Freestyle, often the first stroke learned by beginner swimmers, is deceptively simple. Though considered one of the easier strokes, mastering freestyle requires understanding of its history, technique, and nuances.

Let’s dive in with this ultimate guide to swimming freestyle!

Watch the video for the full story:

The Evolution of Freestyle (or Front Crawl)

Long before the days of Michael Phelps, humans were getting after it in the water. 

Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s some evidence of an over-arm stroke being used by ancient Greeks and Assyrians. And the use of front crawl-like strokes was also well documented among Native Americans, Pacific Island tribes and various African peoples. 

These days though, freestyle is the most popular stroke worldwide. But it took Europeans a while to fully accept freestyle into their repertoires at first. This is due in part to Europe’s aversion to swimming during the pandemic-ridden Dark Ages.

It all started with side stroke. 

In the 1840s, swimmers started to adopt the English side stroke instead of breaststroke. This stroke had a scissor kick and underwater arm recovery. It was said that when viewed from above, swimmers doing side stroke looked like they were running. 

Side stroke. Via Outing Publishing Co. & Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, this side stroke was modified to include over-water recovery with one arm, based on a side stroke technique used by aboriginal Australians.

For the next 40-some years, most races were done side stroke. But one race in 1844 cemented freestyle in the back of swimmers’ minds everywhere. 

That year, two Native Americans, Flying Gull and Tobacco of the Ojibwe tribe, traveled to London to compete in a swim race. 

Flying Gull by Fanny Corbaux via Wikimedia Commons

When the race began, spectators were shocked at what they saw. Flying Gull and Tobacco’s strokes were described as “un-European.” One spectator said that the swimmers “thrashed the water violently with their arms, like sails on a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics.”

The two newcomers left a lasting impression on swimmers across the pond. Flying Gull swam across the 130-foot pool (that’s about 40 meters) in 30 seconds. But the Europeans weren’t quite ready to let go of breaststroke as their go-to stroke…yet. 

Early Freestyle

On the sidelines, a few creative swimmers were still experimenting.

In the 1870s, Englishman John Trudgen debuted the Trudgen stroke, which took side stroke to the next level. 

Swimming with his chest flat and head out of the water, Trudgen alternated swinging each arm over the water, adding a horizontal breaststroke kick to each stroke cycle. The stroke was very jerky, but was great over short distances. 

Around this time, some swimmers began experimenting with a variation of a scissor kick that would likely look similar to the flutter kick we use today. 

At the 1902 International Championships, Australian swimmer Richmond Cavill debuted a new take on the stroke based on what he saw natives of the Solomon Islands doing. Dubbed the Australian Crawl, this stroke was faster and more efficient than the Trudgen, due mostly to the up-and-down kick, which was probably similar to a flutter kick. 

Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cavill set a new world record with this stroke, swimming 100 yards in 58.4 seconds. Not bad!

American Charles Daniels improved Cavill’s stroke further, adding a six-beat kick (that’s three kicks for each arm stroke), and the American Crawl was born.

In the last century, freestyle has remained a dominant stroke in both racing and training. Side stroke is still around too, but it’s mostly used in life saving and military training exercises. You won’t see it at the Olympics. 

Europeans were definitely late to the party on freestyle, but they came around eventually, and these days Europeans are some of the most dominant freestyle swimmers.

Is it Freestyle or Front Crawl?

Before we move on, we have to address the freestyle versus front crawl debate. 

Why is the 50 freestyle not called the 50 front crawl? Are freestyle and front crawl the same thing? It comes down to rules. 

Technically, in a freestyle race, you can swim any legal stroke as long as you do that same stroke for the whole race. So, you could swim breaststroke or butterfly in a 50 free and not get disqualified. 

Front crawl could be considered the official name for what most of us call freestyle, but it really depends on who you ask. Some people call it freestyle, and some people call it front crawl. Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts!

Related: The History of All 4 Swimming Strokes >

Technique Breakdown

Body Position

A proper body position is crucial for efficient freestyle:

  • Hips High: Keep your hips close to the water’s surface. If your head is too high, your hips will drop, creating drag.
  • Neutral Head Position: Look down, not forward. This helps maintain high hips and reduces drag.
  • Press Your Chest: This subtle adjustment can further elevate your hips.

Related: Looking for swim workouts? Download the MySwimPro app >

The Catch and Pull

Your freestyle stroke involves a balanced catch and pull:

  • Entry Point: Enter the water with your fingertips about 18 inches in front of your shoulder at a 45-degree angle, leading with your middle finger.
  • Avoid Crossing the Center Line: Imagine a line from your head to your toes. Crossing this line with your hands can disrupt your stroke.
  • Rotation: Engage your core and initiate rotation from your hips, not your shoulders. This enhances stroke efficiency and helps maintain a streamlined position.
  • Early Vertical Forearm (EVF): Bend at the elbow after full extension, pointing your fingertips down. This position turns your arm into a paddle, allowing for a stronger pull.

Related: How to Swim Freestyle for Beginners: 5-Step Guide


Breathing can be a challenge but is essential for maintaining rhythm and endurance:

  • Neutral Head Position: Avoid lifting your head or twisting excessively.
  • One Eye in, One Eye Out: When breathing, keep one eye in the water and one out. This ensures minimal disruption to your stroke and body position.
  • Consistent Breathing Pattern: Breathe every two to three strokes to ensure a steady oxygen supply and prevent fatigue.
The Kick

Your kick should be controlled and efficient:

  • Small, Fast Kicks: Focus on hip-driven kicks rather than bending your knees excessively.
  • Minimal Knee Bend: Legs should remain mostly straight with pointed toes, creating a larger surface area to propel you forward.
  • Avoid Wide Kicks: Wide kicks increase drag. Use your kick to maintain body position and drive rotation.

Related: Start Your 2-Week Kick Technique Training Plan >

Drills and Tips

To refine your freestyle, incorporate specific drills:

  • Fist Drill: Swim with fists to emphasize the early vertical forearm.
  • Paddle Drill: Place a paddle on your head to maintain proper head position and breathing technique.

Freestyle swimming, while seemingly simple, requires attention to detail in body position, stroke mechanics, breathing, and kicking. By understanding its history and mastering these techniques, you’ll swim more efficiently and effortlessly. Keep practicing, and you’ll find yourself gliding through the water with speed and grace. Happy swimming!

Need Swim Workout Ideas?

Download the MySwimPro app! Get the app on your phone or smartwatch, and get your personalized swim training plan. Every workout is adapted to your speed and skill level, and adjusts as you progress. 

Click here to start your free trial.

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.