The Four Main Swimming Strokes
If you’ve turned on the television during the summer Olympics to watch the swimming races, chances are you have seen all four official swimming strokes.
Some events, like the Individual Medley (IM) and the Medley Relays include all four strokes in a single race. The four strokes include freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly.
Dive in to learn more about the mechanics of each stroke, when to utilize each stroke, and how to better your technique with each stroke.
Freestyle, also colloquially known as the front crawl, is the most basic stroke and one that many people learn first. It is the most efficient and, generally, the fastest stroke.
The mechanics of freestyle:
When you swim freestyle, your arms windmill opposite from each other. As one arm reaches the top of your head, the other arm is rotating past your hip, and vice versa. The legs primarily stay straight with a drumming pattern in a fluid, continuous kick. Your head rotates to the side to breathe. For a more in-depth tutorial on swimming freestyle, check out our beginner tips.
Incorporating freestyle into your sets:
Freestyle is a great stroke for almost any occasion. It lends itself well for longer swims, such as endurance lap sets or distance open water swims.
All swim strokes are full-body workouts, but freestyle intensely targets the deltoids, latissimus dorsi (aka lats), and both your gluteus medius and maximus.
There are multiple popular drills for enhancing your freestyle stroke, such as the finger-tip drill or fisted-pull drill. As the names imply, finger-tip drill is when you skim your fingers along the water as you stroke over your head and fisted-pull drill is when you make a fist as you pull underwater. Finger-tip drill focuses on minimizing movement and conserving energy. Fisted-pull drill forces you to pull water with your entire arm instead of just your palms.
The biggest tip for bettering your freestyle, as with any of the four strokes, is to break up each component of the stroke. For example, grab a kickboard or a pair of training fins to focus solely on your kick or a pull buoy to focus on your arms.
Because your face is almost always in the water, we also recommend a good pair of goggles.
Like freestyle, breaststroke tends to be one of the first strokes learned when diving into swimming. It is a favorite for beginner swimmers because it feels natural to many people and it can be done, at least during beginner stages, without putting your face in the water.
The mechanics of breaststroke:
Breaststroke is the frog stroke. Your legs move in sync by splaying outward and then snapping together. It is a circular motion. The arms have a similar circular motion by moving together to form an upside-down heart shape, with the heart point at the top of the stroke and the two curves at the bottom of the stroke near your chest.
Incorporating breaststroke into your sets:
Breaststroke is particularly helpful for outdoor swimming because you can keep your head out of the water and eyes focused on your surroundings. If you do choose to put your head underwater, breaststroke still has a breath built into every stroke, so it is useful in moments when you need to catch your breath. Breaststroke is one of the slower strokes, so if you want to get in a high number of laps in a short amount of time, we don’t recommend breaststroke.
Breaststroke targets your pectoralis, adductors, and calves. For drills, consider breaking the stroke into different components. To work on the glide, a popular drill is to do two kicks for every one pull. To focus on the arms, consider using a pull buoy to keep your legs afloat without needing to kick.
This kick tends to be the most complicated to learn, so hone in on perfecting the technique with kick-only drills. When you practice the breaststroke kick on your back, try not to let your knees come out of the water, and when you practice it on your stomach, try to kick your butt with your heels to get the correct deep knee bend motion.
Backstroke is the only official stroke that is done on your back rather than your stomach. Because of that, it is ideal for catching your breath or practicing the classic float.
The mechanics of backstroke:
When you swim backstroke, your legs move in a fluid, drumming kick, similar to the freestyle kick. For your arms, your hand comes out of the water at your hip, is straight as it moves up to above your head, and enters the water at the top to scoop and begin the pull. Your arms, similar to freestyle once again, move in a windmill pattern; as one arm reaches the top of the stroke, the other is near your hips at the bottom of the stroke.
Incorporating backstroke into your sets:
Backstroke is not ideal for outdoor swimming or swimming without lap lanes because it is difficult to swim backstroke in a straight line without location indicators. Backstroke is great for lap swimming in a pool, but be aware of the walls sneaking up on you! Some people consider it to be the most relaxing stroke, which makes it good for recovery workouts. Other swimmers simply are more comfortable on their backs than their stomachs.
Backstroke primarily engages your hips flexors, triceps, and quadriceps. Backstroke relies heavily on the kick for momentum, so fins are a great addition when doing drills or practicing technique.
We recommend a cap since your hair will be in the water the entire time when swimming backstroke. Also, if you do plan to swim backstroke outdoors, it is important to have tinted goggles with UV protection since your eyes will be facing the sun.
Butterfly is notoriously the most difficult stroke and tends to be swum by more advanced swimmers.
The mechanics of butterfly:
Your body moves in an undulating motion when swimming butterfly. Butterfly, along with breaststroke, is a short-axis stroke. That means the primary body movement is up-and-down. Contrarily, freestyle and backstroke are long-axis strokes, which means their momentum comes from back-and-forth body rotation.
Your arms move in sync and come out of the water together. At the top of the stroke, your chest presses down into the water, which pushes your hips up. From there, your kick is an extension of your hip motion.
Incorporating butterfly into your sets:
Swimming butterfly expends a lot of energy, so it is best used in short, sprint sets. It engages the core more than any other stroke, which is saying something since all swim strokes are great abdominal workouts. Butterfly is also a great workout for deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and hamstrings.
Because the timing of the breath can be difficult to master when swimming butterfly, we recommend using a snorkel to focus on your body movement without the challenge of breathing technique.
In addition to the four official strokes, you will see lots of other variations at the pool and beach. Some popular unofficial stroke choices are doggy paddle, sidestroke, head-out freestyle, and double-arm backstroke. Each one has its place. For example, head-out freestyle is used frequently during water polo matches and double-arm backstroke is common during recovery laps.
If you are swimming competitively, it’s important to understand and practice the four official strokes. Otherwise, unofficial strokes can be just as useful. Swimming is meant to be fun and benefit your body, so do what feels right for you. The benefits to your health and mind are palpable.
Best Fin for the Pool: TYR Sport EBP
Best Overall Snorkel: Omer Sub Zoom Pro
Best Goggle for Pool Use: Phelrena Swimming
Goggle for Competitive Swimmers: TYR Edge-X
Best Budget Earplug: Speedo Silicone Ear
Frequently asked questions
Every person has a differing opinion on the strokes depending on their strengths. That being said, most people find freestyle or breaststroke to be the easiest to learn. We recommend starting with freestyle because of its versatility.
Have the right gear, set aside time for your new swimming habit, and utilize any local support. It is always easier to keep a habit when you have someone else holding you accountable, so consider finding a workout buddy or joining a local swim club. Most places have swim clubs for people of all ages and skills.
The Individual Medley (IM) incorporates all four strokes in one race. The strokes must be swum in a specific order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, then freestyle. In competitions, the total length of the IM can be as short as a 100 or as long as a 400 meter or yard race.