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Catch And Pull In The Freestyle Stroke

how to go about (and how not to go about) improving your feel for the water - a much misunderstood subject.

Did you know?

Pushing water down at the front of your stroke not only ruins your catch, it also acts to sink your legs.

This is because your body acts like a see-saw in the water -

Pushing the water down lifts your front end up but pushes your legs down low into the water, creating lots of extra drag:

Does your swimming technique need more oomph? Do you lack propulsion? Long to get a better hold and feel for the water?

Everyone would love a better catch and pull technique. Not only will it make you faster, it will also make you more efficient. This is because a poor catch and pull wastes a lot of energy - get it right and you will swim at the same speed much more easily.

The single biggest difference between a normal swimmer and an elite swimmer is a vastly superior catch and pull. So why isn't everyone working on this secret of the freestyle stroke? Perhaps because it is the most misunderstood thing in swimming.

Many swimmers ignore their catch either unaware of how important it is or unsure of how to improve it. Others are going about trying to improve it the wrong way.

So what does that elusive great catch technique look like? More importantly, what does it feel like? In the article below we're going find out, starting out with some common misconceptions about the catch.


Let's dispel some common misconceptions about the catch you might have heard:

"When you get it right, you feel like you've got a massive grasp on the water, feeling a huge amount of resistance with each pull."

thumb first
A good catch and pull drives you forward with less effort, not more.

INCORRECT. A good catch technique will have you caressing the water, locking on and pressing the water back behind you. Contrast this to what most swimmers do - pressing the water down at the front of the stroke rather than back. Pressing water down creates a lot of pressure on the palm because you are changing the direction of the water flow (from towards you to downwards). When you change to a good technique and start to pull the water back behind you - helping it on its way - you could well feel less pressure on the palm.

"You need to make your stroke as long as physically possible for your catch to be efficient."

Dropping your wrist.
Andrew drops his wrists - 'applying the brakes' - as he tries to overly lengthen his stroke. This is very common to see.

INCORRECT. In fact the opposite is true. In our experience when swimmers try and make their stroke as long as possible they normally over-reach at the front of their stroke. This is very hard to do without dropping the wrist and elbow. Dropping the wrist shows the palm of the hand forwards - into the water flow towards you. When you have this in your technique you feel pressure on the palm from the flow and most swimmers mistake this for a good catch. Ironically, dropping the wrist and elbow is one of the worst things you can do for your catch. We'll explain more below.

When you're swimming, don't try and over-reach at the front of the stroke. It's better to have slightly less reach and a vastly better catch. It'll make things more efficient and more rhythmic too.

You should pull through like you're describing an ‘S-Pull shape' under the body.

thumb first
There are few things worse for your shoulders than thumb first hand entry.

INCORRECT. In centuries past, swimmers were taught to enter into the water thumb-first, then press out, sweep back in, and then finally back out as their hands swept past their thighs. This would make an S-shape. It was believed this technique would increase the length of your stroke as you were moving your hand on a longer pull-pathway under the body than if you pulled straight through. However, the benefits of doing this have since been disproved - it does not offer any advantage in propulsion versus a straight pull (see below), in fact it is slower.

Perhaps the greatest danger of an S shaped pull is that entering thumb-first is one of the leading causes of shoulder injury and pain. We suggest you avoid thumb-first entry like the plague.

OK, that was Swim Smooth's guide on how NOT to catch and pull, so how should I be doing it instead?

The Correct Catch And Pull Technique


hand entry

As your hand enters into the water, take care to make sure it does so finger-tips first, lengthening forward in front of the same shoulder with the middle finger pointing the way to the far end of the pool.

Avoid crossing over the centre line, this is critical to keeping a high elbow catch and pull through later on.


hand entry

As you reach forward with good body roll (roll being essential here), make sure you do so with the palm of the hand looking at the bottom of the pool, but with the finger tips angled slightly down.

This should be flexed from the wrist (not from the knuckles) we need to keep you palm flat and open, fingers closed loosely together.

Avoid "putting the brakes on" by dropping the wrist and pushing forward (you'd be surprised how many swimmers do this!)


hand entry

At full reach and without dropping your elbow, feel like you are tipping your finger-tips over the front of a barrel (again flexing at the wrist), which will start the catch.

At the same time start bending the elbow and pressing back on the water with the forearm in a near-vertical position.

This is what keeping your elbows high on the catch is all about.

A memorable way to think about this action whilst you are swimming is to visualise a smiley face drawn on the palm of your hand. As you start the catch, tip your finger tips down and show that smiley face on your palm to the wall you just left. This is like locking your hand in place, effectively feeling-the-water.

You will now be pressing the water back behind you rather than pushing it down.


hand entry

Concentrate your efforts on simply pressing water back behind you with the palm of your hand still looking back behind you.

Combined with good rotation, this pull through will lead to an efficient long stroke technique, but one that is not overly long.

Good job!

Early Vertical Forearm (EVF)

EVF is the current buzz phrase in the elite swimming world, it refers to achieving a vertical forearm position as early as possible during the catch and then maintaining it through the pull phase. Pioneered by Australian freestyle greats such as Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, EVF offers the potential for greater propulsion.

EVF is becoming increasingly prominent outside of the elite swimmer world as some swimming coaches are now teaching this technique to non-elite swimmers too. Here are Swim Smooth's thoughts on this emerging area:

- Extreme EVF used by elite swimmers requires a great deal of shoulder mobility and stability. Most amateur swimmers do not have this specific flexibility or strength and because of this they risk shoulder injury by attempting extreme EVF - particularly if they do not have the benefit of close coaching.

Rebecca Adlington's Extreme EVF Catch

- When coaching advanced swimmers, we have found that extreme EVF requires extremely good rhythm and timing to be effective. The vast majority of non-elite swimmers lack the flexibility and co-ordination to achieve an extreme EVF position at racing speeds.

- As a rule, beginner and intermediate swimmers have very poor catches with dropped elbows, dropped wrist hand positions and very little elbow bend. During the catch phase they tend to push down on the water rather than pushing it back behind them. This is also common to see in advanced level swimmer's stroke technique. For nearly every non-elite swimmer and triathlete, there is a very large scope for improvement in their catch without aiming for extreme-EVF positions.

In our opinion, extreme EVF isn't a priority for the vast majority of amateur swimmers and triathletes. Simply developing a good 'conventional' catch (you could call this 'non-extreme EVF') will improve their propulsion dramatically. Swim Smooth coach such a catch to non-elite swimmers, as we described in the section above. A conventional catch technique is much more achievable for those with non-elite skill levels and carries a much lower injury risk.

Coaches, want to debate this further? Get involved with our coaches network!


When you get the catch and pull through right it feels like a smooth flowing action, it feels easy but gives you great propulsion. You will have an awareness that you are using your larger pectoral and latissmus dorsi muscles (pecs and lats) to drive and time the movement.

Work on improving your catch and pull through by avoiding the pitfalls and using the tips we described above.

Swim Smooth's Catch Masterclass

Our amazing Catch Masterclass DVD!

If you really want to perfect your catch, here's how!

Catch Masterclass is our brand new DVD for 2011, filmed with our new HD filming rig here in Perth, Australia. It features amazing footage of elite swimmers showing you exactly how they generate so much propulsion and how to make those changes in your stroke too.

Broken down into three easy to follow sections, we show you why the catch is so elusive and where you have gone wrong in the past.

Then we give you all the demonstrations, methods, drills, visualisations and training sessions you need to transform your catch.

Find out more here!

“The Catch Masterclass DVD is a superb rendering of how to find and develop the sometimes elusive key element of freestyle swimming, the catch. It is focused on one main (and vital) element of good swimming technique, with plenty of detail, but simplified so swimmers can work on developing a better swimming catch step by step and not get lost in those details.
This DVD is another winner from the Swim Smooth coaches. Five Stars!

about swimming


PT Paddles - a very different sort of paddle. Great for your catch.

A Useful Tool To Develop Your Catch

PT Paddles are a great tool to help you develop your catch. Unlike a normal paddle, they are designed to remove the grip and propulsion from your hand as you use them.

This allows you to focus on that bent elbow catch and pull to develop propulsion from the forearm. When you remove them and add your hands back in, an improved catch and pull technique will have stuck. Sweet.

You can find out more about PT Paddles here.

Swim Smooth Terms and Conditions

Swim Smooth Links

all about front crawl breathing here.
tips on triathlon swimming for you.
get a better front crawl catch and swim quicker.
all about swimming technique in your language.
all about freestyle technique to swim faster.
kick ass triathlon training plan for you.
all about front crawl breathing here.
tips on triathlon swimming for you.
get a better front crawl catch and swim quicker.
all about swimming technique in your language.
all about freestyle technique to swim faster.
kick ass triathlon training plan for you.