Swimming Strokes, Techniques, Drills & Jargon


There are four recognized competitive swimming strokes: Freestyle, Backstroke, Butterfly and Breaststroke.  While the majority of a swim practices are usually done swimming freestyle, other strokes will help you improve you balance in and feel for the water, improving your freestyle sometimes more than swimming freestyle would!

Freestyle:  Aka Front Crawl or "free" - this is the fastest stroke and the one most swimmers can do the longest without tiring - ironically, it's much more tiring for a beginner than breaststroke or (for some) backstroke.  When practicing, freestyle is the default stroke to do.

Freestyle is swum on the stomach face down and in the water.  Blow out in the water, breathe in when you turn your body and head to the side.  Do NOT try to breathe in & out with your head above water - there isn't time and you'll end up lifting your whole upper body.  This is a VERY common mistake for beginning swimmers ... one our Flippers focus on.

The other common head position mistake is to lift the head to breathe and/or look forward where the swimmer is going.  A swimmer should almost be looking straight down (maybe 30 degrees forward) when swimming, and look to the side (not ahead or behind) during the swim.  If a swimmer lifts their head while breathing or looks forward while swimming, their hips and feet sink so the swimmer ends up swimming "uphill" creating lots of extra drag.  It is easy to turn your head to the side, but only if ...

Actually, good swimmers don't really swim freestyle flat on their stomach � they alternate/ rotate back and forth from side to side - with their body core (shoulders to hips) almost going vertical from shoulder to hips with each rotation.  Arm motion alternately recovers each arm over the water while the other arm "grips" the water under you to pull you forward.  This rotation on a good freestyle not only allows for a longer stronger pull, not only makes you more streamlined in the water (less resistance to fight), it also allows you to pull with your "core" stomach and "lat" muscles which are much stronger than your arm muscles.

During the arm stroke, you catch the water while stretching to your side, grab it and accelerate with a relatively deep pull and you're fingertips always pointing towards the bottom of the pool.  The arm pull continues past your suit line to your hips where you follow through as the hand exits the water thumb near the thigh, pinky out, then recover with a high bent elbow so your hand comes forward near the water and enters near the head where it enters fingertips first, then wrist, then elbow and stretches to a glide 4-6" below the water.

Freestyle kicking: You use a "flutter" or freestyle kick, which is an alternating motion kicking with the top of your relaxed but pointed foot with the force driven from the hips, not the knees (although your knees can and should bend a little on the downward power stroke).  Feet should be pointed but relaxed.  Note that while hard kicking is used during short races or repeats to increase speed, you normally don't kick hard the whole time you're swimming.  The real purpose of kicking is (a) balancing the body front to back (work on lightly kicking and keeping your body flat on the water), and (b) balancing your body left to right (as you swim freestyle, you alternate from your right to your left side � your kick can help push the body from one side to the other).  Still, the fastest swimmers in distances up to 200 are the fastest kickers.

Using fins (especially for the beginner) can help to develop good body position and kicking muscles, while allowing you to concentrate on your upper body movements.  There are different fins that help older swimmer strengthen their kick.

Notes for everyone to remember:

            Don't lift your head to breathe.

Stay Flat on the water (head to foot) - dragging feet and kicking uphill just makes you slower and work harder - a light kick should keep your feet just at the surface of the water.  (This often happens if you try to breathe in and out with your head above water - breathe out in the water, in above with your head turned.)

            Don't stay flat on the water (left to right) - alternate from side to side.

            Stretch/ reach for the end of the pool with each stroke - and try to glide - then finish your stroke with your pinky out and your thumb almost brushing your thigh.  Swimming is like skating - the powerful push/follow-through at the end of your stroke as you stretch and glide with your other hand in front.

            Streamlining.  This has got to be a pet-peeve of every swim coach in the world - swim in a streamlined position, and especially "push off" streamlined.  A streamline push off is easier, faster, and feels great - and it's heck to get swimmers to actually do it.  A streamline push off makes one swim so much faster in practice and in competition with less effort, but so many push off lazy and have to work harder for it.  Put one hand on top of the other, wrapping the top hand's thumb around the pinky side of the other hand, and then straighten the elbows squeezing your ears - don't look up, don't put your chin to your chest - look straight ahead and squeeze your ears.  Superman was never streamlined in the air - but in the water, you've got to be.

            Don�t drop your elbows on the pull

            Keep your elbows high on the recovery

            Pull all the way through - pinky out, and/or thumb brushing by your thigh.

            NO BUBBLES - bubbles are a swimmer's enemy.  When you make a lot of bubbles, you attract big ugly sharks (just kidding - sharks aren't ugly).  Bubbles are much more "squishy" (aka compressible) than water - water is hard.  (Don't believe me?  Try landing flat after a 20 foot jump on your sailboard on the soft squishy water, or belly flop off the 3m diving board.  You'll believe me.)  No kidding - bubbles make your hands slip through the water when pulling but without giving you the "grip" or propulsion you need and want.  All that work - and you're swimming in foam.  For you surfers, you know how hard it is to pull or even float in white water - it's the same when swimming!



            Dainty Swimming: Many people pause as they put their hand daintily in the water right in front of their head.  This causes you to overreach, and not commit to roll to your side while stretching for the wall.  Make the motion of putting your hand in the water near your head and stretching like an arrow for the far end of the pool one committed motion.  Note that the dainty hand entry also causes your butt to wiggle for everyone to see - so it's your decision how you want to swim ?

            Not stretching, not rotating.  Many swimmers swim flat not rotating their bodies - and not stretching for the wall nor finishing their strokes.  These errors go hand in hand, so to speak.  Stretch for the wall while rotating to the side with a firm commitment - working the glide from a hard accelerated finish on your pull by your thigh.

            Dropping the elbow on the pull.  Many people drop their elbows while pulling.  It feels easier - especially as you get tired.  But you're working harder and going slower.  You should start your pull with a small "scull" to the side, pinky up, then pull down keeping your elbow high like you're pulling yourself over a barrel.

 Beginner tips and drills:

           Catch Up (aka Touch-Pull).  One arm pull at a time with your hands in front when not pulling.  You should do this with a strong kick.

           3-Right 3-Left.  Like Catch up, but you take three pulls with each arm before changing.  Work on extending way past your other hand in front, rotating your body side to side, and focusing on the power and force of your hands grabbing the water on your pull.

           Finger tip drag.  This drill is freestyle with a high elbow recover, wrists straight hanging and just barely skimming the water on the recovery.  It is good to do this breathing every 3 arm pulls.

           Head up swimming (aka Water Polo Drill).  Swim with your head up, looking forward, chin out of the water.

            20-5, 12-3, 6-1.  20 kicks (10 each leg) on your side with your underside hand in front reaching for the wall (about 4" below water surface) and breathing in looking up, blowing out looking down by simply and ONLY rotating your head (no lifting); then take 5 long freestyle strokes to change sides and repeat the 20 kicks on the other side.  Similar for 12-3 and 6-1.  These are good drills for working on strengthening your kick, breathing without lifting your head, improving body position (front to back flat), and swimming on your side.

            Swim with one arm on a kickboard.  Holding a kick board in front with one hand for support, go through the motions of a freestyle stroke and breath with the other and while kicking.

            Use fins.  This can help the beginning swimmer improve kicking muscles, and allow them to swim flatter longer without hard kicking improving stroke technique.

Intermediate & Advanced tips and drills:

            Pulling - place a pull buoy high between your legs, and pull with or without hand paddles.  Hand paddles will help strengthen your swimming muscles and make sure you're not entering or exiting the water with your hands at a weird angle.  3-5-7 pulling is where you swim at a moderate pace working on lengthening your stroke while breathing every 3, 5 or 7 arm pulls.  Holding your breath teaches you breath control and forces you to swim more efficiently and relaxed (using less oxygen).  Doing more than 5 breath holds is not recommended for beginner or very young swimmers (12U).

            All the beginner drills help more than you think.

            Rotation Drill (breathe EVERY arm pull).  This drill is a slow almost finger tip drag drill where you watch your hands through every recovery - be careful not to go to fast and get to dizzy.

            One arm.  Swim freestyle with one hand pointed toward the end wall, the other doing your stroke.  Be sure to rotate and stretch with each stroke.  Concentrate on what to do to maximize the power from each stroke.

            Hard One-arm.  Put the non-pulling hand on your belly.  Darn that's hard!

            Fist drill (or hold tennis balls or avocadoes�).  Instead of swimming with an open hand, swim with a closed hand to help get the feel for high elbows on the pull and pulling with more than just your hands

Competition Notes: Freestyle can be any stroke you desire, except on the end of an IM where it must be some stroke NOT Fly, Back or Breast.

Turns - open or flip turns.  Learn a flip turn, get off the wall fast and streamlined, learn a strong dolphin kick.

Backstroke aka Back Crawl or "back", as the name suggests, is swum on the back.  In fact, like freestyle, you really alternate swimming on the right side, then the left - getting almost vertical in hips and shoulders - with each pull.  The arm motion is like a windmill with the arms recovering straight (elbows locked straight) on the recovery until they are in the water straight behind you, then pulling (gripping) the water at our side.

Notes for everyone to remember:

            Stay Flat on the water (front to back) - dragging feet and kicking uphill just makes you slower and work harder - a light kick should keep your feet just at the surface of the water.

            Don�t drop your elbows on the pull

            Backstroke is like freestyle - swim from side to side with lots of rotation.  Fingertips point to the SIDE of the pool during the pull.  Arms and shoulders reach for the sky straight on recovery.

            Keep your head STEADY while your shoulders rotate almost to vertical left;-right..

Beginner tips and drills:

            Many of the drills for freestyle can be adapted for backstroke (eg; 20-5, 12-3, one arms.)  plus�

Multiplie Dolphin kick streamlined underwater on your back (5-7x), then dolphin kick on your back, arms at your side, for the rest of the lap.

Light kick - streamline your arms overhead - stay flat on the water

            Use fins.

            One arm backstroke with one arm at your side, and one arm pulling.  Emphasize the rotation - get your shoulder up under your steady non-moving chin on both sides.  Rotate hips and shoulders more than you think you should.

            Goggles on head� put your goggles (or keys or something) on your forehead and swim backstroke - this forces you to hold your head steady.

Intermediate & Advanced tips and drills:

            All the beginner drills help more than you think.

3 right, 3 left.  One arm at side or streamline pointing where you're going.

Dolphin Kicks: Repeat 25's with 8-15 fast dolphin kicks off the wall underwater.

Arm Speed.  Head WAY up, make your arms go faster than you think you can.

4 armpulls backstroke, 3 freestyle, keep alternating.


Bending elbows on recovery.  Keep your elbows straight and reach for the sky - really stretch!

Overreaching.  Different than freestyle - this is where you put your hands in behind your head.  Hands should enter flat or pinky first behind the shoulder or a little outside - feeling like you're putting them in at 1 or 11 o'clock. You should also immediately commit to your rotation and press out and down on the water as you start your pull - pinky pointing toward the bottom of the pool.

One arm at a time.  Many (esp. beginning) swimmers swim backstroke one arm at a time.  You need to keep BOTH your arms moving opposite each other all the time - not wildly out of control like a propeller, but controlled like a windmill.

KICK.  Good backstroke requires a good kick at all times or your feet will sink, your head will rise, and you'll go slow.

Butt up - don't sit!  Keep your back flat, don't let your butt drag in a sitting motion with your head up.  Keep your head back and your hips up with a good kick.

Competition Notes: Streamline pushoffs, fast dolphin underwater kicks on push offs, good rotation, head steady.  KICK!!!


Breaststroke is VERY different.  Some would say "and so are breaststrokers" ;-) And they're proud of it (as they should be).  Arms and feet are together in this stroke.  The stroke is done with a small pull keeping your hands in front of your shoulders pulling (actually sculling out) and in) in the shape of an upside down heart - and breathing as you finish the pull out and back.  Your hands only really pull as they move apart, as soon as you turn your hands in, throw them forward as fast as you can (elbows do NOT need to come in to the body).  Just before pushing your hands forward, you quickly lift your heels to your butt, point your toes out, then all at once drop your head, kick your feet back and together, and stretch your hands forward to a streamline position � and glide.

Notes for everyone to remember:

            Try NOT to pause or "stall" when breathing - get your hands around quickly.

            GLIDE between strokes in the streamline position.- until you have the stroke down when you can pick up the pace a little bit.

            Breaststroke is a LOT about the kick and the dolphining body position - work those elements of your stroke hardest.

            FINISH YOUR KICK HARD.  And as you finish your kick, point your toes and make an upward dolphin kick motion with your feet.  (Note: downward dolphin motion is illegal.)

Beginner tips and drills:

            Breaststroke pull with dolphin kick

            2 kicks, one pull (aka Kick-pull-kick-glide).  Work the glide and strong kick.

            4 kicks, two pulls.

            4 fast pulls (no kick), 2 full strokes.. 

            3 fast, 3 long and slow strokes

Intermediate & Advanced tips and drills:

            All the beginner drills help more than you think.

Competition Notes: Accelerate through your swim.

 Butterfly was invented to scare and intimidate beginner swimmers to make them think swimming is hard; and for young kids to show off.  (Just kidding.  When done right, I find it the least tiring stroke to race short distances.)  No stroke is more graceful.

Really.  There's a fake story that it was invented in the 50's when someone tried to "cheat" at breaststroke and recover his arms above the water - dolphin kick was introduced later.

Like breaststroke, Butterfly is swum with arms and legs in synchrony (the same on both sides).  And like breaststroke, Butterfly is swum with an undulating motion brining the arms forward for a momentary glide before pulling all the way back in a "double freestyle" pull, lifting your head to breathe, then diving back in as your arms recover and head drops to your next glide.  Unlike breaststroke, the swimmers arms must recover out of the water, and the feet must stay together and pointed for the kick.

Most people struggle with butterfly.  It shouldn't be if done correctly.  Start with a few dolphin kicks off the wall on a pushoff.  This streamline position is where you should start every stroke.  Scull out with both arms at the beginning of the stroke to catch the water.  Bring your arms in to under your belt/ bellybutton line as you raise your head to breathe.  Immediately follow through and around quickly bringing your arms forward as you drop your head between your arms to a streamline position.  Pause.  Repeat.

It's best to keep this stroke as long and smooth as possible - stretching with each stroke to a glide and holding that position for a moment as you catch the water and get in position for the next pull.  Don't breathe late � breathe on the last part of your pull and start dropping your head back in before you're doing your arm recovery.  Do not pause with your arms at your side and back while you take that last gasp for air � you'll have no way to get your arms forward above the water - recover quickly.  Drop your head, look down, don't look forward when you bring your arms forward to the streamline position.  Finally, as you dive down with your head, you want your butt to come out of the water.  Butterfly is a balance between needing to breathe every stroke, and all the work it takes to lift your head to breathe which tires you out.

 Notes for everyone to remember:

            Don't breathe late.

            Look down early on the recovery - do NOT look forward during the glide - it'll stop you dead in the water.

            Glide between strokes - streamlined while catching the water.

            Don't look forward while breathing.

            Keep long and smooth.

Beginner tips and drills:

            One-arm butterfly.

            Use fins

            One fly stroke w/o breathing, alternated with a freestyle stroke breathing on your side - use dolphin kick and work on the undulating dolphin motion.

            Long Butterfly � 3 dolphin kicks UNDER water, take one stroke and dive back down for 3 more kicks - continue.  Work to 2 and 1 kick (normal butterfly).

Intermediate & Advanced tips and drills:

            All the beginner drills help more than you think.

            Fly-Breast: two stokes fly, two strokes breast.

Competition Notes: Keep the race short.


I.M. aka Individual Medley - is an equal distance of each of the above four strokes, ordered by Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke, and Freestyle.  A 100 IM is one 25 yard lap of each stroke.  A 200 IM is 50 yards (or meters) of each stroke.  I'm mostly a sprinter, I think a 400 IM is � the hardest insaniest racing event any masochist every undertook.  Andrea and Dave LOVE this event - it was one of their specialties along with Breaststroke.  A 400 IM where you drill a 50 or each stroke, kick a 25, then swim a 25 is good training for your strokes, is fun, and is not that hard.

Interval Training. Interval training consists in doing "repeats" - or multiple swims of a given distance - within a time frame before you start your next one.  For example, if the coach says "Swim five 50's on the minute", it means you'll swim five 50's leaving every 60 seconds (n.b.; not 60 second rest).  If you swim your first 50 in 45 seconds, you get 15 seconds before #2.  If #2 is done in 55 seconds, you only get 5 seconds rest that time.  The idea is for the coach to pick an interval you can do; and for you to try to keep your stroke consistent and smooth enough to keep your swims approximately the same speed.  Depending on the set, your goal depends on the kind of set:

Once again: PLEASE ASK our coaches if you�d like help with strokes, etc. Our coaches are knowledgeable in swimming technique, racing, and more. For demonstrations and other help, they will sometimes ask our more advanced swimmers to help (because they like to help to � and maybe get out of a set for a few minutes ;-)


Stretching is SO much more important than any of us practice.  You really should stretch before any workout - and between sets.  Stretching prevents injury.  Stretching improves the ability to swim with proper technique.  Inadequate flexibility in the shoulders (rotator cuff esp.) can cause mare harm than good.

Swimming Jargon:

   Pulling. Swim with pull buoy high between your legs (for flotation without kicking) - some people also use paddles on their hands to strengthen pulling muscles and make sure hand are pitched (or angled) correctly on entry, during the pull and on exit.

   Kicking. Do your laps - with or without a "kick board" - but just using your legs for propulsion.  Some people, especially when beginning swimming, use fins to teach better kicking technique (kick from the hips with less bend in the knees) and develop kicking muscles.  One should never use fins for breaststroke (aka whip or frog) kick.

        The proper way to hold a kickboard is with your arms stretched over and laying on the kickboard and your hands wrapped around the round end.  One normally uses a kickboard for all kicks but backstroke.

   Lap or Length.  These terms are interchangeable - they both mean one length of the pool - whether it's set for 25 yards or 50 meters.

   Repeats. This is a series of swims (a "set") usually of the same distance; or sometimes of a progressing distance.  (The "repeats" can be increasing speed, decreasing speed, easy, fast, descend (below), different strokes, etc.)

   8 x 50s on the minute: This, and many similar "sets", describe a series of repeats.  50's on the minute, for example, means you do a 2 length (50 yard) [1 length in a 50m pool] leaving every minute.  If it takes you 53 seconds to swim your first one, you get 7 seconds rest, then leave again.  If your second one takes 58 seconds, you get 2 seconds rest, etc.  Also called Interval Training.

   Descending.  Each repeat is swum faster than the one before.

   Build Up: Get faster as you go through a single repeat.

   Negative Split: Make the second half of the swim faster than the first.

   Alternate breathing: breathe every 3 arm pulls - this helps balance your stroke and increase your breath control.  Sometimes breathing every 5 or 7 strokes is done to help you swim more relaxed and long.

   Flip turns: These are advanced methods for turning quickly in races (and practice) when swimming Freestyle and Backstroke by throwing your legs overhead and into the wall without touching with your hands.  There's no need to work on these until you've mastered a streamlined underwater push off.

   Sculling.  This is a back and forth (side to side, not front pulling back) motion with your hands held at ~45 angle to the direction you're moving your hands and the direction you want to go.  As your go out, your hands are pitched to push back and out, and pitched to push back and in when bringing your hands together.  Wrists should always be held (while sculling or swimming) near straight as an extension of your forearm - not cocked one way or another.

   Streamlining.  This is important in push offs the wall.  A MAJOR part of swimming is learning NOT to fight the water, and the more streamlined you are on push offs and while swimming, the easier and faster you'll go for the same effort.  Put one hand on top of the other, wrapping the top hand's thumb around the pinky side of the other hand, and then straighten the elbows squeezing your ears - don't look up, don't put your chin to your chest - look straight ahead and squeeze your ears.  Push offs should be done a foot or so underwater until you slow down enough to come up and start swimming.  A couple of "dolphin" kicks (aka butterfly kicks) can extend a push off for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly tremendously for the minor cost of holding your breath a little longer!

 Notes on Yards, Meters, Short Course, Long Course, Miles and �: For those who count � a mile is 1760 yards (5280 feet), or 70.4 lengths.  A standard "competition" mile is 1650 yards (66 lengths) or 1500m (30 lengths of 50m pool = 1640.4yds).  Most people swimming have a tendency to count each "1600" as a mile, 800 as half a mile, and so on.  The 50m Pukalani pool is divided by a bulkhead into the shallow 25 yard course, and the deep (50m-25y) 29.68 yd (27.14m).  So a "mile" in the deep end is 59.3 lengths.  Lahaina, Sakamoto and Kihei Pools usually swim "long course" (50m) from March through early September, corresponding to the Age Group long course season, and Short course (25 yds) from mid September through end of February corresponding to the Age Group and High School seasons.

Pool Safety

Safety is the number one concern around the pool.  Better fitness is pointless if someone gets hurt doing something silly.

   There is no running on deck - decks are slippery, and a fall into or near the pool can be deadly.

   There is no diving - except when supervised in racing starts by one of the coaches or a trained USMS member.  You may NOT divie to get in at the beginning of workout (or during a swim meet), and there is no diving in shallow water (less than 9 feet deep).

   Please get into the water in a controlled jump, or by sliding in - when no one else is in nearby.  The biggest causes of accidents at pools is from people accidentally diving or jumping and either hitting bottom, or another swimmer.

   Do NOT swim under the bulkheads that separate the 50 meter pools into two 25-yard pools.  If you hit your head, we may not see you until it's too late.

   Always obey the coach's instructions; or any county lifeguards.

    Part of safety, and part of pool etiquette (training standards) includes circle vs straight swimming; and the backstroke flags.

    Circle vs Straight Swimming: To prevent head on collisions (literally) when swimming in practice, there are two standard ways to "share" a lane.  If alone, or if only two people are in a lane, swim "straight" - staying in the middle (alone), or on one side of the lane.  If 3 or more swimmers are in the lane, "circle" swimming is like driving - you're always on the right side of the lane as you face forward.  Note: a "head on collision" in the pool can actually knock you unconscious, and definitely hurts!

   Backstroke Flags are normally set up with 5 yards to go before the wall.  They should coincide with a change in lane line color.  If you see either of these two things when swimming backstroke - be aware the pool wall is coming up - prepare and don't crash your head into it!