How to improve your start from the block

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.  

Part I Track Starts

Nearly all swimmers today use a track start with one foot forward and the other back on the starting block. With the introduction of the back wedge on the top of the block in 2009, virtually all swimmers adopted the track start. Regardless of the type of start used, the favorable angle of the back wedge increases the potential force from the feet using the track start. The only swimmers that I do not recommend using the track start are older Masters swimmers that have trouble with balance and equilibrium. They are better off with both feet forward on the edge of the block.

There are two distinctly different types of track start, weight forward and weight back (or slingshot). With the weight forward start, the majority of the swimmer’s weight is placed on the front foot with the toes wrapped over the edge of the block. With the weight back start, at the command of ‘take your mark’, the swimmer shifts the majority of the body weight to the back foot by leaning backward a few degrees. In watching the Olympic Games in Rio, there appear to be a significant number of swimmers using both types of track start, weight forward and backward. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

Weight Forward


  • Faster reaction time to get off the block quicker
  • Enables fast dolphin kickers to get in the water sooner


  • Less propulsive force generated with nearly all force derived from front foot

Weight Back


  • Potential for more propulsion from arms, back and front foot
  • May increase the coupling energy from the arm motion


  • Slower reaction time to get off the block

With the weight forward start, most of the propulsion is coming from the front foot and since the weight is positioned further forward, it is the fastest way to leave the block. The center of the body’s mass is positioned directly over the hands which are either pulling upward on the front of the block or the bars on the top of the block. From that position, it is impossible to generate any meaningful propulsion from the arms. It is the front foot (leg) doing most of the propulsion, with some coming from the back foot.

With the weight back start, it is important that the body does not shift backward too far, which would require too much time for the swimmer to leave the block. Only a few degrees of motion are needed to shift the majority of weight to the back foot. From that position, with the center of mass behind the hands, one can generate some propulsion from the arms, with the hands wrapped around the front of the block or on the bars above the block, by pulling the body forward. The propulsion begins with the arms and the back foot simultaneously, then shifts to the front foot as the body moves forward. With the weight back start, there are three potential sources of propulsion, back foot, front foot and arms (hands), while with the weight forward start, the front foot does most of the work.

Deciding which track start to use is not easy. The outcome of either start, however, should not be judged by the reaction time to leave the block, but rather where the swimmer breaks out from under the water. This is influenced by the time required to leave the block, the propulsive force leaving the block (vertical leap ability), the frontal drag caused from arms, body, legs and feet upon the water entry, the mass (weight) of the swimmer, the speed of the underwater dolphin kick and the frontal drag and transitional speed at breakout.

In general, the weight forward start may be preferred by swimmers with exceptionally fast dolphin kicks, as it will enable the swimmer to enter the water sooner. The weight-back start is often preferred by swimmers that have strong upper bodies and arms, and with a bigger vertical leap (more fast twitch muscles). In order to overcome the disadvantage of the delay in leaving the block with the weight-back start, one must take advantage of using the forces from the arms and both feet.

The question of which foot goes forward is controversial. I have found that most swimmers prefer to place the dominant foot forward. Yet I have also seen some excellent swimmers that did the opposite. What is most important is that the swimmer feels comfortable in the selected position of the feet and that it results in the best start.

Regardless of which track start is used, weight forward or backward, both dives should incorporate the three coupling motions to augment the swimmer’s propulsive forces leaving the block. The three coupling motions of the start are the head lift, the arm motion and the upward kick of the rear leg. The amount of kinetic energy in those three motions can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the dive. In the next article, we will discuss those three important coupling motions.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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4 years ago

Gary, in the weight back start, although it takes more time to reach the water, the velocity of entering the water is higher, right? So for fast dolphin kickers, having a faster velocity entering the water shouldn’t be better (since they can maintain that initial speed farther) when compared to the weight forward start?
Thanks for this great article! I’d love if you could write some more like this one.

Roger Beem
Reply to  YouKnowWho
4 years ago

If you get into the water faster you can “avoid the wash” of all the other swimmers besides you, which could potentially slow you down.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Roger Beem
4 years ago

Would “the wash” apply to when you’re underwater? Everybody’s gonna be submerged for a good deal of time right off the gun.

Unless you mean the splash from entry, which seems like it probably wouldn’t mess with much, either. But I dunno! Haven’t actually tested it.

Reply to  Roger Beem
4 years ago

The difference in reaction time between the two is something like 1 or 2 tenths of a second, so I don’t think there’s really enough time for someone else’s wake to get over into your lane and affect you.

Reply to  YouKnowWho
4 years ago

The speed of the swimmer in both starts at the entry point of the water will be the same, so long as the swimmer is not jumping upward, as in the backstroke start. Since the swimmer is 2 1/2 feet above the surface on the block, there is no need to jump upward, as the speed will be around 15 mph at entry, regardless of whether one ‘falls off the block’ or has a 34 inch vertical ability and can leap far forward. The ability of how far out the swimmer actually enters the water depends on the force he/she is able to generate from the feet and hands on the block…which is influenced by muscle mass, physiology and weight… Read more »

4 years ago

Did anyone see that a few of the British men were doing a heads up start at the Olympics (Peaty and others)? They were getting off the blocks quick too. Any thoughts on if a start with a head up has some merit? Perhaps Peaty and Guy are just freaks (which we know to be the case) and are so fast-twitch that they can just do that start with their head up. I coach high school swimming and have had my swimmers try a head up start. For some it has helped their reaction time a lot versus when their head is down. The key obviously is that they have to keep their butt up when they are heads up… Read more »

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  Swammer
4 years ago


Reply to  Swammer
4 years ago

Don’t be swayed too much by reaction time. It is not the most important factor. Look at where and when the athlete breaks out…or better, test the time to 15 meters, which is a much better determinant of a good start. Adam may have gotten off the blocks quickly with weight forward and head up..but he did not break out ahead. He is just so fast that he caught up with everyone in a few strokes and passed them in a few more.