Clearing Up The Confusion About 'Front-Quadrant Swimming'

You might have heard of something called Front Quadrant Swimming which has to do with the timing of your freestyle stroke. It's widely recognised as being an efficient way to swim and something that you should use in your own stroke technique but there's a lot of confusion about what it actually means:

If you drew two lines, one through the swimmer's head and one at water level you would create four quadrants:

Front quadrant swimming simply means that there is always one of your hands in one of the front quadrants (1 and 2) at any one point in time. Or, put even more simply, when your hands pass above and below the water, that should happen in front of your head, not behind it.

Let's look at some examples. Here's elite swimmer Jono Van Hazel from Perth:

Jono is a classic smooth and as you can see his hands pass in front of his head with classic front-quadrant timing. Jono's got brilliant stroke timing which is one reason why he looks so smooth when he swims. Notice how when the recovering arm is passing the head the lead hand has started the stroke and is catching the water - it's not pausing out front and doing nothing (more on that below):

You can see more of Jono swimming here:

Interestingly, even swimmers using very fast stroke rates normally still have front quadrant timing. Here's former triathlon world champion Tim Don swimming at a rapid 90 strokes per minute:

It's closer but Tim's arms are still clearly passing in front of the head. Also 7 Time World Marathon Swimming Champion Shelley Taylor Smith (see clinics above) who was also famous for using a high stroke rate:

Here's an example of a swimmer with the arms passing behind the head, breaking the front-quadrant rule:

Clare's arm is collapsing downwards whilst she is breathing giving her no support in front of her head and making breathing much harder than it needs to be. If you swallow water when you breathe this is likely to be the reason - try the one-two-stretch mantra here.

Taking It To The Extreme

The confusion with front-quadrant timing is that some swimmers believe it means a full catch-up at the front of the stroke, where the hands pretty much meet at the front:

To achieve this position you must hold the hand out in front of you with a long pause-and-glide whilst the other hand fully catches it up. This long gap between strokes (we call it Overgliding) is very inefficient as you simply decelerate in the water whilst trying to glide and then have to use the next stroke to get up to speed again. Pause-and-glide timing also leads to common stroke flaws such as dropping the wrist and putting on the brakes and the overglider kickstart.

This catch-up timing is technically still front quadrant as the hands do pass in front of the head but it is really taking things to the extreme - it is not what was meant by front-quadrant-timing when the term was created.

The Fear Of Windmilling

The idea with front quadrant timing is that it is trying to avoid a full-windmill in the stroke where the hands are at near opposite positions resulting in the hands passing behind the head:

The key thing here is that even if you tried to do this deliberately you would find it very hard to do - it feels very extreme when you do it and it's unlikely you'll do it naturally, especially if you've been working on your stroke technique for a while.

Try It In Front Of A Mirror!

If you're finding thinking about what both arms are doing in the stroke at the same time a little mind bending, don't worry, it is! One of the best ways to get a feel for it is to stand in front of a mirror, bend forwards slightly and perform some practise strokes.

Try and reproduce your natural stroke as closely as possible and see how your hands pass each other. If they pass in front of the head (even if only slightly in front like Tim and Shelley) then you're doing fine!


Our central point here is that the danger of windmilling is much over-stated. In most instances where the hands pass behind the head the reason is related to breathing and poor awareness of what the lead hand is doing (as with Clare above), not because the swimmer is windmilling in the traditional sense.

A far greater risk is taking things to the opposite extreme and adopting a full catch-up style of stroke. This is a very inefficient stroke style and a very difficult habit to break once developed.

Instead, work on developing all aspects of your stroke technique in a balanced way including: breathing, body position, alignment, kick, catch/pull technique and rhythm. Do that and the resultant stroke is almost guaranteed to give you good front-quadrant timing without you directly focusing too much on it.

Swim Smooth!


Jonas said...

Another great post from Swim Smooth, but I don't fully agree with the definition.

I think the most important point in front quadrant swimming is that, when, say, the left hand enters the water, the right hand is in its catch phase, not in its pull phase, and, right after, when the left hand extends forward after entry, the right hand is in its pull phase. This is how Chinese champion Sun Yang or Michael Phelps swim. This is not at all overgliding, but guaranteeing a great body support in the water.

On the other hand, in the case of Melissa Benson (a great swimmer), who appears in the excellent Swim Smooth Catch Masterclass DVD, when her, say, left hand enters the water, her right hand is too far behind, already on the push phase !: this only works for her because of her amazing fast stroke rate.

Jonas said...

See this very clear video about front quadrant swimming in support of my previous post:

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul
I like your site and your post.
Nowhere else you will find precise instructions so clear and precise.

OZ Project blog said...

I have been working with swimmers so they swim on the first quadrant and all your tips have been working great. On the other hand, I would like to know how to accelerate the stroke of those swimmers who actually take it to the extreme as you mention on your post and start swimming with a catch up style. Thanks

Anonymous said...

What about Alexander Popov?, he does what he calls "the Kayak priciple" what you call "windmil"...see the video below...

Adam Young said...

Hi Joaquin,

The full process is in our Overglider Swim Type Guide, highly recommended:

Hi Anonymous,

Yes Popov isn't swimming front quadrant there - most sprinters don't especially over 50m!

Cheers, Adam

Rudolf said...

.. which brings me to a controversial question dear swim smoother s.

How do we best end the pull part of each stroke??

Here is why i ask;
At the SSE in Berlin we used to have one ultra fast swimmer.
He found it great fun to go after other really fast swimmers, in crowded lanes, just to overtake them, but, that's not the point here, we chatted occasionally, and he told me i should learn to push water towards my lower body and upper thighs at the end of my pull.

I tried that for a good while, it sure helps to lift the backside a bit higher up, but whether it is faster or more efficient i so far can't tell.

Back here in Canada no one seems to have ever heard of this, neither the swimmers nor their coaches, so i am a bit confused on this one.

Any comments, are you coaching the "butt-lift-pull" or also never heard of it??

Anonymous said...

After reading this post, in my next pool session I focused on front quadrant swimming, conscious of not introducing any pause into my stroke. This meant I was effectively moving my "out of the water" hand forward slightly faster than I used to.
This had the effect of increasing my stroke rate from 62 to about 68 SPM.
The difference was amazing. My 10 x 100m sprint set times dropped by around 5 seconds per 100m, which is something that has been not improving recently. (maybe I had introduced a pause in my stroke that I was previously unaware of)
It also ties in well with the stroke rate post (from a few years ago), which suggested a stroke rate increase could improve speed without increased exertion, as I felt a lot less tired afterwards than previously slower sets.
Can't wait to apply it to my CSS session tomorrow, as I've "hit a wall" in the past couple of weeks and have been unable to lower my CSS.

Unknown said...

Hi Gav,

So good to hear you're making amazing improvements! Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

Rudolf- Sounds like it's an analogy that has worked for him, we all have them! We like to advise you to 'push the water backwards' as any pushing up obviously isn't as efficient.

Unknown said...

Hi Rudolf, you might find this is a great answer for you:

Hope that helps!

OZ Project blog said...

Thank you Adam.
I will check out the over glider swimming guide.

Always with so many helpful tips.


Rudolf said...

Maybe to late as there is already a new post up, but just a quick step back to your answer Annie ..
Nope, pushing upwards is not the idea (wrong idea) in what i tried to ask.
What he (and than i) was doing is this:
Instead of pulling the hand / arm just straight back to about the hip we pull slightly INWARDS towards the otherwise normal finish of the pull, no upwards pushing involved.

It's a bit like that good old S style freestyle they used to do 500 years (or so) ago, only that the minimal S motion is not at the beginning of the stroke already but just before the end, say when the hand is about at the height of the belly button, and only slightly so the water pushed backward will also reach the upper thighs and give a slight lift.
Would be easier if i had a series of underwater pics or a video, but not possible at present, still experimenting with it, but it definitively does give a slight lift to the upper legs and b.u.t.t

Unknown said...

Hi Rudolf,

I can't really see why pushing water inwards would have any beneficial effect on your propulsion forwards, but whatever works for you!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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