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by Scott Bay

February 18, 2020

Fist drill is a great way for you to develop awareness of your catch in all four strokes

If you grew up age-group swimming, chances are you did a drill during which you swam freestyle with your hands clenched in fists or had a coach who made you grip a tennis ball while swimming. You might not have known why you were doing fist drill.

Many coaches still use fist drill, but as a Masters swimmer, you probably now want to know why, rather than just thinking the drill is something fun or something your coach made you do as entertainment for him or her as you beat up the water.

Why to Do Fist Drill

You’ve probably heard the terms “early vertical forearm,” “high elbows,” “proper catch position,” or “reaching over a barrel” many, many times before. Maybe you’ve heard them so often that you may even tune your coach out whenever he or she brings it up because you’ve become accustomed to your catch and assume it’s correct.

But maybe it isn’t.

You should do fist drill or swim with a tennis ball from time to time to refine your technique because everyone can develop bad habits over time. Fist drill will help you develop stroke awareness because you’ve made a slight change (creating a fist, rather than leaving your hand flat as it normally would be).

Clenching your fists removes the large surface area of your hands from your catch, leaving only the surface area of your forearms. This reduces your ability to press against the water in order to move forward. However, it brings attention to the importance of your entire paddle: the area from your fingertips to your elbow, and the importance of not breaking your wrists. If you have a good catch, you’ll be able to swim with your fists with no problem (just not as fast as with your hands in the regular position) because you’ll be using your forearms efficiently. If you have some bad habits (breaking at the wrists, dropping your elbows, etc.) you’ll go nowhere fast, because your catch collapses and that is immediate and valuable feedback.

It will feel weird to make changes to your stroke once you discover if you’re doing something wrong, but change what you need to change, and you’ll be well on your way to swimming faster.

You’ll know your catch position is correct when you do the following consistently.

  • Once you have fully extended your arm to get ready to perform the catch phase of your stroke, rotate your elbow out to get your fingers pointed toward the bottom of the pool and your hand pointed behind you.
  • Your hand should come straight back, hinging at your elbow, so your forearm becomes vertical. This is the early vertical forearm or reaching over a barrel you might’ve heard referenced countless times before.
  • Complete your stroke.

But this drill isn’t just for freestyle.

Fist Drill for Other Strokes

You need to get in a proper catch position on every stroke, of course, so although this drill has largely been done for freestyle, you can do it on butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke. Here are mental cues to make sure you’re doing it right on those strokes.


  • Focus on rotating your elbows to pull with your forearms.
  • Think of pressing up, out of the pool. Bend your elbows and keep away from your body.
  • Use fins! It will help you focus on your forearms.
  • Note: This is probably the toughest stroke to do fist drill for.


  • Enter the water pinkie-first and bend your elbow like you’re arm wrestling.
  • If it feels like you’re throwing a baseball when you take a stroke, you’re probably leading with your elbow. Think about what it feels like to press up out of the pool.
  • Rotate your elbow toward the bottom of the pool.
  • If you find yourself sinking, put on some fins and try again.


  • Once you’ve fully extended your arms to get ready to catch, rotate your elbows out to get your hands down and forearms vertical.
  • Let go of the water a little earlier and experiment with how wide you go. Not everyone should scull far outward.
  • Bring your elbows together under your chest, rather than at your sides.
  • This is a great way to experiment with your catch and develop a strong kick.

A Final Thought

Because you can’t always see your catch while swimming, practicing while watching yourself in a mirror is a good idea. You’ll get immediate feedback on what your catch looks like. Another good idea is to have a friend with a waterproof camera video you underwater from the side.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Backstroke
  • Freestyle
  • Drills