Freestyle Stroke: Overview and Swimming Technique

Underwater shot of a freestyle swimmer floating in the water.
Freestyle is the fastest swimming stroke

The freestyle stroke, also known as front crawl, is the fastest and most efficient of the swimming strokes used in competition.

This is why it is used in freestyle races and is also often the favorite stroke for experienced swimmers and triathletes.

Freestyle Swimming Technique

In the next section, we will describe the swimming technique of the freestyle stroke/front crawl.

Body Movement

A front crawl swimmer having one arm fully extended forward in the water and the other arm recovering above the water.

The freestyle stroke is swum in a horizontal position with the body facing down. The body rolls from one side to the other, always turning to the side of the arm that is currently pulling in the water.

The head remains in a neutral position, face down, except when breathing.

To enable breathing, the body rolls a little further to the side during the arm recovery, and the head also turns to the side until the mouth is above the water surface.

Arm Movement

Underwater view of a front crawl swimmer

In the freestyle stroke, the arms execute alternating movements. While one arm moves and pulls underwater from an extended forward position to the hip, the other arm recovers above water from the hip to the extended forward position.

Once this is done, the arms switch roles, such that each arm pulls and recovers once over the entire stroke cycle.

The arm movements are described in more detail below:

1) Starting position: For our discussion, we decide that the starting position is with the arm extended forward underwater, at the end of the arm recovery.

2) Downsweep: The forearm moves down while the elbow remains high in the water. The upper arm moves outward and backward. The arm moves only into the correct position for the next phase, no force should be used to push against the water.

3) Catch in the high elbow position: The forearm and palm are in line, vertical and facing backward, while the elbow is still high in the water. The upper arm is outside the shoulder. This is the beginning of the propulsive phase.

4) Insweep: The arm moves as a unit, like a big paddle, pressing against the water. The upper arm moves backward and inwards, while the hand sweeps from outside the shoulder to below the belly.

5) Upsweep: The hand changes direction and moves from below the belly towards the hip. At the same time, the body rolls on its side so that the hip moves out of the way of the hand.

6) Release: The arm leaves the water at the hip, first the elbow, then the forearm and finally the hand.

7) Recovery: The arm swings forward, with the forearm relaxed and dangling.

8) Entry and extension forward: Once the hand has passed the head, it dives back into the water, and the arm extends forward underwater. At the same time, the head and body roll back to a neutral position.

9) Synchronization of arms: As soon as the recovering arm dives into the water, the other arm begins to push backward against the water, and so on.

Please note that there is a bit of overlap in the underwater phases of both arms: the recovering arm already enters the water while the other arm is still pulling underwater.

This swimming technique is called front-quadrant swimming.

Flutter Kick

Focus on the flutter kick of a female front crawl swimmer.

In the freestyle stroke, the legs do a flutter kick. This means they perform fast, compact movements, flexing slightly at the hip and knee while the feet are stretched.

The flutter kick uses alternating movements. While one leg moves up, the other on moves down, and vice versa.

The flutter kick is performed continually over the whole stroke cycle.

The flutter kick is a simple yet efficient kicking technique and complements the alternating arm movements very well.


A female front crawl swimmer inhaling on the side.

To breathe, the swimmer turns his head to the side during the arm recovery until the mouth is above the water surface. The swimmer breathes in quickly, then turns his head back down.

The exhalation begins as soon as the mouth is under the water surface again and continues until the next breathing arm recovery.

The most common breathing patterns are breathing on every other arm stroke, i.e. always on the same side, or on every third arm stroke, and then the breathing side changes each time.

Freestyle Swimming Mistakes

The next series of articles will discuss common mistakes in the technique of freestyle swimmers.

Putting on the Brakes

A front crawl swimmer showing a well-positioned hand during the final underwater phase of the arm recovery.

“Putting on the Brakes” in front crawl: This is a common mistake made by front crawl swimmers where you push water forward during the underwater phase at the end of the arm recovery, hence the name.


A freestyle swimmer who reaches too far at the end of the arm recovery.

Why not to overreach in the freestyle stroke: Overreaching at the end of the arm recovery can be problematic. This article discusses why and what you can do about it.

Wide Arm Recovery

A freestyle swimmer who has a wide arm recovery.

The problem with a wide arm recovery: This article discusses why a wide arm recovery wastes energy, creates drag and can strain your shoulders.

Furthermore, tips on how to correct this swimming mistake are also provided.

Swimming Tips

A male freestyle swimmer breathing in.

A few simple tips for the freestyle stroke: In this article, our reader Zach provides his tips to improve your freestyle stroke.

Learning To Swim Freestyle

Learning freestyle is challenging for several reasons.

Your face is submerged for most of the stroke cycle, and you must roll on your side to breathe. Your arms and your legs execute alternating movements.

That’s why it takes practice to correctly and simultaneously execute all these different aspects of the stroke.

U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) assistant swim coach, Susie Powell and a Marin Pirates swimmer.

However, learning freestyle is much easier if you use our step by step approach based on a sequence of progressive swimming drills. These drills let you learn the freestyle stroke in several steps:

1) The first step is to learn static balance, which means you learn how to float effortlessly on your back, on your chest, and on your sides.

2) The next step is to learn dynamic balance, which means you learn to maintain balance while switching between different body positions.

3) The third step is to practice balance while having the arms extended overhead, to get into the habit of swimming while being as tall as possible in the water.

4) The final step integrates the arm stroke movements and also lets you practice efficient swimming rhythms.

So discover our swimming drills in the learn how to swim freestyle section!

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the front crawl’s swimming technique:

6 thoughts on “Freestyle Stroke: Overview and Swimming Technique”

  1. Avatar

    Freestyle is not the name of a stroke. It is the name of an event in swimming in which the stroke used is optional.

    The name of the stroke being described here is and always has been the “crawl”.

    Children are growing up learning to associate the name “freestyle” with this stroke.

  2. Avatar

    I am 27 years old and a beginner in swimming and whenever I am trying to swim freestyle, after a few strokes my hips and legs start sinking.

    Also, I am practicing in the shallow end (3 ft) as my coach told me to do so. Do you think upgrading to 5 ft will help with my buoyancy?

    Please give me some valuable advice.

  3. Avatar

    This is really good information, but I kindly ask for assistance as I can not maintain a straight line while swimming. I tend to deviate or move in a crooked way.

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