A Breakdown of Common Swimming Strokes

A Breakdown of Common Swimming Strokes

Swimming has come a long way since it first made it’s splash in the sports world in the early 1800s. Back then, the two competitive swimming strokes were side stroke and breaststroke. By 1904, freestyle and backstroke were added to the lineup, and it wasn’t until 1956 when butterfly made its Olympic debut.


What Are the Competitive Swimming Strokes?

Today, there four competitive swimming strokes:

  • freestyle
  • backstroke
  • breaststroke
  • butterfly

There are also two popular recovery strokes:

  • Sidestroke–which is no longer recognized as a competitive stroke–is still popular among beginner and recreational swimmers.
  • Elementary backstroke, which is often taught in swim lessons as an easy recovery stroke.

While each stroke comes with its own set of challenges and benefits, collectively, swimming is one of the best workouts you can do. Not only does it offer a powerful one-two punch of aerobic exercise and muscular-endurance training, it’s also low impact, which is great for people with joint issues.

But before you can soak up all of those benefits, you first need to know how to actually swim the strokes correctly. “Whenever you’re learning a new stroke, start slow and master the form,” says Paul Bisono, a certified swim coach and owner of H2.O Aquatics swim school in Hauppauge, NY. “Going fast with bad form is like driving a car with a bad motor. You might move for a little while, but it’s not going to last.”


How to Perform Common Swimming Strokes

Here’s a breakdown of the six common swimming strokes, plus expert tips to help you get you ready to dive right in.


1. Freestyle Swim Stroke

The Stroke: What originated as the “front crawl” has evolved into freestyle–the speediest stroke. When swimming the freestyle stroke correctly, you’ll stay on your stomach while taking forward-reaching strokes with each arm, one at a time. You breathe to the side, and you use a flutter kick.

Mistakes to Avoid: When working on improving your freestyle stroke, it’s important to keep your head still, says Bisono. “The waterline should divide the head. And only turn head your head to breathe,” he advises. Focusing on the bottom of the pool will lock in the proper head position, which will help decrease any resistance.

As for your kick? Keep it light and relaxed in a simple up and down movement.

Pro Tip: “When doing freestyle, draw a little ‘S’ while your arm is pulling down through the water,” Bisono says. This will help you catch more water and result in a stronger stroke.


2. Backstroke Swimming

The Stroke: Also known as the “back crawl,” backstroke is similar to freestyle, but swum on the back. Like freestyle, it incorporates flutter kicks, and you alternate your arms as you reach behind you, and then circle them forward for recovery. The arms stay straighter in backstroke than in freestyle.

Mistakes to Avoid: When swimming backstroke, make sure that you’re bringing each arm past your hip during the “catch” portion of the stroke (that’s when the arm is underwater). If you shorten your catch, you’ll lessen the power of your stroke. (Just be sure to keep your catch just below the water’s surface; too deep, and you’ll just slow down.)

And don’t let your legs lag. “You should always be kicking to the surface of the water,” says Bisono. “If you don’t see white splashes coming from your feet you are only dragging your legs.” Kicking will not only help you go faster, it also keeps your hips higher in the water, preventing your lower body from sinking as you swim.

Pro Tip: Try learning the backstroke in stages, suggests Mikey Flaherty, a coach with Swim with Heart in Santa Monica, CA. “Do six strokes relaxed on your back, then flip over to your stomach and swim 10 freestyle strokes. Then, flip back over for six more strokes,” he says. “This will help you feel more comfortable swimming on your back.”


3. Breaststroke Swim Stroke

The Stroke: Often the first stroke taught to beginners, the breaststroke is said to be the easiest to learn. (Incidentally, it’s also the slowest of the strokes.) The breaststroke entails the pull (both arms simultaneously executing a half-circular arm movement to the side underwater), the breath (lifting your head above the surface of the water), the kick (a whip kick or “frog” kick), and a glide (a streamline position with straight arms and legs). This “pull-breathe-kick-glide” pattern is repeated for the duration of the lap.

Mistakes to Avoid: When figuring out how to do a perfect breaststroke, watch the arm placement during the pull phase. “Your hands should not be much wider than your shoulders,” says Flaherty.

And don’t short-change your glide during the recovery portion of the stroke, advises Bisono. An exaggerated glide with your body in a tight streamline position “actually gives your body body a lot of movement forward,” he shares.

Pro Tip: Not sure how to do proper breaststroke arms? Head to the ledge of a pool and do a little experiment. Stand in waist- to chest-deep water, place your hands on the ledge, and try to push yourself using only your arms. If your arms are wide, you don’t have enough strength to lift yourself out. When your arms are closer, you’ll be able to push yourself up. “That’s the strength and arm movement you want to have for the pull of the breaststroke,” says Bisono.


4. Butterfly Swim Stroke

The Stroke: Arguably the most challenging stroke of all, the butterfly stroke uses a symmetrical arm stroke with an above water recovery. Beneath the surface, the body is moving in a wave-like motion, propelled by a powerful dolphin kick. Thanks to the incredible momentum a swimmer can create with this motion, the butterfly is the second-fastest stroke of all, under freestyle.

Mistakes to Avoid: The biggest challenge to mastering the butterfly technique is getting your kick just right. Many people make the mistake of kicking too hard and too big, which can tire you out. Instead, work on a smaller, more controlled kick.

You may want to practice a dolphin kick with a kickboard before adding the arms, focusing on avoiding bending your knees too much and keeping your toes pointed.

Pro Tip: Don’t expect to swim a full length of butterfly right off the bat. “Because of fatigue and difficulty, I recommend pushing off the wall and doing one or two strokes the best you can,” then working your way up to a full length, Flaherty says.


5. Side Stroke

The Stroke: As one of the first swimming strokes around, sidestroke may be retro, but its mechanics are effective. The sidestroke is performed completely on one side, using a scissor kick and an asymmetrical “reach and pull” arm movements underwater.

Mistakes to Avoid: When learning how to swim the sidestroke, watch the position of your legs. Try to keep them stacked closely while kicking, swinging one leg forward and one as though they are two parts of scissors (with your hips acting as the fulcrum). The tighter your kick, the more powerful it will be.

Pro Tip: Hate putting your face in the water? The sidestroke is ideal for you, as it allows for most of your face and one ear to remain out of the water.

6. Elementary Backstroke

The Stroke: As you might guess, this stroke done on your back. But there’s no rotation involved, like in backstroke. Often taught as a process of “Tickle-T-Touch” (or, in some places, “Chicken, Eagle, Rocket”), elementary backstroke incorporates a series of three arm movements:

  • Both arms curled up with hands pointed towards armpits and your elbows to the side (“tickle”)
  • Both arms extended out at a 90-degree angle from your body (“T”)
  • Both arms pulled down alongside the side of your body (“touch).

As for the kick, this stroke is propelled by the whip kick used in breaststroke.

Mistakes to Avoid: To avoid exerting too much energy, relax your body to keep your belly, head and feet up as you lay back into the water. “This stroke should take minimal energy,” Flaherty says.

And don’t be afraid to add some oomph into your kick. “Keep your heels facing out and push out as if you are going to forcefully kick someone,” Flaherty advises.

Pro Tip: Be patient as you learn any stroke and you will get it right. Elementary backstroke, especially, may come easier to you than you think. “Despite what people say, everyone can float,” says Flaherty, which is the crux of this stroke. “The key is to keep relaxing.”