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To Teach Bent Arms or Not to Teach Bent Arm Freestyle

Should You Be Teaching Bent Arms Action?

The bent arms action is Not necessary to a fast freestyle!

Wait... Get Your Lesson Plans Here

Yep you heard it.

There are some top level swimmers today that use a straight arm action. How they do it I don't know because it must be exhausting. Never-the-less that is the case. Needles to say they must have enormous upper body strength to be able to carry it off without injury.

Having said that for most of us a bent arm action out of the water is the best form of arm recovery you can have.

Bent arm recovery by it's nature is faster and requires less energy.

You need proof?

A straight arm action out of the water requires the arm to travel in a circle.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

A bent arm action is essentially a straight line from exiting the water and entry into the water. The shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. Therefore a bent arm recovery must use less energy and be a faster arm recovery.

If a student comes to you and the teacher has only taught them freestyle using a kickboard - yes there are still some around - you won't have to do anything because they will already have a bent arm action out of the water. You will almost certainly, have to get them to finish their stroke underwater. (Teaching with a kickboard does have some advantages).

What do I mean by finish their stroke?

Well when a swim student has learned with or kickboard or other technique that has not picked up on this, you can end up with a stroke that does not end with a full extension of the students arms before they leave the water.

This results in a loss of propulsion. More often than not this is a reason why some students are having problems with their breathing. Not to mention increased effort and a less efficient stroke.

Whether you teach bent arm action to a swim student first or a straight arm action first (my personal preference) if a swim student is not finishing their freestyle stroke in my opinion the best way to correct it is to  get them to drill with a straight arm action (above) out of the water for a while.

I prefer to teach a straight arm action to a beginner before I teach them a bent arm action because I find it easier to teach a student to bend their arm than to get it straight. Particularly to those who have been doing a bent arm for a long time like adults.

Once a student has learned to finish their stroke, if they haven't already learn they need to learn a bent arm action out of the water.

Show Me The Way

There are a number of ways to teach a bent arm action out of the water:

1. Try getting them to run their thumb up their side in the arm recovery phase.

This has some significant disadvantages. New swimmers usually drag their hand through the water as they do this, but it does get their elbow bent. Remember this is an exaggerated swimming movement so keep it to a short term drill, otherwise the disadvantage becomes a fault that you have to fix (usually using catch up stroke with straight arm recovery out of the water).

2. Get them to alter their pitch on their hand . this is by far the easiest way but does not always achieve the results. Children in particular are really good a contortions that a body does not usually do.

3. Get the swimmer to put their hand in the water at their ear. This is an exaggerated swimming movement but over time the swimmer usually relaxes and the hand goes in the water at the correct position.

4. Using a kickboard held with one hand, do a one arm drill where the hand has to enter the water under the kickboard. That is the swimmer does one arm for one lap and the other arm for another lap. You must only do this with one arm at a time or it introduces faults that you have to fix (usually fixed using catchup stroke with straight arm recovery out of the water).

All of these are good drill for introducing a bent arm out of the water action which is the most efficient method of freestyle arm recovery. But I can't emphasis enough, you must only do this with one arm at a time or it introduces faults that you have to fix.



  1. Hi Richard, I have come across numerous teachers teaching the long arm (pain the floor, paint the wall) method. I honestly dont see the point personally... Why teach something that is not correct and then have to go back and fix it later on?? The one teacher said she teaches this method because younger kids have weaker muscles and this is easier for them... please can you help shed more light on this?

  2. G'day Anonymous,
    I like the description pain the floor, paint the wall to describe the straight arm technique. I've never actually heard that one before.
    The teacher you mentioned is quite correct about the muscles. It's not just the muscles however it is the whole motor development thing. But that is much too big a subject to cover here. As I understand it your real issue here is about techniques that require fixing latter on.
    I am a big fan of teaching children to do a windmill action with their arms and just not correcting it if there arms are not straight; as long as they have propulsion. But the reality is that it doesn't matter what method you teach, you are going to have to correct something latter on. As long as each new step builds on the previous one, the stroke will resolve itself sooner or latter.
    What I am saying is that if you find a more efficient way to teach, teach that if your school will let you; sometimes there are commercial, public relation and even political considerations as well as safety to take account of, not just efficiency. Just realize you are always going to have to fix something no matter how good you technique is.