking at your toes. Obviously, these are two extremes of the head position spectrum, but if you repeat the drill several times, it becomes a little clearer where your best head position is. Keep in mind that what feels “normal” isn’t necessarily what’s best.
  • Three-position progression. Pick three head positions based on the previous drill. Now is the time to look at the clock. Go through several repeats of each position for 50 or 100 yards, and make a note of your times. As you get further into it and fatigue a bit, the better position will become a little more obvious. This is a good exercise to do several times over several weeks. When your position changes, so does the strain on muscle groups.


You might have been taught backstroke while floating on your back, just paddling along looking up at the sky, and kicking your feet, and either enjoying all the breathing or being annoyed by all the water splashing onto your face.

But here, too, is an opportunity to experiment with some newer ideas that may be different from what you’ve learned.

  • Spin/Sit up drill. This is similar to the head-up/Tarzan drill. Sit in the water with your head all the way out of the water, and spin your arms through the stroke cycle. This takes a lot of energy and is a pretty ballistic drill, so you should maybe only do 12½ yards of it to get the feedback.
  • Wall to toes. This is similar to the sky-to-toes drill above. Swim a 25 backstroke, starting by looking at the wall behind you and then slowly bring your chin toward your chest until you’re looking at your toes. As before, do this several times over 25 yards. Also, as before, these are opposite ends of the spectrum. You should land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, not at an extreme.
  • Three-position progression. Again, this is like the freestyle drill above. Try your three head positions over several distances and several times. Also keep in mind that what feels “normal” isn’t always going to lead to your best swimming.

Good News and Bad News

First, the bad news. Change is hard. When you change from what’s always worked, you risk going through a regression. You have to decide whether to give up on the change or give it a chance to take hold and take you to the next level. That’s something only you can decide.

The good news is that Masters swimming isn’t going away anytime soon. If your change ends up being a total disaster, you’ll have a chance to go back to the drawing board and try something else, armed with the knowledge of what doesn’t work for you.

Trying something new also prevents swimming from getting boring. You can always work on something. Failure is an option because, very often, it’s what leads us to great success. To paraphrase the legendary late basketball coach John Wooden, failure isn’t fatal, but the failure to change might be.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Freestyle