Catch Phase of Front Crawl

Catch Phase of Front Crawl

How do you Define the “Catch phase of Front Crawl”? Is it One or all of the Following

  • Feel for the water?
  • When it all feels right?
  • Holding the water
  • A purchase on the water

Place your hands just under the surface of the water in a slightly cupped position with your forearms horizontal, then move them up and down over 2 small imaginary mounds of sand fairly quickly. You should be feeling the pressure of the water in your hands and you hold it together. This is the feel for the water you’re aiming at re-enacting in your front crawl stroke.

When you perform the catch phase correctly then you’ll be effectively pulling more water past you, and have a higher distance per stroke, using your large back muscles called the latissimus dorsi, and holding a higher purchase on the water.

The catch phase of front crawl is often something that can be a bit elusive in terms of feeling it and performing it correctly. It’s the point from where your arm is straight in the glide to where it’s in line with your shoulder once you have started moving your arm backwards.

However, even slight variations in hand pitch or speed or extra drag can affect how this is completed. Video analysis and the experienced eye can be the only way to determine what is happening and how to correct with the right series of swim drills and stroke corrections. Some of the errors (known or unknown) that can affect how solid your catch is, are as follows:

  • Slipping through the water
  • Snatching in the catch with too much power
  • Pointing your hands upon entry
  • Hands veering in towards the midline or too wide
  • Arms staying too straight in the catch
  • Elbows not bending enough
  • Forearms not at the correct 90-degree angle
  • Elbows winging in towards the body

So how do you Perform the Catch Correctly for Maximum Purchase on the Water?

Your goals for an excellent and effective catch phase are:

  1. A high and early vertical forearm (EVF) position
  2. Keep your lead arm up high in the water on entry
  3. Reach over a barrel and push it behind you
  4. Pivot at the elbow keeping upper arm up high
  5. Perform the catch slower than the rest of the underwater stroke
  6. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees
  1. An Early vertical forearm is related to having your forearm in a vertical position in the water by the time it’s in line with your shoulder. This includes your hand, wrist and forearm acting as your paddle, all being in a line. No bending initially at the wrist. This will ensure you’re pulling the maximum amount of water back to drive you forwards.
  1. If your lead arm drops then you’ll start the catch from a lower position, missing a vital section of the stroke, or even do this with a straight arm, bending later in the pull phase. This can also be related to your head position being too low.
  1. Simply visualise then imagine you are scooping your hand and forearm over the top of a barrel and then push it behind you. It will help to keep your elbow higher.
  1. Push your elbow forwards slightly prior to doing this, try and scoop as much water as you can into the gap. Your upper arm should just be under the surface of the water. Bending your elbow keeps your upper arm high in the water, ensuring a larger volume of water is pulled in a backwards direction, resulting in a higher distance per stroke.
  1. If you slip through the catch by using too much arm speed or power then you’ll continue slipping through the rest of the stroke underwater. Slower is better in the catch, followed by speeding up later in the pull and push phases of the stroke underwater.
  1. This you will probably have to over-exaggerate if your arms are normally straight. Imagine you are swimming in shallow water and your arms can’t be straight, with your elbows out wide. Try getting out of the swimming pool just using your arms in a straight position, then bent to 90 degrees, 90 degrees it much stronger!

Front Crawl Drills to Help you Improve your Catch

Reach over a barrel


Improves distance per stroke and helps ingrain/maintain an effective catch position and purchase on the water.

How to do it:

Pull yourself over an imaginary barrel, pushing it behind you. Scoop your arm over the top maintaining a high elbow position. This keeps your elbow high during the catch part of the stroke, thereby maintaining an effective catch. Aim to perform a slower catch, bringing your elbow to 90 degrees with a vertical forearm and your fingers pointing down. You should have a vertical forearm position by the time your arm is in line with your shoulder.

Glide rotating into catch


This is an excellent front crawl drill as it enables you to focus on and improve your long-axis rotation, entry and catch phase, and feel for the water, and learn when to apply power in the 2nd power phase of the stroke underwater.

How to do it:

1. Starting with your one arm overhead, rotate your body on a long axis, using your core and hip muscles to drive it. Keep your lead arm high in the water to help maximise the catch and volume of water you’re about to pull back. This is key, the larger the volume of water and the higher your elbows the faster you’ll go for the same effort.

2. Then slowly placing your other hand into the water maintaining a high elbow position start to initiate the catch phase by lifting your elbow and allowing your forearm to pivot so its pointing backwards. Remember not too much pressure here or you’ll slip water!

3. Perform a slower than normal catch with a high and early vertical forearm position and the elbow at 90 degrees, i.e. so that your forearm is vertical by the time it’s in line with your shoulder. Keep your hand and wrist firm with about a 15-degree angle.

4. Continue the stroke through to your thigh to maximise your distance per stroke. Perform a series of 50-metre sets and count your strokes per length as you try to perfect this. You should see a reduction in your strokes per length when you get this right!

Try these swim drills, perform them slowly and with poise and grace, not rushing them, and allow your mind and body via your muscles the chance to learn and ingrain them into perfect muscle memory. The more you can do the better your catch will be!

We teach front crawl video analysis lessons in an endless pool at Tribal in Chertsey, Surrey, KT16 9NH:

Nick is a level 3 British Triathlon Coach, STA Level 2 swim teacher, Open water coach, Level 1 Training Peaks coach, and Training Bible coaching Master endurance coach with 25 years’ experience in triathlon, founder and Head Coach for Speedy Swimming.