This article provides information about the four swimming strokes used in competitions, which are the front crawl or freestyle stroke, breaststroke, backstroke, and the butterfly stroke.
We also provide information about a few lesser-known swimming strokes, such as the elementary backstroke, the sidestroke, the trudgen, and the combat sidestroke.
Let’s now have an overview of these different swimming strokes.
Front Crawl (or Freestyle Stroke)
The front crawl (also often called the freestyle stroke) is the fastest of the competitive swimming strokes.
The front crawl is swum in a horizontal position on the chest. The body rolls from side to side, always turning to the side of the arm that is currently pulling in the water. The head remains in a neutral position, face down, except when breathing.
The arms move continuously and alternately. While one arm pulls underwater from an extended forward position down to the hip, the other arm recovers above the water, from the hip to the extended forward position.
To breathe, the swimmer turns his head to the side during the arm recovery until the mouth is above the water surface. The swimmer breathes in quickly, then turns his head back down.
The exhalation begins as soon as the mouth is under the water surface again and continues until the next breathing arm recovery.
Front Crawl Video
Below is a short video demonstrating the front crawl:
Front crawl is the fastest and most efficient of all swimming strokes for the following reasons:
- There is always one arm pulling underwater, ideally positioned to deliver powerful propulsion.
- The arm recovery above water minimizes drag.
- The continuous flutter kicking contributes to steady propulsion.
Because the front crawl is fast and efficient, it dominates races where the choice of swimming style is free, such as freestyle races or triathlons.
For the same reasons, it often is the preferred swimming stroke of fitness swimmers.
Here are a few more resources:
- A detailed explanation of the swimming technique of the front crawl.
- Swimming exercises to learn the front crawl.
Breaststroke is the most popular swimming stroke of all.
If you go to the pool, chances are most of the people you’ll see will be swimming breaststroke.
The breaststroke is swum in a prone position. The body moves from a horizontal position during a short, streamlined glide phase to a more inclined position during the arm recovery phase.
The arm movements are simultaneous and symmetrical. As the arms are pulled backward underwater, the hands create an arc, moving from a forward extended position to a position below the chest.
During the arm recovery, the hands move in a straight line from the position below the chest to the extended forward position.
The legs execute a symmetrical whip kick. First, the legs are fully extended at the end of the glide phase.
The feet then move toward the buttocks during the leg recovery.
Finally, during the propulsive phase of the kick, the feet move outward and backward from the buttocks, then inward and backward, to return to the fully extended leg position.
Breathing occurs at the end of the underwater arm pull, when the hands move under the chest and the head and chest move above the water surface.
Here’s a short video showing the breaststroke:
Breaststroke is the slowest of the competitive swimming strokes.
Breaststroke is often the first stroke taught to beginners because you can swim breaststroke while keeping your head above water.
This allows beginners to learn to swim without having to use swim goggles or deal with breathing problems.
Here are a few more resources
- A detailed explanation of the swimming technique of breaststroke.
- Swimming exercises to learn breaststroke.
The butterfly stroke is the second-fastest swimming stroke and is quite exhausting.
The butterfly is swum in a prone position. The body executes a wave-like undulation, where the chest and the hips move up and down in the water in a specific order.
The undulation starts at the head, and the chest, hips, and legs move in sequence.
The arm stroke is symmetrical, where the hands trace an hourglass pattern underwater, moving from an extended forward position to below the chest and then to the hips.
The hands exit the water at the hips and then circle forward above the water until they are extended forward again.
The legs do a dolphin kick. They are held together and move up and down symmetrically with the feet extended.
Breathing occurs during the arm recovery in a breathing stroke cycle, where the head and chest are lifted above the water to allow breathing.
Most swimmers alternate breathing stroke cycles with non-breathing stroke cycles, as breathing stroke cycles require more energy to lift the upper body above the water.
Butterfly Stroke Video
Here is a short video showing the butterfly stroke:
The butterfly stroke is one of the more difficult strokes to learn. You have to master the unusual movements of the body undulation, as well as the dolphin kick and the not-so-obvious arm stroke.
Given that the butterfly stroke is quite tiring and only allows you to swim a few lengths in a row, it is mainly used by competitive swimmers.
Recreational and fitness swimmers most often prefer the front crawl or breaststroke.
Nevertheless, the butterfly stroke is a rather spectacular swimming stroke that is quite fun to swim on occasion, once you have mastered it.
Here are a few more resources:
- A detailed explanation of the butterfly swimming technique.
- Swimming exercises to learn the butterfly stroke.
The backstroke is the only one of the four competitive strokes that is swum on the back.
The backstroke is swum on the back in a horizontal position. The body rolls from side to side, always turning to the side of the arm that is currently pulling in the water. The head remains in a neutral position, face-up.
The pulling arm sweeps underwater from an extended forward position to outside the shoulder and then to the hip.
The arm recovery occurs above the water with a straight arm. The hand traces a semi-circle in the air, moving from the hip over the shoulder and then extending forward again.
The legs do a flutter kick, kicking up and down alternately with fast, compact movements and with stretched feet.
Since the face is directed upward and remains above the water’s surface, breathing is not restricted. However, most backstroke swimmers synchronize their breathing with their arm movements.
A common variation is to inhale during the arm recovery on one side and to exhale during the arm recovery on the other side.
Below is a short video showing the backstroke:
In competition, the backstroke is the third-fastest swimming stroke, being faster than the breaststroke but slower than the butterfly.
Recreational and fitness swimmers should consider doing a little backstroke with every swim training, as it uses different muscles than the front crawl and contributes to a more balanced musculature.
Similarly, in open water competitions, it can be useful to switch from front crawl to backstroke from time to time to catch your breath and recover a little.
Doctors often advise patients with back problems to swim the backstroke because it helps to relax and strengthen the back muscles.
Here are a few more resources:
- A detailed explanation of the swimming technique of the backstroke.
- Swimming exercises to learn the backstroke.
The sidestroke is an older swimming stroke that is swum on the side. It uses a scissor kick and asymmetrical underwater arm movements.
The sidestroke is swum in a horizontal lateral position. The swimmer remains on the same side throughout the entire stroke cycle.
The head is turned sideways and upward, with the face above water all the time.
As the body floats on its side, in the starting position, the lower-lying arm is extended forward underwater, while the higher-lying arm rests on the side of the body.
The arms move simultaneously but perform different movements.
In the first phase, the lower-lying arm pulls underwater from an extended forward position toward the chest, and thus, provides propulsion. At the same time, the higher-lying arm bends and recovers toward the chest. The hands meet in front of the chest.
In the second phase, the lower arm recovers underwater to the extended forward position. At the same time, the higher arm pushes backward in the water, extends and moves back to the side of the body.
The sidestroke uses a scissor kick. Initially, both legs are extended.
During the recovery, the upper-lying leg bends forward at the hip, while the lower-lying leg bends back a little at the hip. Both legs bend at the knee.
Then, during the propulsive phase, both legs extend and move back to their starting position.
The upper leg pushes with the back against the water, while the lower leg pushes with the front against the water.
Since the head remains above water, breathing is not constrained. But similar to backstroke, it makes sense to synchronize breathing with arm movements.
One way to achieve this is to inhale when the lower-lying arm pulls back, and then to exhale when the higher-lying arm pushes back against the water.
Here is a short animation of the sidestroke:
- Sidestroke is not used in swimming competitions and is therefore swum less often nowadays.
- However, it is easy to learn and can be a welcome alternative to the more popular strokes.
- Sidestroke is one of the swimming strokes used by lifeguards to rescue victims.
Here are a few more resources:
The stroke cycle begins floating on the back with the arms at the sides, and the legs extended and drawn together.
The hands slide along the sides up to the level of the armpits. Then the arms are extended sideways, and the hands are made flat with the palms facing the pool wall.
After the arms have been extended laterally, they are brought back to the hips in a straight fashion, pushing against the water and providing propulsion.
The legs move more or less simultaneously with the arms.
First, starting from the initial position, the legs are spread apart, the knees bent, and the feet pulled up to the buttocks.
Then, the legs are stretched and brought together. In this second phase, the inside of the legs and feet push against the water and provide propulsion.
As the face remains above the water at all the time, breathing is unconstrained. However, it is necessary to have mastered some level of horizontal balance on the back to be able to keep the face above the water.
As with regular backstroke and sidestroke, it makes sense to synchronize breathing with the movements of the limbs.
The most logical approach is to inhale when the arms and legs are spread apart and to exhale when the arms and legs are brought together.
Elementary Backstroke Video
Here is a video demonstrating elementary backstroke:
- Elementary backstroke is a beginner’s stroke because it uses a relatively simple technique and allows for unrestricted breathing.
- However, some balance on the supine position is required to be able to remain horizontal.
- Despite the simple technique, elementary backstroke enables quite efficient swimming.
- A disadvantage, however, is that the swimmer cannot look in the direction in which he or she swims.
Here are a few more resources:
The Combat Sidestroke / Combat Swimmer Stroke
The combat sidestroke is a variant of the sidestroke used by the US Navy SEALs; it is particularly efficient and can therefore be used for swimming over long distances.
Below is a video demonstrating combat sidestroke:
The Trudgen / Trudgeon Stroke
The trudgen or trudgeon stroke is an older precursor of the front crawl. It basically consists of a combination of the front crawl arm stroke with a scissor kick.
Below is a Youtube video demonstrating the trudgen stroke:
This concludes our review of the most popular swimming strokes. Other strokes exist, but they are mostly variations of the swimming strokes presented above, where most often the arm movements from one stroke are combined with the leg movements of another stroke.
For example, it is possible to swim butterfly with a breaststroke kick or to swim breaststroke with a flutter kick. Trudgen can be seen as such a hybrid swimming stroke.