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Home > Fitness > Swim Strokes > Front Crawl

Front Crawl

Front crawl is the fastest swimming style to quickly reach a casualty.

However, when swimming fully clothed front crawl is only a bit faster then breaststroke, and costs more energy. Fit lifesavers can do the head-up front crawl with all their kit on, a good training goal.

In lifesaving, the head-up crawl allows rescuers to keep an eye on their casualty, at the price of a much steeper body position and higher drag. Hence a compromise is to look at your casualty every 4 seconds or so.

The swimming position on the front allows full use of the arms in the water. The above-water recovery reduces drag, compared to the underwater recovery of breaststroke.

The alternating arm stroke also allows some rolling movement of the body for an easier recovery compared to, for example, butterfly. Finally, the alternating arm stroke makes for a relatively constant speed throughout the cycle.

Dive in

Front crawl often starts with a shallow dive from the poolside. The skill lies in finding the right balance between going in too deep and a belly flop. Diving into a pool can cause serious injuries if you hit the floor with a deep dive. On the other hand, a belly flop can hurt your skin, unless you wear some clothes, which we would advise for initial training. Minimum water depth must be 1.5 metres, maximum freeboard about 40 centimetres.


You want to have your body in the best possible swimming position to both reduce drag and increase the potential muscle strength available. Stretch your body straight and long, parallel to the surface of the water, while swimming.

Look to the bottom, sideways, or almost to the side while breathing, but never forward. That's why there are lines on the pool bottom. If you look forward, your legs will tend to fall to the bottom, and you will lose your parallel alignment with the water. The top of your head is always pointing towards your destination. Imagine swimming in a long tube. Keep yourself in the tube as you move forward. It may require a gentle kick, but practice your positioning.

Arm Movement: Reach Pull Push Recovery

The arm movement for front crawl is alternating. While one arm is pushing/pulling, the other arm is recovering, moving forward. The arm strokes provide most of your forward movement and can be separated into four parts:


Stretch one arm forward and reach out. Use your shoulders to let the hand enter as far forward as possible. Some say the hand should enter the water thumb first, reducing drag through possible turbulence. Others say the middle finger is first with the hand precisely bent down, giving thrust right from the start.

From this position, the arm sinks slightly lower and the palm of the hand turns 45 degree with the thumb side of the palm towards the bottom. This is called catching the water and is in preparation for the pull. It also gives the muscles a brief rest during swimming.

A training variation involves only one arm moving at any one time, while the other arm rests and is stretched out at the front. This style is called a "catch up" stroke and requires less strength for swimming. This is because the immersed length of the body is longer and more streamlined. This style is slower than the regular front crawl and is used for training purposes even by professional swimmers, as it increases the your awareness of being streamlined in the water. Total Immersion is a similar technique.


The pull movement follows a semicircle with the elbow higher than the hand and the palm pointing towards the body centre and downward. This semicircle ends in front of the chest at the beginning of the rib cage.

At the beginning of the pull, the hand acts like a wing and is moved slower than the velocity of the swimmer (this may look like a brief rest) while at the end it acts like a paddle and is moved faster than the velocity of the swimmer.

You want to grab or catch the water so that you have a way to transfer your muscular strength from your body to the water. Put your hand and arm in a position that makes this possible. Don't grab the water with just your hand or you will lose a lot of effort. Use your hand and forearm.

Imagine moving forward and over a wall while swimming, with the edge of the wall at your elbow. Point your fingertips toward the bottom of the pool, point your elbow at the sky or to the side, and think of everything from the elbow joint under your forearm and through your fingertips as one big paddle.


The push movement presses the palm backward through the water underneath the body at the beginning and at the side of the body at the end of the push. The movement increases speed throughout the pull push phase until the hand is moving at its greatest speed shortly before the end of the push.

You have to press on the water with the biggest muscles available. For most swimmers, this means the muscles in your chest and back, not in your arms or shoulders. While pressing on the water, your back and chest muscles pull your arm from the front past your chest. Imagine first grabbing the water and then pressing it backwards. Feel your body glide over your arm as you push.


The recovery moves the elbow in an almost vertical semicircle in the swimming direction. The lower arm and the hand are completely relaxed and hang down from the elbow close to the water surface and close to the swimmer's body, near the ear. This gives the muscles a brief opportunity to rest.

Beginners often don't relax the arm during the recovery and move the hand too high and too far away from the body, in some cases even higher than the elbow, hence drag and incidental muscle effort is increased at the expense of speed.

The beginning of the recovery looks similar to pulling the hand out of the back pocket of your jeans, with the small finger upwards. You may want to practice that. Put on a pair of jeans and lie on your front in knee deep water. Now practice pulling a hand out of the back pocket and move it past your ear forward.

Further into the recovery phase, the hand movement has been compared to pulling up the back zip on a wetsuit. The recovering hand moves forward, with the fingers trailing downward, just above the surface of the water. In the middle of the recovery one shoulder is rotated into the air, going forward, while the other is moving backwards to avoid drag due to the large frontal area which at this specific time is not covered by the arm. To rotate the shoulder, some twist their torso while others also rotate everything down to their feet.


A swimmer rotates as one unit, from shoulders to hips, with the hips and shoulders aligned. Some rotate their whole body. Your body should rotate around an axis defined by your neck, back and legs, like a line from the top of your head. Use your core muscles to hold it all together.

Add body rotation to fully use your position, your grip and your push. When the arm grabs, the body is rotated so that the grasping arm side is underwater and the opposite side is above the water, or at least closer to the water surface than the gripping side.

After grabbing the water, you push on the water. As you push, you also rotate your body, moving the body slightly in front of the push.

The body rolls about its long axis with every arm stroke such that the shoulder of the recovering arm is higher than the shoulder of the pushing/pulling arm. This makes the recovery much easier, reduces drag as one shoulder is out of the water, and reduces the need to turn the head to breathe. Side-to-side movement is kept to a minimum. One of the main functions of the leg kick is to maintain the line of the body.

Kick your legs for balance

The leg movement is called the "Flutter Kick". Ideally, there are 6 kicks per cycle, although it is also possible to use 4 kicks or even 2 kicks. The legs move alternately, with one leg kicking downward while the other leg moves upward. While the legs provide only a small part of the overall speed, they are important to stabilise the body position. If you use a pull buoy, then you will see the lack of balance, because you are not using your legs.

The leg in the initial position bends very slightly at the knee, and then kicks the lower leg and the foot downwards similar to kicking a football. After the kick the straight leg moves back up. A frequent mistake of beginners is to bend the legs too much or to kick too much out of the water.

Water Polo Drill

Water polo players never seem to have a hard time swimming with their heads out of the water. It is part of the sport. Take a page out of their book and train with your head out of the water. There are many reasons you might need to do this in a real open-water situation (cold temperatures, feet in your face, hard-to-find buoys, etc).

Swim the entire set with your head up (say: 6x25m). Don’t turn your head to the side to breathe; that’s cheating! This is a great way to build strength in your neck and make you aware of how your lower body sinks when your head is raised. Performing this drill with clothes on makes for a grueling strength workout.

Most swimming lanes are two to three meters wide. This is just enough space to cram you and a pair of teammates side by side. Do six 25m swim fast, where you alternate which position each person starts in. The middle slot is the most fun and should be sought after.

Keep Sight of Your Coach

During your first few months of practice you may discover why coaches always pace along the pool deck. Usually it is to communicate with swimmers in other lanes, but sometimes it’s just to keep warm or for personal entertainment. Often they enter the pool for a moment to show a skill. Use this random movement to your advantage.

Pretend your coach is a big, orange inflated buoy. Practice sighting for your coach during a drill set. Lift your head forward, scan the horizon for the coach/buoy, turn your head to the side for a breath and then continue swimming. Do this no more than five times per lap (25 meters).

Breathing Technique

Normally, the face is in the water during front crawl. Breaths are taken through the mouth by turning the head to the side of a recovering arm at the beginning of the recovery, and breathing in the triangle between the upper arm, lower arm, and the waterline.

The swimmer's forward movement will cause a bow wave with a trough in the water surface near the ears. After turning the head, a breath can be taken in this trough without the need to move the mouth above the average water surface. The head is turned back at the end of the recovery and the face points down when the recovered hand enters the water. The swimmer breathes out under water through mouth and nose until the next breath. Breathing out through the nose avoids water entering the nose.

Some swimmers take a breath every cycle, with every second arm recovery, breathing always to the same side. Others alternate the sides. Since breathing slightly reduces the speed, most competition swimmers breathe every 1.5 cycles. Lifesavers sprinting the last few meters to a casualty may breathe even less.

Freestyle Breathing

Breathing is a key factor in swimming freestyle. To improve the breathing technique and make it as efficient and natural as possible, you can train in varying the rhythm of your breathing pattern during freestyle. During your regular training and your special drills session try to do breathing, every 3, 5 and 7 arm strokes.

For example, you do 500 m freestyle; do the first 50 breathing every 3 strokes, the second 50 every 5, and the third one every 7, and then go back to 5 and 3. Repeat until you finish. This kind of drill will teach your body to swim with less oxygen improving your aerobic conditioning, but also to keep your breathing technique clean even when you really need to breathe, like in a competition.

Bilateral Breathing

This is a useful skill for open water swimming as well as pool training. It simply means to be able to breathe on either side. When you swim in open water with waves you can breathe away from the waves. If you switch sides often you can keep an eye out for where you go and what happens around you. In open water many pool swimmers who are used to lines on the bottom, tend to go around in circles if they don't look out.

This skill is helpful for pool swimmers as they can adjust their breathing to their speed, instead of breathing every cycle or two, they can breathe in between or whenever they need to. Practise this until you get really good at it.

Hypoxic Breathing

The importance of lung capacity is often overlooked. Open water can seem much less intimidating if you can hold your breath for a long period of time or you are comfortable not taking in air every three strokes. Situations like cold-water shock, chop and splash, or a dunking are very common during an event.

Working on a hypoxic breathing-pattern set, or gradually increasing the number of strokes you take between breaths, is a great way to prepare for some of these situations. An example is a 5x100m set in which you breathe every three strokes the first lap, every five strokes on the second, every seven strokes on the third and every nine strokes (or not at all) on the last lap.

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