How to Swim Bent Arm Freestyle

Freestyle is one of the first strokes new swimmers learn, and most coaches initially focus on the straight-arm technique since it’s easy to pick up. But you shouldn’t necessarily swim straight-arm freestyle forever! Doing so can lead to sore shoulders and maybe even permanent damage. If you plan to train for long hours, or simply wish to progress as a swimmer, it's important to add bent-arm freestyle to your repetoire! 

Why Use Bent-Arm at All?

Sure, straight-arm freestyle is relatively easy to learn and simple to use, plus you can pull a lot of water with each stroke which makes it ideal for sprints or short-distance swimming. Once you move onto long-distance events or more strenuous training, though, you’ll want to learn bent-arm freestyle. Your shoulders will thank you!

Straight-arm recovery makes it difficult to rotate your body, which limits the efficiency of each stroke. These long strokes can eventually tire you out and, in turn, slow down your arms. Plus, pulling a lot of water in the straight-arm motion can be incredibly strenuous on your shoulders, possibly leading to tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries, and/or shoulder impingements.

The bent-arm recovery is an easy way to avoid these limitations and possible injury risks. It allows for easier rotation, a smoother stroke, and sets you up for a strong, efficient pull.

Learning the Bent-arm Recovery

Swimming freestyle with a bent-arm recovery will both help to prevent arm and shoulder injuries, and ensure a proper rotation through your stroke. Follow the instructions below to learn how to swim with a bent-arm recovery:

  1. Start at the wall.
  2. Push off the wall and side kick.
  3. Extend one arm out in front of you and leave your other arm at your side. Roll to oneside so that your arm on that side is out of the water and the other is extended in front of you. Your extended arm’s armpit should be submerged and facing the bottom of the pool.
  4. Begin your recovery with the arm that’s at your side. As you lift your arm, point your elbow to the sky and your fingertips down toward the bottom of the pool. Lead with the back of your hand. Keeping your arm close to your body, your hand should move in a straight line.
  5. After your recovery, place that hand back into the water and extend it out in front of you.
  6. Now pull with your other arm and rotate to your other side. As you pull, imagine there’s a barrel in the water floating underneath you. Wrap your arm around the “barrel” and push it behind you. This arm positioning is called “hugging the barrel.” It will help you bend your elbow on your pull and grip the water with your forearm. After pushing the water past your hip, you should have finished rotating to your other side.

    This short video will help you visualize how to rotate your body as you wrap your arm around "the barrel."

  7. Continue doing this drill until you’re comfortable using a bent-arm recovery.

Other Helpful Drills

If you’re having difficulty performing this skill, there are other drills you can incorporate into your workout that focus on the pull and recovery:

  • Six-kick switch
  • Catch-up freestyle
  • Fingertip drag
  • Zipper drill

All of the aforementioned drills focus on your arm positioning during your recovery. You can also use paddles to get an even stronger feel for the correct pull. Wearing paddles increases the surface area of your hands; if you make a mistake on your pull or recovery, you’ll feel it immediately and can focus on fixing it.

The Pay Off

You might feel overwhelmed when first learning how to perform the bent-arm recovery, but all that hard work is worth the time and effort. Not only will you have a stronger pull, but you’ll also avoid unnecessary shoulder injuries. The technique might take weeks to master, but you’ll reap the benefits in the long run.

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