Front Crawl Arm Movement

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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You’re interested in learning how to swim, but not just being able to thrash around in the water. You want to have a graceful and practiced form that comes from learning a swimming stroke like a front crawl, but where do you start?

Learning the proper technique for your arms during the front crawl before practicing the stroke will make your movements more streamlined for fast, easy swimming without using all your energy too quickly.

Read on to learn just how the arms are used in the front crawl and why these movements are standard practice for even Olympic swimmers.


What is the Arm Movement for the Front Crawl?

The front crawl stroke gets its name from how the movement of the arms mimics that of crawling.

The forward motion of the arms reaches out ahead of the swimmer’s body, pulling the outstretched arm down and back towards the body’s trunk.

Before the hand leaps out of the water and into the air is similar to that of a crawling motion someone might do if his or her legs were immobilized.

These arm movements have technical terms and can be divided into four parts accordingly:


  • the down sweep
  • the sweep
  • the upsweep
  • the recovery


What are the 3 Phases of the Arm Movements in the Front Crawl?

To better understand how these four parts come together to form the front crawl stroke, and for easier practice, the stroke is often divided into just three main phases of motion. They are:


  1. Catchphrase
  2. Pull phase
  3. Recovery phase


The cycling through and repetition of these arm motions is what generates the majority of a swimmer’s propulsion in the water during the front crawl.



Known as the “catch phase” because of the way the hand “catches” water during entry into the pool or body of water, this is the first and, perhaps, the most difficult phase to truly master. This phase only involves the down sweep.

In order to keep a streamlined profile for maximum speed with minimum effort, the hand enters the water first between the positions of the shoulder and the head. 

Then, with fingers closed and thumb pointed downwards, the hand is reached out in front of the swimmer as it sinks into the water.

The arm is extended fully to get the most out of this cycle’s stroke. You mustn’t overextend or even hyper-extend your arm to prevent injury from incorrect form and loss of speed from improper timing.


Pull phase

Also known as the “propulsive phase,” this is the phase where the swimmer shoots forward, pulling (hence the name) water from front to back. This is part of the arms cycle that uses the in-sweep and upsweep.

All actions during the pull phase should be fully submerged in the water, with no part of the arm, elbow, or hand escaping the water’s surface.

The fully extended arm is pulled backward and underneath the core of the body to propel the swimmer forward with cupped hands. Proper form is when the elbow pushes this movement backward while the hand simply follows through down to the hip and thighs.

At the end of this phase, the elbow and hand move upwards to position themselves for the cycle’s next phase.


Recovery phase

The recovery phase, as the name suggests, contains the recovery motion. This is when the arm breaks through the water’s surface, finishing one cycle and preparing to start the next.

If your form is correct, your elbow should already be pretty high in the water, which is ideal as the elbow controls the movement in this motion again. The elbow bends upward to exit the water before the hand follows, exposing the entirety of the arm to the air.

Because the elbow is bent, the whole arm experiences muscle relaxation while the shoulder muscles hold the arm high out of the water. 

Therefore, the end of the recovery phase should seamlessly move into the beginning of the catchphrase, with the arm extending back down towards the water in preparation for the next cycle.

You might wonder when you should breathe during all this arm movement and where you can breathe with the head being almost completely submerged during arm cycles and from any splashing as a result of the arms’ movement. 

The recovery phase is also when it is best to take a breath. Normally, a swimmer using the front crawl will breathe on alternating sides of the body. This is because the standard practice involves taking a breath after every third recovery phase.

Breathing during the recovery phase occurs as the arm transitions towards the catch phase, during the loose formation of a triangle between the upper and lower parts of the arm and the waterline. 

The head rotates towards the side of the body to take a breath in this triangular window before returning to its normal position.

Something important to note during the front crawl is that the flutter kicks from the legs stabilize the swimming position, not the arms, which are primarily used for the propulsion in this stroke.


What are the Entry Hands and Arms of the Front Crawl?

The fingers of the hand should always be pressed together to form a sort of cup for pushing and pulling water. The hand is first to enter the water during the catchphrase and last to leave during recovery.

The elbow, or arm, is the reverse of the hand, being the last to enter the catch phase and the first to leave during the recovery phase. To remain as streamlined as possible means following these movements closely.


Final Thoughts on Front Crawl Arm Movement

Although many people know that the legs are stronger than the arms, the front crawl is actually powered by the arms while the legs take on a smaller stabilizing role.

Practicing the three phases of a front crawl cycle correctly until it becomes second nature will improve your speed and allow for consistent breathing without leading to premature exhaustion.