Know the Water: The Essential Guide to 7 Different Swimming Strokes

A guide to types of swimming strokes

Let’s look into the most common swimming strokes: the fast-paced freestyle, the elegant backstroke, the strategic breaststroke, the powerful butterfly, and more. We’ll go over how each stroke works, its benefits, and tips for improvement without feeling overwhelmed.

Get your favorite swimming goggles ready, we’ve got some swimming to do!


  • Swimming strokes have unique techniques and serve different purposes, such as the front crawl for speed, the backstroke for targeting different muscle groups and offering therapeutic benefits, and the breaststroke for comprehensive muscle engagement.
  • The butterfly stroke, while powerful and graceful, is the most difficult to master due to the requirement of strong core and upper body strength, coordination, and balance.
  • Swimming competitions, including the Olympics, feature a variety of strokes and events, such as the medley relay which combines freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly, highlighting the importance of versatility and proficiency in multiple strokes for competitive swimmers.

The Different Swimming Strokes

Let’s go over all of the various types of swimming styles and different swim strokes.

Freestyle / Front Crawl

swimmer performing freestyle stroke swimming strokes

Freestyle swimming, also commonly referred to as the front crawl, is like the king of the swimming strokes. It’s the fastest and most widely used in competitive swimming and triathlons.

The freestyle stroke is all about efficiency and speed, achieved through a streamlined body position, alternating arm cycle, and a flutter kick. Ever heard of the Early Vertical Forearm (EVF) technique? It’s a game-changer in freestyle swimming, where the forearm and hand are angled vertically early in the pull phase to increase the power of the stroke.

Proper breathing is crucial in freestyle swimming. It involves turning the head to the side as one arm recovers over the water, with one goggle remaining submerged. This synchronized breathing method helps maintain balance and streamline in the water.

Many people have difficulty mastering this stroke since you have to put your face entirely in the water and control your breathing. It is a difficult position to be in for many beginners.

Practice makes perfect with the freestyle stroke, and regular feedback from coaching or video analysis can significantly enhance your freestyle technique.


swimmer executing the backstroke swimming strokes

The backstroke is like doing the freestyle upside down. It involves lying on your back, alternating arms in a windmill motion, and engaging in a flutter kick, all while keeping your body straight.

The beauty of the backstroke is that it targets different muscle groups than the freestyle. The exercise particularly targets the shoulders, glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles. It also engages the back and provides a great opportunity to practice your leg kick technique, as your legs perform essential movements in this stroke.

The backstroke is not just for competitive swimmers. It’s also recommended for individuals with back problems, as it offers a therapeutic workout.

One of the biggest perks of the backstroke is that it allows for easy breathing, as the swimmer’s face remains above water throughout the stroke. In competitive swimming, the backstroke is a recognized stroke requiring rhythmic coordination of all major body parts.


swimmers competing in a breaststroke event

Next up is the breaststroke, a slower, more technical stroke. Unlike freestyle and backstroke, the breaststroke requires simultaneous half-circular arm movements and a whip kick, creating a symmetrical, triangle-like motion.

To swim the breaststroke efficiently, your body must be in a horizontal position, head, and chin down in the water, in a wave-like undulation with toes pointed.

Coordination is key in the breaststroke. You must perfectly match your arm strokes with your leg movements, employing a circular pattern to generate forward motion. The breaststroke engages the chest muscles as well as all leg muscles, demonstrating its comprehensive muscle involvement.


swimmer doing the butterfly swimming strokes

The butterfly stroke is the crown jewel of advanced swimming strokes. Known for its power and grace, this stroke involves:

  • Simultaneous arm movements
  • A dolphin kick
  • Performing the butterfly in a horizontal prone position
  • Combining a wave-like movement of the chest and hips with arms pulling in an hourglass shape under the water toward the hips
  • A synchronized ‘dolphin’ kick

The butterfly stroke targets essential muscle groups, including the arms, chest, and upper back, and contributes to the enhancement of overall flexibility and core and upper body strength.

Mastering the butterfly stroke requires not only strong core and upper body strength but also substantial coordination and balance.

This makes it the most challenging stroke to learn.


a swimmer practicing the sidestroke swimming strokes in a pool

The sidestroke is unique as it’s primarily used for personal survival and performing lifesaving tows. It involves swimming on your side, using a scissor kick, and alternating arm movements. Lifeguards may use this stroke to tow someone back to shore that needs help.

The sidestroke isn’t just for survival situations, though. Performing the sidestroke can:

  • Strengthen your back, shoulders, and arms
  • Build endurance
  • Strengthen core muscles
  • Improve balance
  • Increase flexibility

The arm movements in the sidestroke, also known as the arm stroke, can be compared to the motion of picking an apple with the first arm, passing it to the second arm, and then throwing it behind as the first arm reaches for another apple, similar to an arm pull. This sequence creates a circular motion in the water.

Elementary Backstroke

Female swimmer swimming the elementary backstroke swimming strokes in a pool

The elementary backstroke is like the gentle giant of swimming strokes. It’s an easy-to-learn swimming stroke that involves a reversed breaststroke kick with synchronized underwater arm movements. This stroke enables swimmers to easily move through the water while maintaining comfortable breathing.

A crucial aspect of the elementary backstroke is the glide phase, teaching swimmers about propulsion and that persistent movement isn’t essential for progression through the water. To facilitate learning, children are often taught the elementary backstroke to start their swimming journey.

the Medley

The Medley is like the grand finale of a swimming competition, bringing together four of the strokes discussed so far. It combines the following strokes (in this order):

  1. Butterfly
  2. Backstroke
  3. Breaststroke
  4. Freestyle

A Medley competition can be completed by a single athlete or as a relay, where each person takes a different swimming stroke.

It is an exciting event that tests each athlete to be the best overall swimmer across all swimming strokes.

Olympic Swimming Strokes & Olympic Races

Olympic swimming races include various distances for each stroke: Freestyle events range from 50m to 10,000m, Backstroke and Breaststroke events include 100m and 200m races, and Butterfly events have 100m and 200m races.

Here is the full list of Olympic swimming events:

  • Men’s 50m Freestyle
  • Men’s 100m Freestyle
  • Men’s 200m Freestyle
  • Men’s 400m Freestyle
  • Men’s 800m Freestyle
  • Men’s 1500m Freestyle
  • Men’s 100m Backstroke
  • Men’s 200m Backstroke
  • Men’s 100m Breaststroke
  • Men’s 200m Breaststroke
  • Men’s 100m Butterfly
  • Men’s 200m Butterfly
  • Men’s 200m Individual Medley
  • Men’s 400m Individual Medley
  • Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay
  • Men’s 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay
  • Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay
  • Mixed 4 x 100m Medley Relay
  • Women’s 50m Freestyle
  • Women’s 100m Freestyle
  • Women’s 200m Freestyle
  • Women’s 400m Freestyle
  • Women’s 800m Freestyle
  • Women’s 1500m Freestyle
  • Women’s 100m Backstroke
  • Women’s 200m Backstroke
  • Women’s 100m Breaststroke
  • Women’s 200m Breaststroke
  • Women’s 100m Butterfly
  • Women’s 200m Butterfly
  • Women’s 200m Individual Medley
  • Women’s 400m Individual Medley
  • Women’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay
  • Women’s 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay
  • Women’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay
  • Mixed 4 x 100m Medley Relay

These events add a team dynamic to the mix and provide options for both sprinters and endurance swimmers.

Conquering Advanced Strokes and Techniques

The Combat Side Stroke, or Composite Stroke, is used by military personnel like US Navy SEALs and combines elements of the breaststroke, freestyle, and sidestroke to offer efficiency and a low profile in water.

The Trudgen Stroke, named after English swimmer John Trudgen, was developed from the sidestroke. This stroke features alternating arm movements akin to the front crawl paired with a powerful frog kick or a scissor kick.

To improve and balance efficiency with speed, swimmers use a concept game called swim golf (SWOLF). In short, your score is the amount of strokes it takes you to go a certain distance (like the length of a pool). As you improve, your score should get lower since you’ll be going farther with each stroke. It’s an effective way to measure your swimming efficiency as you try to lower your SWOLF score.


From the speed of the freestyle stroke to the grace of the butterfly, each stroke has unique characteristics and benefits.

Swimming is not just about moving through the water, it’s about understanding and connecting with the water. Each stroke offers a different way to interact with the water, engage different muscle groups, and challenge your coordination and skill.

Of course, the best way to improve your swimming technique is through consistent practice, coaching, and feedback. So, dive in and let the water guide you on your swimming journey!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the fastest swimming stroke?

The fastest swimming stroke is the Freestyle or Front Crawl. It’s the most commonly used stroke in freestyle events worldwide.

Which stroke is best for beginners to learn first?

I recommend starting with the Elementary Backstroke. It is often taught to beginners because it is easy to learn and the swimmer’s face is always facing away from the water.

What is the most challenging stroke to master?

The Butterfly Stroke is considered the most challenging to master due to the required strong core and upper body strength, as well as coordination and balance. It demands a high level of physical skill and control.

What is the purpose of the Sidestroke?

The purpose of the Sidestroke is primarily for personal survival and performing lifesaving tows. It is a valuable swimming technique for these important purposes.

Are there any advanced strokes I can learn?

Yes, you can learn advanced strokes like the Combat Side Stroke and the Trudgen Stroke to add to your swimming skills.

What are the Different Swimming Strokes

The four most common swimming strokes that are used in the Olympic Games are freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly, and backstroke.

How Many Regulation Strokes Are There in Swimming

Four. The four swimming strokes that are recognized by the Olympic Games are freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly, and backstroke.

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