In This Article

Whether you’re just starting to swim or are a seasoned pro, it can be tough to find the exact content you are looking for to improve your freestyle. That is why we created this free guide.

It breaks down concepts and proper technique into bite-sized articles for your pull, kick, body position, and breathing. Each of those sections features:

  • 6 big-picture articles
  • 10 progressive drills
  • 5 sets featuring those drills
  • 10 dryland exercises 

You can pick up the guide where it is most relevant to you or start at the beginning and work your way through to get your proverbial "master's degree" in freestyle. 

What makes this guide really stand out is that nearly each piece of written content also features a complementary video! Yes, there are over 100 videos embedded in this guide to help you visualize what's being discussed. 

Enjoy unlocking some secrets and improving your freestyle with this free guide.

This is the freestyle main page that contains general information. You can find the four parts of the stroke broken down in detail below.

What Is Freestyle? 

Freestyle is exactly what the name implies: You’re free to swim whichever stroke you like, switching as you please. However, swimmers almost universally choose the front crawl. It’s the fastest stroke because it allows you to create a large amount of propulsion while minimizing drag, compared to the other strokes. In other words, just like the sports car with a big engine and aerodynamic body, it’s built for speed. 

Because the terms are interchangeable in the swimming world, for the purposes of this guide, freestyle means front crawl.

Freestyle is different from the other strokes in that it’s performed on your stomach with your arms moving in opposition to each other and your legs moving in opposition to each other. You can swim freestyle faster than you can swim backstroke because your arms can produce more propulsion, and you face slightly less drag. Butterfly allows you to create a lot of propulsion, but the stop-and-go nature of the stroke and the double-arm recovery lead to increased drag. Breaststroke is the slowest stroke because of the underwater arm and leg recoveries.

From a competitive standpoint, freestyle races cover the broadest range of distances, with races as short as 25 yards and as long as 25 kilometers. It is the most welcoming of strokes, allowing for both extreme sprinters and extreme distance swimmers to participate in events to their liking. In contrast, the other three competitive strokes are only contested over distances up to 200 meters.

Because of its simplicity, freestyle is also an easier stroke to learn, and it’s also the most common stroke swum in workouts and competitions.

What follows is a guide to help you learn how to perfect your freestyle. If you need to learn how to swim, check out our adult learn-to-swim program. 

What Are the Elements of Freestyle? And How is it Done?

To perfect your freestyle, you need to work on your body position, breathing, pull, and kick. I’ll discuss each of those elements briefly here, but the rest of our guide dives deep into each of those elements.

Body Position

The most important skill in swimming freestyle is maintaining a good body position. Without one, executing the remainder of the skills becomes much more difficult. 

The ideal body position is when your body is in a straight line at the surface of the water. Your goal should be to establish and maintain this position with as little effort as possible.  


Breathing is important for the obvious reasons that you need air to live and to fuel your swimming. Improper breathing technique can dramatically reduce your speed. Poor breathing skills can disrupt your rhythm, negatively affect your body position, and slow your stroke rate. A great breath is one that’s not noticeable.


The pull is your main engine in freestyle. It provides most of your propulsion, creating your speed. Executing a great pull is all about creating as big a paddle as possible with your whole arm and working to push as hard as possible against the water to move yourself forward. 


Your kick is the glue that holds your stroke together. It helps you maintain a good body position, facilitate a smooth body rotation, and add extra propulsion. Without your kick performing these key roles, executing a great freestyle becomes much more difficult. 


One of the challenges of freestyle is executing all these skills at the same time and at the right time. The rotation of your body is the central skill around which all skills are timed. Your breath, kick, and pull are much more effective when performed at the right point in your rotation. Great timing magnifies the effectiveness of each individual skill.

Freestyle's Impact on Your Body

Swimming freestyle is a unique form of exercise that engages most of the major muscles of your body, making it a great way to burn calories and lose weight.

The strongest muscles of your upper body are your pectorals, triceps, and latissimus muscles (lats), all of which are strongly engaged during your pull. The remaining muscles of your upper body, such as your deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles, are also highly active through your stroke, stabilizing your shoulder blades and recovering your arms. Your core muscles, such as your obliques and abdominals, are highly engaged as well because of the high demands on spinal stability. Your kick relies upon the large muscles of your legs: your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

Because of the involvement of many of your body’s muscles, swimming freestyle can burn many calories. This calculator will estimate how many calories you burn while swimming freestyle. For example, a 150-pound swimmer can expect to burn 529 calories in one hour. These estimates will vary widely, however, depending on how hard you swim.

As with any exercise routine, injuries can happen while swimming freestyle. The most common injuries caused by freestyle involve shoulders. Because of the high volume of repetitions, the large range of motion, and the relatively high forces, your shoulders are vulnerable.

Your neck muscles are also vulnerable because of the constant rotation breathing requires. Injuries to your lower body can occur as well, although less frequently. Because of how much you kick, you can develop problems in your hip flexors, the front of your knees, and your ankle.

Injuries are uncommon because of the water environment and the lack of contact from other participants. Your risk of injury can also be reduced by improving your technique and controlling the volume and intensity of your training. Small changes are much safer than large changes.

Common Freestyle Mistakes

The most common freestyle mistakes all revolve around the key skills in freestyle of alignment, pull, and breathing. Fixing these mistakes is the fastest path to swimming faster.

Body position. Failing to swim straight through the water greatly increases drag, slowing you down and making you work harder to move forward. Swimmers sometimes swim with their head up and their feet low as opposed to swimming in a horizontal line at the surface of the water. And sometimes they move out of lateral alignment by moving their head and shoulders side to side with their hips and legs following suit rather than moving straight through the water. These errors will slow you down.

Pull. Problems with your pull keep you from reaching your fastest speed. There are three main culprits that challenge a swimmer’s pull.

  1. Swimmers fail to use their forearm and hand to create propulsion, focusing instead on just their hand. This leads to a dropped elbow position in which only your hand pushes backward against the water.
  2. Swimmers often fail to pull directly backward, instead engaging in excessive side-to-side pulling movements. Because the goal is to move your body forward, your pull should be directed backward as much as possible.
  3. Swimmers fail to accelerate their arm as they pull, instead pulling at the same speed throughout. This greatly reduces the propulsion they can create.

Breathing. The third major group of errors come with breathing. Breathing is a challenging skill because swimmers can only breathe at certain times in a way that doesn’t disrupt their stroke, even if they desperately want air.

Swimmers often lift their head up and to the side to breathe. This causes their hips to sink and their shoulders and hips to move from side to side, increasing drag. This often pulls their arms out of position, making it more difficult to pull effectively.

How to Build Endurance

Building endurance requires patience. It takes time to develop the technical skills to improve your efficiency and to create the physical adaptations that allow you to swim for a longer distance or time.

Although trying to accelerate the process with hard work is tempting, this often leads to short-term progress at the expense of long-term progress. Take the time to sharpen your skills and to develop the right physical traits.

From a technical perspective, improving your endurance is all about reducing how much energy it takes you to move forward through the water. This is best accomplished by improving your body position and alignment. If your legs and hips are low in the water, you'll face a lot of drag. Similarly, if your hips and shoulders are moving side to side while you swim, you'll face more drag.

Improving your body position and alignment will greatly reduce how much energy you need to move through the water, which will instantly improve your endurance. No matter how much consistent training you do, it's difficult to overcome the limitations of poor technique.

From a training perspective, endurance training is best accomplished by training at low to moderate heart rates over progressively longer periods of time. These are the two key components of building endurance: controlled heart rates and increasing volume.

Although it can be tempting to try to swim as hard as possible to build endurance, this is counterproductive. Endurance is best built over the long term with controlled intensity. The total volume of swimming you do will ultimately build your endurance the most. If you swim too hard too often, you'll have trouble completing the necessary volume. Patience and consistency are important to build endurance.

How to Swim Freestyle Faster

Improving speed is a simple equation. You need to increase propulsion and decrease drag. Increasing propulsion is a result of physical training and technical skill whereas reducing drag comes from improved skill.

To create speed, you need to create propulsion. Doing so is the result of learning how to effectively pull and then push hard and fast against the water to move yourself forward. You need to develop the skill of being able to engage the water by creating a large surface area with your forearm and hand and then push backward on that water. Pushing hard and fast against the water requires a lot of power. The muscles involved need to be powerful enough to get the job done. You'll also need to improve your ability to execute these skills.

No matter how much propulsion you learn to create, it won't matter if you can't reduce your drag. You must learn how to slip through the water at a high speed, which is difficult. You need to ensure that your body is moving through the water in a straight line with no up-and-down or side-to-side motions. This is much more difficult to do when your legs are kicking as fast as possible and your arms are moving as fast as possible.

You need to practice executing these skills while swimming fast in workouts. You must learn how to swim with great skills while swimming at top effort. That means short distances at high speed with plenty of rest. The idea is to practice going fast, and if you're getting tired, you won't be going fast. As a result, you must swim sets designed for you to swim fast.

Freestyle Modifications

There are two requirements for fast swimming: less drag, which allows you to slip through the water effortlessly, and more propulsion, which allows you to move through the water faster. The more you reduce drag and increase propulsion, the better. Great freestyle will always adhere to these same fundamental principles.

Because swimmers have different size and shape bones, as well as different levels of strength and mobility in their joints, they will swim differently, even if they're following the key principles. That doesn't mean one way is right or better; it just might mean that one way is better for a particular swimmer. These differences aren't necessarily learned. Instead, they emerge because of the unique capabilities of each person. Just as important, the distance of a race can affect how someone swims.

Swimmers' arm recoveries (when their arms are out of the water) will differ. Some swimmers recover their arms very straight; some, very bent. Some swimmers recover their arms very high; some, lower to the water. Swimmers also have different strokes. Some use a very deep and straight pull, whereas others use a shallower and bent pull. The timing of their strokes differs as well. Some swimmers time their arms in opposition so that their arms are at opposite points of the stroke cycle, and others perform closer to a catch-up timing in which their arms almost overlap upon entry.

Timing also varies during swimmers' kick. Some kick twice per stroke cycle (the completion of a freestyle stroke with both of your arms), others four times, others six times. When it comes to breathing, some swimmers have a strong preference to breathe just to the left, whereas others prefer to breathe just to the right or breathe to both sides, either on alternate laps or by breathing every third or fifth stroke.

This can be quite complicated, but the important thing is finding what works best for you. Perhaps that means you'll swim with your arms straight during the recovery with a high catch during your pull while doing a catch-up freestyle with a two-beat kick and breathing every third stroke. Or you might swim entirely differently. The elite swimmers don't adhere to one specific technique. They find what works best for them.

If you experience mobility issues, you'll have to adapt your technique around what you're capable of doing. Regardless, it's important that you find the technique that'll make you fast. It might be different than the speedy person in the lane next to you.

Comparing My Times to Swimmers My Age and Sex

Whenever someone embarks on an athletic journey, they want to know how they compare to others. Because swimming is so quantifiable, it particularly lends itself to those comparisons.

To help you better understand how your times compare to others', here are several rankings of Masters swimmers. If these times look intimidating, remember that many of these swimmers have been training for a long time.


USMS Top Times

You can also search for the top times in your age group by year to see where you might stand. This helps you see the true range of ability levels for those who compete.

USMS Top Times


USMS Top 10

Here you can search for the Top 10 times swum by members of USMS for your age group by year, to see what it would take to be in the Top 10 for your age group.

USMS Top 10


USMS Records

These times are the fastest ever recorded by members of USMS. Again, these are aspirational times to get an understanding of what's possible. Just search based upon your sex and age.

USMS Records


World Aquatics All Time Top 10

It starts at the top with the fastest performance of all time from across the world. These are the best swims in history. This gives you a great sense of what's possible. (Note: All these are meters times because only the U.S. races short-course yards.)

Long Course Meters

Short Course Meters


- All of the articles were written by Andrew Sheaff

This is the freestyle main page that contains general information. You can find the four parts of the stroke broken down in detail below.