Swim Drills – Helpful or Harmful?
Rod Havriluk, Ph.D.

There are a wide variety of swim drills regularly used by teams everywhere. Some drills are extremely beneficial because they accelerate the learning process. Other drills accomplish little, while some even interfere with a swimmer’s progress.

In evaluating a swim drill, it is most important to determine if the drill replicates effective technique. A productive drill isolates part of a stroke so that a swimmer can focus on critical technique elements. Counterproductive drills distort the body from the normal swimming position, reinforce ineffective arm synchronization, or stress the shoulder.

Drills can be extremely beneficial for the bilateral strokes (breaststroke and butterfly). Helpful butterfly and breaststroke drills isolate either the arms or the legs while maintaining bilateral symmetry. For example, a swimmer can better attend to arm technique elements when there is no leg motion. Butterfly and breaststroke drills are also useful in minimizing the head motion for breathing.

Unfortunately, freestyle drills are generally counterproductive because they reinforce positions and motions that are not consistent with optimal technique. Most freestyle drills position the arms with poor leverage and excess shoulder stress. When the arm is held stationary in front of the body and parallel to the surface, the angle at the shoulder compresses the soft tissue between the bones of the upper arm and shoulder. The resulting irritation and decreased blood flow is classically related to shoulder impingement. (Torso rotation with this arm position further stresses the shoulder and increases the time of tissue irritation.

“Catch-up” stroke is a very popular freestyle drill, but it promotes ineffective arm synchronization – resulting in gaps in propulsion, fluctuations in body velocity, and an inefficient use of energy. In contrast, research supports a continuous source of propulsion from “superposition” arm coordination for the fastest swimming. In freestyle, swimmers can progress much faster by focusing on specific technique elements within a normal stroke cycle, as opposed to wasting time with harmful drills.

In conclusion, swim drills can be helpful or harmful. A helpful drill replicates effective technique without negative consequences. In some cases, progress is accelerated by using strategies that focus on specific cues within a normal stroke cycle.