Article image

by Terry Heggy

September 4, 2018

Swim faster by finding and eliminating these dead zones

It’s easy to assume that the propulsive part of your stroke extends from the catch to the beginning of the recovery. Your arms are getting tired, after all, so you must be applying force throughout the entire pull, right?

Well, maybe not. When we carefully examine strokes underwater, we find that nearly everyone manages to miss some small piece of the propulsion puzzle, and therefore passes up an opportunity to go faster.

Let’s look at a few common causes of dead spots in freestyle and backstroke and ways to eliminate them.



  • The easiest dead zone to notice is when the legs stop moving. Some of us have sporadic or syncopated kicking where our legs merely float behind us at times. This might be OK for a long-distance swimmer concerned with energy allocation over the miles, but sprinters need to apply continual force throughout their races.
  • A trickier dead zone is when the legs kick too much, creating more drag than thrust. If the feet go too deep or out sideways or bend 90 degrees at the ankle, they’ll begin to push forward against the water, slowing you down. If they come too high out of the water, they’re wasting energy in the air and creating disruptive turbulence as they reenter.


  • Have your coach provide feedback while watching your kick. Pay attention to what your legs are doing until you’re confident that what you feel and what the coach describes match up.
  • Take your kick sets seriously, working on driving the legs from your core with a quick and steady cadence. If your abs and legs aren’t burning after a kick set, you probably didn’t work it hard enough.
  • Think about your kick on the first and last length of every repeat you swim. Check in on your legs to make sure they’re not goofing off.

Developing a consistently strong kick is a demanding challenge that requires a lot of time and effort. Make the commitment to accept the pain and agony of continual kick work in exchange for the speed and power you’ll gain in the long run.



Dead zones in freestyle and backstroke pull typically occur when these elements break down:

  • Acceleration—To achieve maximum thrust, your hand must move faster and faster throughout the stroke. If your hand only moves at a constant, clocklike speed, the force against the water decreases as the water begins to move in response to the initial pressure.
  • Hand and forearm angle—If the palm and forearm flatten out in the water (lose vertical orientation), the propulsive surface of the arm slices through the water without creating thrust. This is also known as “dropped elbow” or “slippage.”
  • Stroke length—If you lift your arm into the recovery too early (mid ribcage), you’ve cheated yourself out a significant part of your pull.

Though not strictly qualifying as dead zones, any motion that doesn’t move toward your feet will also rob you of propulsion. Especially common in backstroke, these include crossover, pushing water to the side, or pointing your palm toward your thigh at the end of the stroke.


  • Use hand paddles to enhance your sense of force as you practice accelerating directly backward throughout the entire stroke. Try to feel your hand speed continually increasing as you move your arm. If you feel the pressure drop, you need to push harder during that part of the stroke.
  • Tether yourself with stretch cords and swim hard against resistance. Try to maintain a constant distance from the wall. Any fluctuation in your position (bouncing forward and back) will identify a dead zone in your stroke you can work to eliminate.
  • Consistently incorporate stroke count work into your practices. While “max distance per stroke” drills have value in teaching you how to create a long and smooth stroke, it’s also important to count strokes when you’re in a high-effort set to ensure the habit of staying focused on efficiency and full thrust production.

Keep in Mind

A dead zone is not necessarily synonymous with lack of motion. Streamlining off the walls and getting a good catch are nonpulling arm moments we want to maintain and maximize. But when your hands are moving in the water, work to develop awareness that they’re generating productive power throughout the stroke.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Freestyle
  • Stroke Technique