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Front Crawl Drills: 5 Of The Best To Build Muscle & Technique

5 of the best front crawl drills to help you build muscle & improve your technique

Whether you’re not feeling challenged enough, not getting as fit as you’d like or just want to try something new in your swim sessions, front crawl drills can be an incredibly effective solution. They can help mix up a workout so that you’re not just doing laps, and help keep you engaged and motivated – no doubt you’ll already be including some in your sessions.

But often I’ve seen swimmers (myself included) simply repeating the old drills that we know, without considering the parts of our stroke or body that need extra work.

The first thing is to figure out where you can improve so that you can go for the most effective drills for your need.

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Is it technique or strength?

Start by videoing your stroke or getting someone to watch you. Check off the following boxes for each category:

  • Are getting enough power from your legs for your effort?
  • Are getting enough power from your arms for your effort?
  • Are your abs engaged throughout?
  • Are your legs kicking hard and consistently?
  • Are you streamlined enough?
  • Are you relaxed when you breathe?
  • Is your body rotation smooth and fluid?
  • Is your arm fully outstretched when your body is rotated to the side, for maximum reach?
  • How often do you breathe? Is it too much or too little?
  • How far do you turn on your side when you breathe? Do you over-rotate?
  • Does your pull follow the classic keyhole/S shape?
  • Where are your feet when you kick? Do they lag in the water or do they sit on top?

These are some of the strength and technique checks you can do, but if possible, get your coach or trainer to have a look at your stroke. If you don’t have a swimming coach or you are just starting out, you can hire a coach for a short session or (for a free option!) get a friend to give you some pointers after watching some professional swimmers on YouTube.

Strength: ARMS

  1. Catch Up Fartlek

    If you’re a frequent swimmer, you’ll undoubtedly have heard of the catch-up drill, but for the benefit of those who haven’t, I shall explain. Catchup involves always stretching out one arm in front, and while the other arm “catches up” stays there. Once you complete a normal front crawl stroke, pulling through the water in an S shape and reaching up out of the water to meet your other hand up front, you touch fingers and the other arm can now move. It’s like a game of tag, but you play all by yourself – sounds fun, right?

    So, this is a normal catch up. Normal catch up is a great place to start for beginners, as it builds up strength in the arms having to hold one in front at any one time. For those who’d like a challenge, there’s Catch Up Fartlek.

    This firstly involves intermittent sprints, whilst maintaining catch-up form. You’ve got to pull in your abs and fly from the flags! And it’s exactly that.

    Sprint for the stretch of the pool between the flags and rest in between as you turn. If there are no flags, 1 stroke with a push-off should get you to your sprint start point and finish sprinting when you have 3 or 4 strokes to go at the end of the length.

    Alternate between left arm only and right arm only for an extra challenge, or intersperse single-arm catchup sprints with normal catchup sprints.

    Feel the burn: For an extra arm challenge, and to feel the burn faster, take out the legs or add a pull-buoy. This means your momentum is all down to one arm, whether you’re doing single or both-arm catch-up, so you’ve got to keep moving!

    Strength: ARMS and LEGS

  2. Water treadmill for ARMS and LEGS

    Grab a board. For this exercise, hold the board out in front of you the flat side facing you, as though it were a wall. Rather than swimming with the board streamline, it is going to be your barrier, so you have to kick ten times as hard to move anywhere. You also have to put in a bit of extra power and speed to make sure your body doesn’t drop too much, and that you keep moving, and this will work your legs a bit too as an added bonus. You will certainly feel a short set of these so you can do this drill in and among your other lengths. See how many you can do before you need a freestyle rest.

  3. Water treadmill for LEGS

    Find a spot at the side of the pool. Bring yourself level with the water, with your feet just under the surface whilst holding onto the poolside. If there is nowhere appropriate to hold onto, a pool ladder rungs also work well.

    If you struggle keeping your body upright for this one, invest in a pool noodle to give you that lift you need.

    Now, holding on, kick into the wall. This will also work your abs as you hold yourself in place and your body upright. Kick into the wall in 10-second sprints, with 20 seconds’ rest. Repeat for a set of 10. Do as many sets as you can, or integrate these 5-minute workouts throughout your swimming session.

    Technique: BREATHING

    Image of swimmer in a pool lane doing front crawl drills, breathing from the side of his mouth
    Swimmer Breathing Side of Mouth

    Breathing is often a huge technique issue for swimmers; I’ve seen it cause problems countless times, and even cause a swimmer to lose the enjoyment of the sport. Bad breathing or feeling stressed when feeling like they can’t breathe enough can be easily solved with one thing: relaxing. It might sound daft to proficient swimmers who have never felt like their breathing was an issue, but for beginners, this is key.

    I find this crossed over into other sports too. Not being a very good runner myself, I always find feeling constantly out of breath quite unsettling, and I can imagine, underwater (where oxygen is less readily available), that new swimmers could feel just the same.

    But breathing well in any sport, including swimming, can be done poorly by even the best – so understanding and focusing on your breath is key to good form.

  4. Catch up… with a twist (aka. Windmill)
    Image of a swimmer doing front crawl drills in a swimming pool lane
    Lane Swimming Front Crawl

    This really isn’t catch up, but simple one-sided swimming, but you’ll see why it has its title(s) in a second. Like in catch up one arm will always be extended, but this time you will twist to lay on your side and stay there.

    With one arm extended in front, the other will carry on the stroke as normal but the vital part is that your mouth will be out of the water the whole time, your head facing upwards, as comfortably as possible. The idea is that you will glide along, able to freely breathe, and your arm will windmill three strokes before switching sides.

    Allowing yourself to relax and enjoy this exercise is key. Enjoy the free breaths, enjoy the water, and enjoy paddling yourself along with one arm. Once you’re happy, move the strokes to change sides every two, then everyone. There is a lot of twisting with this one!

    Finally, try your normal front crawl, and intersperse some of these free-breathing moments into your lengths. Once you feel comfortable with the knowledge that at any time you can turn and breathe freely, whilst relaxing on your side, you will begin to relax and enjoy your swimming.

    For Pro Swimmers: We’re all taught that we should breathe every three to keep an even stroke but of course, when competing, winning means efficient swimming. We can actually breathe more often or less frequently than every 3 strokes, but this is to your discretion – I often see sprinters barely breathe at all in a 50M race, whilst in longer races, some swimmers can build a better pace breathing just to one side one way, and the other on the way back.

    However, coming back to efficiency, we are often not taught how to most efficiently take a breath. What the more advanced swimmers get to learn is that because of physics, you can actually breathe with half your mouth still in the water.

    It sounds wrong, but it works. This is because, when you are swimming in a direction, the water is flowing past you so if you open your mouth at speed, only minimal water will go in, and this will only be to one side of your mouth. This way you can still breathe and expel any small amount of water that leaked in as you swim and exhale.

  5. Halfway breaths

    Try it! Try it alongside your normal swimming, but especially try it during sprints. The idea is that you have to spend less energy and waste less time rolling your body to breathe, so if you can perfect this technique for races, you’ll literally be a winner!

Of course, these 5 exercises are targeting some of the key ways you can strengthen your body and improve the most vital part of your technique, but there are many more out there for working on the other aspects we didn’t get to cover!

Let us know which part of your swimming technique you’d like us to focus on in our next article or which muscles you’d like more drills for (eg. arm, legs, abs) – or even which particular stroke you’d like some exercises for next.

We hope you enjoy your next session!

Emily Fedorowycz is: Passionate about the health benefits of swimming, Emily has been in the pool since she was a child (yes, her fingers are exceptionally wrinkly now). In her younger years, she received coaching through school and the local amateur swimming club KASA, eventually going on to compete for the KASA team. Currently, Emily swims for fitness and works with friends from KASA and other swimming associations.

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