How & When to Swim Straight-arm Freestyle

If you follow competitive swimming, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen Olympians use straight-arm freestyle in sprinting events. Most sprinters at the higher level try out this technique at some point or another. If you are curious about straight-arm freestyle, this guide gives a good overview of how and when you should use it.

The Different Techniques

In freestyle, there are two dominant techniques. Traditional freestyle is the most common form, although many swimmers also use straight-arm freestyle. Each is used for different reasons.

Traditional Freestyle

This technique is used in all freestyle events, from sprinting to distance. Traditional freestyle — also known as “high elbow, low hand” or “bent-arm” freestyle — is what most competitive swimmers are taught by age nine.

As your arm exits the water after the pull, your elbow bends. This causes your elbow to rise high as you reach over the surface while dropping your hand low. Your arm straightens out as it extends out in front of your body and your fingertips slice into the water.

This recovery reduces the distance that your arm must travel, and it also ensures a smooth entry with your fingertips.

Straight-arm Freestyle

If you’ve been swimming since you were a kid, then you were most-likely taught straight-arm freestyle. Many children are taught this technique first, because it’s simpler than traditional freestyle. As your hand exits the water, your elbow remains locked. As you place your arm in front of you, your arm remains straight.

The simplified pull allows for more resistance against your forearm, causing you to pull more water per stroke.

This technique is almost solely used in sprinting events. Some very strong swimmers can perform straight-arm freestyle for a full 50m or 100m race. Other swimmers use this technique for the last 10-15 meters of their race.

Hot Tip: Bend Arms for Distance

If you’re a distance swimmer, stick to traditional freestyle for long events. Keep in mind that straight-arm freestyle is very strenuous on your shoulders. Thus, it should only be used for short distances—unless otherwise recommended by a professional coach.

Pros & Cons of Straight-arm Freestyle

When using straight-arm freestyle, you can get your arms around exceptionally fast while pulling a ton of water. This can be highly beneficial, but also very exhausting. Because of this, it’s tough to use in distances longer than 100 meters.

Traditional freestyle uses different muscles than straight-arm freestyle. By the time you have approached the last stretch of the final lap, you are probably very exhausted. Switching techniques before the final set of flags can actually speed up your stroke rate, and help you out-touch your opponents.

Using straight-arm freestyle can be much more strenuous on your shoulders. Think about it: You’re applying a ton of pressure on your arms so that they spin around like a windmill. Sure, this pulls lots of water. This effect does not necessarily last, though. Exhaustion can actually cause your arms to slow down.

Test it Out

Next time you’re in the pool, practice a couple of sprint 25s or 50s. Mess around with your freestyle technique, and see how you feel in the water. What seems fastest to you will be pivotal to how you feel during a race.

Push off the wall in a streamline, and start by sprinting traditional freestyle. When you feel like you’re at top speed, switch gears into straight-arm freestyle.

Lock & Rotate

After your hand exits the water at the end of the recovery, lock your elbow as your arm comes over the surface. When your hand lands out in front of you, make sure you fully rotate your shoulders to get the maximum pull out of each stroke.

Keep It Quick

Body awareness is absolutely essential while experimenting with this. Concentrate on a strong pull with quick arms. You want to make sure that you’re keeping your arms as stiff as possible to ensure the strongest pull and quickest recovery.

Mental Edge

Switching up techniques can be mentally refreshing in your race. The fresh sensation that your muscles feel can make your mind seem revived as well. This can be the heads up that your body needs, helping you speed up.


When to Switch Techniques

Try using traditional freestyle until the final set of flags. When you get to the final set of flags, switch to straight-arm freestyle. See how it feels to switch gears.

Make Adjustments

If you felt good on the last stretch and think you could use straight-arm freestyle for a longer distance, try again. This time, switch to straight-arm freestyle earlier in the sprint.

If you feel like you’re slowing down before you get to the wall, then you need to make some adjustments. The main goal of switching techniques is to accelerate on the finish. The last thing you want to do is slow down at the wall! Getting touched out in a race is a horrible feeling. Continue using traditional freestyle for a longer distance before switching to straight-arm.


Swimming is both an art and a science. New techniques are introduced, while old techniques are constantly reattempted. Testing straight-arm freestyle is definitely worth a shot, but it’s not a sure bet. See if it speeds up your stroke: Try it out in a couple of races and see if it feels faster. Swimming is all about experimenting and trying new things. Have fun trying different techniques!

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