6 phases of the freestyle pulling cycle-Propulsion Phase Back Quadrant


The Six Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Motion

The Propulsion Phase-Back Quadrant

As we follow the path of the hand relative to the still water on the imaginary 2-foot clock face, and with the swimmer moving from left to right, the hand reaches the back quadrant right around 6 o’clock. From this point, the hand takes a slight detour and leaves the perimeter of the clock. Instead, the hand and arm elevate some, cutting a little bit of the clock off and take a shorter path, more of a straight line, toward 9 o’clock. The reason the hand takes this detour is to continue pushing backward in the water for as long as possible. There is no advantage to a swimmer pushing upward in the water.


From 6 O’clock backward, Gary Sr.’s hand cuts the corner of the circle to continue pressing backward. He completes his back-quadrant propulsion in .21 seconds.


Zane Grothe is in the back quadrant of his pulling motion. To help keep the hand pushing backward the upper arm elevates and is now moving backward, also generating a small amount of propulsion (VM technology).

The amount of time that the hand spends in the propulsion phase in the back quadrant varies, depending on the stroke technique being used. With hip-driven or hybrid freestyle technique, which have slower stroke rates and where the swimmer pushes the hand harder out the back, the duration in this phase is longer, ranging from .28 -.34 seconds. With shoulder-driven freestyle, where more emphasis is placed on a faster stroke rate and an earlier release of the hand, the duration is approximately .21-.26 seconds.

With any freestyle technique, however, it is important for the swimmer to maintain the maximum force possible pushing backward with the hand and forearm in all four quadrants, two on the right arm and two on the left arm. Coaches refer to this as holding water for as long as the stroke rate permits. Most swimmers don’t do that. At some point along the path backwards, they allow the hand to turn in, turn out, slide upwards or they overextend the wrist backwards (feathering), all of which lead to a loss of propulsion and speed. When a strong propulsive force is applied to the hand moving backward, it is virtually impossible to maintain the path in a perfectly straight line. The force applied to the hand will normally cause some excursion of it from side to side, but that lateral movement should not be much. Also, the upper arm must elevate in the back quadrant to avoid pushing upward with the hand.

At The Race Club we spend a great deal of energy and time trying to get the pulling motion right. From the hand entry all the way through the release phase of the pulling arm, we want to find the right balance between frontal drag and propulsion. The ideal pulling motion for a 50 sprint will be deeper than it is for an endurance event (high-elbow pull). For a short duration, a strong swimmer can sustain more frontal drag, while gaining more propulsion from the deeper pulling motion, and end up swimming faster. For any event longer than a 50 sprint, the importance of reducing frontal drag takes precedence over increasing the propulsion. The frontal drag forces of an incorrect pulling motion will wear a swimmer out very quickly. Drills such as the one-arm pulling drill, the high-elbow sculling drill, snap-paddle drill and six-kick-one-stroke drill all help swimmers to develop the correct pulling motion.

The amount of force or pressure applied with the hand in the back quadrant is also profoundly influenced by the speed of the swimmer’s hip rotation. The hip rotation occurs .2-.3 seconds after the shoulder rotation, just after the end of the back-quadrant propulsion phase. Even if the two events do not coincide precisely, the hip rotation occurs so soon after the end of the back-quadrant propulsion that it can still augment that force.  Pushing the hand harder out the back and rotating the hip more aggressively will slow the stroke rate resulting in more of a hip-driven or hybrid freestyle technique, rather than a shoulder-driven freestyle.

In the back quadrant, for the first time, the upper arm begins to move backward, although not at great speed. Therefore, the amount of propulsion generated by the backward-sweeping motion and elevation of the upper arm in the back quadrant is small.

Using Pressure Meter technology (PM from AP Labs Italy), which measures the pressure on the pulling hand, we have discovered that some swimmers will complete the propulsion phase by turning the hand upward, rather than continuing to press backward. In some cases, this upward pressure can be greater than all of the other time during the propulsive phase of the pull. There is no benefit to applying a strong force in an upward direction with the hand. The swimmer would be better served to put more effort into the propulsive phase with the hand moving backward. 

Once the arm runs out of length, the propulsion from the pulling arm is completed. The next step in the pulling cycle is to bring the arm and hand forward out of the water, getting ready to take the next pull in front. We call this final under water arm motion the release phase.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.