The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Front crawl

Front crawl is the fastest swimming style known, and therefore usually swum in freestyle competitions. The front crawl is one of two long axis strokes ; the other being backstroke. It is not a swimming style officially regulated by FINA unlike breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly.


Speed and ergonomics

Front crawl is the fastest and most effective swimming style, and therefore usually swum in freestyle competitions. The maximum swimming speed is around 2.17 meters per second while swimming. (If the faster start and turns are included in the measurement, the average speed may exceed 2.17 meter per second.) The swimming position on the breast allows full flexibility of the arm in the water, compared to backstroke, where the hands cannot be moved easily along the back of the spine. The recovery out of the water reduces drag, compared to the in water recovery of breaststroke. The alternating arm stroke also allows some rolling movement of the body for an easier recovery compared to for example butterfly. Finally, the alternating arm stroke makes for an almost constant speed throughout the cycle. While the butterfly style has a higher peak speed in the cycle due to the double arm pull/push, the average speed of butterfly is only 1.98 m per second.


The front crawl has been in use since ancient times. In the western world, the front crawl was first seen in 1844 in London. Native Americans participating in this competition swam front crawl, defeating the British breaststroke swimmers easily. As this produced considerable splashing in the water and embarrassment outside, it was considered a barbaric and "un-European" way to swim by the British gentlemen, who preferred to keep their heads out of the water. Subsequently, the British continued to swim only breaststroke until 1873.

In 1873 John Arthur Trudgen learned the front crawl stroke from Native Americans during a trip to South America (the exact date, however, is disputed and may be anywhere between 1870 and 1890). However, Trudgen mistakenly used the (in Britain) more common breaststroke kick instead of the flutter kick used by the Native Americans. This stroke was then called the Trudgen or Trudgen. Due to its speed the stroke quickly became popular.

The Trudgen was improved by the British-born Australian swimming teacher and swimmer Richard (Fred, Frederick) Cavill. Like Trudgen, he watched natives from the Solomon Islands, using front crawl. But unlike Trudgen, he noticed the flutter kick, and studied it closely. He used this new flutter kick instead of the breaststroke (or scissor) kick. This modified Trudgen stroke became known as Australian crawl until 1950, when it was shortened to crawl, technically known as front crawl. This stroke, with minor modifications, is the front crawl used today.

(see History of swimming)


The initial position in freestyle is on the breast, with both arms stretched to the front and the legs extended to the back.

The arm movement

The arm movement in freestyle is alternating, i.e. while one arm is pushing/pulling, the other arm is recovering. The arm strokes also provide most of the forward movement in freestyle. The move can be separated into three parts, the pull, the push, and the recovery.

From the initial position, the arm sinks slightly lower and the palm of the hand turns 45 degree with the thumb side of the palm towards the bottom. This is called catching the water and is in preparation for the pull. It also gives the muscles a brief rest during swimming. The pull movement follows a semicircle with the elbow higher than the hand and the hand pointing towards the body center and downward. The semicircle ends in front of the chest at the beginning of the ribcage.

The push pushes the palm backward through the water underneath the body at the beginning and at the side of the body at the end of the push. The movement increases speed throughout the pull push phase until the hand is moving at its greatest speed shortly before the end of the push.

Some time after the beginning of the recovery of the one arm the other arm begins its pull. The recovery moves the elbow in a semicircle in a vertical plane in the swimming direction. The lower arm and the hand is completely relaxed and hangs down from the elbow close to the water surface and close to the swimmers body. This gives the muscles a brief opportunity to rest. The beginning of the recovery looks similar to pulling the hand out of the back pocket of a pair of pants, with the small finger upwards. Further into the recovery phase, the hand movement has been compared to pulling up a center zip on a wetsuit. The recovering hand moves forward, with the fingers trailing downward, just above the surface of the water.

Beginners often make the mistake of not relaxing the arm during the recovery and of moving the hand too high and too far away from the body, in some cases even higher than the elbow. In these cases, drag and incidental muscle effort is increased at the expense of speed. The hand should enter the water thumb first as far forward as possible, reducing drag through possible turbulence. After a brief rest the next cycle begins.

A recreational variation of front crawl involves only one arm moving at any one time, while the other arm rests and is stretched out at the front. This style is called a 'catch up' stroke and requires less strength for swimming. This is because the immersed length of the body is longer and more streamlined. This style is slower than the regular front crawl, and is very rarely used competitively: however, it is often used for training purposes even by professional swimmers, as it increases the body's awareness of being streamlined in the water. See Total immersion.

The leg movement

The leg movement in freestyle is called the flutter kick. The legs move alternating, with one leg kicking downward while the other leg moves upward. While the legs provide only a small part of the overall speed, they are important to stabilize the body position.

The leg in the initial position bends very slightly at the knees, and then kicks the lower leg and the foot downwards similar to kicking a football. The legs may be bent inward slightly. After the kick the straight leg moves back up. A frequent mistake of beginners is to bend the legs too much or to kick too much out of the water.

Ideally, there are 6 kicks per cycle, although it is also possible to use 4 kicks or even 2 kicks. Franziska van Almsick, for example, swims very successfully with four kicks per cycle. Alternatively, front crawl can also be swum with a butterfly kick, although this reduces the stability of the swimming position. A breaststroke kick with front crawl arms (the Trudgen) is awkward, because the breathing pattern for front crawl needs a rotation, yet a breaststroke kick resists this rotation..


Normally, the face is in the water during front crawl, with the waterline approximately on the height of the eyes. Breaths are taken through the mouth by turning the head to the side of a recovering arm at the beginning of the recovery, and breathing in the triangle between the upper arm, lower arm, and the waterline. Due to the forward movement there will be a bow wave with a trough in the water surface near the ears. After turning the head a breath can be taken in this trough, without the need to move the mouth above the average water surface. The head is rotated back at the end of the recovery and points down and forward again when the recovered hand enters the water. The swimmer breathes out through mouth and nose until the next breath. Breathing out through the nose avoids water entering the nose.

Standard swimming calls for one breath every third arm recovery, i.e. every 1.5 cycles. This alternates the sides for breathing. Some swimmers instead take a breath every cycle, i.e. every second arm recovery. This causes breathing to one side only. Since breathing slightly reduces the speed, most competition swimmers breathe every 1.5 cycles. Sprint swimmers or swimmers sprinting the last few meters of a longer distance may breathe even less.

In water polo, sometimes the head is kept out of the water completely for better orientation. This causes a much steeper body position and higher drag (but of course constant above water visibility, and breathing).

Body movement

The body rolls along its long axis with every arm stroke such that the shoulder of the recovering arm is higher than the shoulder of the pushing/pulling arm. This makes the recovery much easier, reduces drag as one shoulder is out of the water, and reduces the need to turn the head to breathe.

Side-to-side movement is kept to a minimum: one of the main functions of the leg kick is to maintain the line of the body.


The start is the regular start for swimming. After entering the water a brief gliding phase follows, followed by an underwater flutter kick or butterfly kick. After a maximum of 15m the swimmer has to surface.

Turn and finish

The front crawl swimmer uses a tumble turn to reverse directions in minimal time. The swimmer swims close to the wall as quickly as possible. In the swimming position with one arm forward and one arm to the back, the swimmer does not recover one arm, but rather uses the pull/push of the other arm to initialize a somersault with the knees straight to the body. At the end of the somersault the feet are at the wall, and the swimmer is on the back with his hands to the front. The swimmer then pushes himself off the wall while turning sideways to lay on the breast. After a brief gliding phase, the swimmer starts with either a flutter kick or a butterfly kick before surfacing no more than 15m from the wall.

A variant of the tumble turn is to make a somersault earlier with straight legs, throwing the legs toward the wall and gliding to the wall. This has a small risk of injury because the legs could hit another swimmer or the wall.

For the finish the swimmer has to touch the wall with any body part, usually the hand. Most swimmers sprint the finish as often as possible, possibly reducing their breathing rate.


Front crawl is not officially regulated by the FINA. For a list of competitions usually swum in front crawl see Freestyle swimming

External link

  • Detailed discussion of swimming techniques and speeds

Last updated: 05-07-2005 04:59:45
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04