Have you ever watched Olympic swimming and wondered how the athletes make swimming look so effortless and graceful? Or maybe you've struggled to make it across a pool without feeling completely wiped out afterward. Either way, learning proper swimming technique for different strokes can make all the difference.
Most people are familiar with basic freestyle swimming. But there are actually several different competitive swimming strokes you can train for, each with their own styles and techniques. Mastering multiple strokes will give you versatility in the pool, a great full-body workout, and increased safety in any aquatic environment.
So how many different swimming styles are there? Let's dive in and discover the 5 major competitive swimming strokes every swimmer should know.
The 5 Major Swimming Strokes
Freestyle or Front Crawl
The freestyle stroke, also called front crawl, is one of the easiest swimming techniques to learn. It's the stroke most of us think of as basic swimming.
To swim freestyle, you alternate your arms in a windmill type motion over your head and into the water while kicking your legs continuously. Your face goes in and out of the water as you turn your head to alternate breathing on either side.
Freestyle is used in nearly all swimming competitions from sprints to long distances. It's popular because the stroke feels natural, making it great for fitness or recreational swimming. Freestyle provides an excellent full-body workout by engaging your arms, legs, core, and cardio.
The keys to an efficient freestyle stroke are:
- Keeping your body horizontal and streamlined
- Having a high elbow pull under the water
- Kicking from the hips with a flutter kick
- Turning your head in time with your arm stroke to breathe
With practice, you can learn to glide effortlessly and maximize the power and propulsion of your stroke.
As the name implies, backstroke involves swimming on your back. Backstroke is unique in that your head stays above the water the entire time, making it easier to breathe.
To swim backstroke:
- Float on your back with your arms extended above your head
- Pull your arms back in a wide sweeping motion toward your hips
- As one arm pulls, the other recovers over the surface of the water
- Kick from your hips with a flutter kick
- Roll your body along its long axis for propulsion
Backstroke works all the same muscle groups as freestyle, with a particular emphasis on your back and shoulder muscles. It's a great stroke for improving posture and strengthening your core.
Key tips for efficient backstroke technique include:
- Keeping your body and legs aligned and streamlined
- Using your core to initiate the roll
- Having a straight arm pull back and out of the water
- Pointing your toes as you kick
This stroke requires coordination to get the timing of your arm strokes and body roll synchronized. With practice, you can move smoothly across the water backwards.
The breaststroke is considered one of the most challenging swimming strokes to master. But once you get the timing and coordination down, it can be both graceful and powerful.
Breaststroke uses a specialized frog-like kick called the "whip kick." To perform the whip kick:
- Bring your knees up as you bend your ankles outward
- Thrust your legs back in a whipping motion while straightening your ankles
- Snap your feet together as you straighten your legs
- Squeeze your thighs together to propel yourself forward
At the same time, your arms pull inward then outward in a heart-shaped pattern:
- Start with your hands together, palms facing outward
- Pull your hands down and back, bending your elbows
- Thrust your hands forward, extending your arms
- Cup your hands and sweep outward as you recover
Timing is crucial to coordinate the kick and arm stroke. The key is to start the outsweep of your arms as you bring your knees inward to begin the kick.
Breaststroke engages your legs, hips, core, chest, shoulders, and arms, giving you a complete workout. It can take time to feel comfortable swimming breaststroke, but once mastered, it allows you to maintain a horizontal body position and conserve energy.
Known for its unique undulating dolphin kick, the butterfly stroke is considered one of the most physically demanding swimming techniques. The butterfly stroke uses:
- A simultaneous over-the-water arm recovery
- A two-kick underwater dolphin kick
- A wave-like body motion
To swim butterfly:
- Extend your arms overhead and dive forward, initiating the dolphin kick
- Push your arms back and down simultaneously as your hips rise toward the surface
- Bend your elbows to lift them out of the water as you straighten your legs and hips
- Swing your arms forward together over the water as you bend your knees for the next kick
The key is timing the recovery of your arms with the undulation of your dolphin kick. This coordination propels you forward and minimizes drag.
Butterfly is an extremely strenuous stroke that uses your core, hips, legs, shoulders, and back. Mastering the technique for butterfly can help build strength and stamina.
The sidestroke is less common in competitive swimming, but it has practical applications for long distance swimming and water rescue.
To swim sidestroke:
- Lay on your side, leading with your bottom arm extended
- Bend your top knee and swing your top leg forward
- Kick your top leg back as you pull with your bottom arm
- Roll your body forward and glide as you return your arms and legs
- Repeat the stroke alternating sides
The sidestroke utilizes a scissor kick, with your bottom leg trailing straight. Your body rolls along its side, allowing you to breathe easily.
The sidestroke can help build the shoulder and hip strength needed for other strokes. It provides a nice change of pace from swimming on your front or back. The stroke is especially useful for open water swimming, as it allows you to sight toward shore more easily.
Benefits of Learning Multiple Swimming Strokes
It's clear there are several different techniques you can master to become a more versatile swimmer. But why is it worthwhile to learn multiple swimming strokes?
Versatility for Competitions
If you plan to compete in swimming races, you'll need to know each stroke for the different events. Freestyle is used in the 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, and 1500m races. Backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly each have their own 100m and 200m events. The individual medley features all four strokes. Relays require mastery of at least freestyle and one other stroke.
Expanding your swimming skills prepares you to compete in any race and qualify for more events. You can tailor your training to focus on your best stroke or work at improving your weakest stroke. Knowing all the techniques can help make you a well-rounded swimmer.
More Comprehensive Workout
Learning different strokes works your body in all planes of motion and engages every major muscle group. Freestyle and backstroke focus mainly on your lats, shoulders, triceps, and legs. Breaststroke and butterfly heavily incorporate your pecs, biceps, and hips.
Varying your swimming strokes during training provides balanced fitness development. It prevents overuse injuries from repetitive motions. Mixing up strokes keeps your workouts engaging both mentally and physically.
Each style also requires unique breathing patterns and coordination. Mastering the timing for different strokes helps improve your endurance, efficiency, and breath control in the water.
Knowing multiple swimming strokes expands your versatility in any aquatic situation. If you start to feel fatigued swimming freestyle, you can flip to backstroke to rest your shoulders. If you need to swim for distance, sidestroke allows you to breathe easily and set a sustainable pace.
Different strokes also give you options if you need to swim in choppy open water or against a current. For example, breaststroke can help you maintain visibility and conserve energy in waves. Being able to swim butterfly with force could help you escape a riptide.
Learning all the strokes improves your ability to handle yourself in the water safely. You'll have the flexibility to react and adapt if you get into an unexpected situation.
Conclusion: Expand Your Aquatic Horizons
Swimming is one of the best full-body workouts you can do. Now you know there are 5 major competitive swimming strokes, each with their own unique style and benefits:
- Freestyle/Front Crawl
Mastering multiple swimming techniques takes time and practice. But doing so provides versatility for competitions, a more comprehensive workout, and increased safety in the water.
So next time you head to the pool for some laps, try expanding your aquatic horizons. Cross-train by swimming a few lengths of each stroke. Learn something new and prevent your workouts from becoming stale. Or focus on improving your form on a more challenging stroke like butterfly.
Swimming is a skill with so much room for growth.