The swimming strokes used in competition are the front crawl or freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly stroke.
Lesser-known swimming strokes are the sidestroke, elementary backstroke, trudgen, and combat sidestroke.
In this article, we will cover these swimming techniques.
Front Crawl (or Freestyle Stroke)
The front crawl (often referred to as freestyle stroke or simply freestyle) is the fastest swimming stroke used in competition.
The front crawl is swum in the prone position. The body rolls from side to side, always turning to the side of the arm that enters the water. The head is kept in a neutral position with the face down unless a breath is taken.
The arms perform alternating movements. While one arm sweeps in the water from the forward extended position back to the hip, the other arm recovers above water from the hip back to the forward extended position.
The legs perform an alternating flutter kick, moving rapidly up and down with the feet extended and where the movement is initiated from the hips.
To breathe, the swimmer turns his head to the side of the arm recovering forward. Once the mouth is above the water’s surface, the swimmer inhales quickly before turning the head back down. Exhalation begins once the mouth is underwater and continues until the next arm recovery with breathing begins. Inhalation usually occurs on every second or third arm stroke.
The front crawl is the fastest, most efficient swimming technique for the following reasons:
- An arm is always in the water, providing propulsion.
- Front crawl technique provides a powerful, efficient arm stroke.
- The arm recovery above water minimizes water resistance.
- The alternating flutter kick contributes to continuous, even propulsion.
The front crawl is used almost exclusively in freestyle swimming because it is so efficient. Triathletes and fitness swimmers often prefer the front crawl for the same reasons.
The breaststroke is one of the most popular swimming strokes. In Europe, this technique is often the first one taught to novice swimmers. However, it is the slowest swimming stroke used in competition.
The breaststroke is performed in the prone position. The body alternates between a streamlined horizontal position and a more inclined position. The head is held in a neutral position and follows the body’s movements.
The arm movements are simultaneous and symmetrical. At the end of the glide phase, the arms are extended forward in the water. The arms then execute an outsweep followed by an insweep until the hands meet below the chest. From there, they are stretched forward again.
The legs also perform simultaneous symmetrical movements. Initially, the legs are straight and held together. Then the knees are bent, and the feet are brought toward the buttocks. Subsequently, the legs are spread and begin to extend again. Finally, the legs come together and finish to extend.
The inhalation occurs when the hands meet below the chest and the head and shoulders rise out of the water.
Beginners can keep their heads above water with breaststroke, which makes breathing easier and helps with orientation.
The butterfly stroke is the second fastest of the swimming strokes used in competition. However, it is quite strenuous and usually only swum over short distances.
The butterfly stroke is swum in the prone position. The body performs an undulating movement, with the head, chest, hips, legs, and feet moving up and down in the water in succession.
The arm movements are simultaneous and symmetrical. The hands perform an hourglass-shaped movement in the water from the forward extended position back to the hips. At the hips, the hands leave the water. The arms are swung forward sideways over the water, dipping back into the water in front of the swimmer.
The legs perform the so-called dolphin kick. This entails keeping your legs together and striking up and down simultaneously from the hips with outstretched feet. As a rule, two kicks are performed per stroke cycle.
To breathe, raise your head and shoulders a little more as the arms push back in the water, allowing the face to rise above the surface and a breath to be taken. As a rule, the swimmer breathes only every second or third arm stroke.
Butterfly swimming is one of the most challenging strokes to learn. The undulating movement of the body and synchronized movements of the arms and legs require strength, good timing, and a clean technique.
Nevertheless, the butterfly stroke is an interesting stroke that, once mastered, can add variety to your training.
The backstroke is the only one of the four main swimming strokes that, as the name indicates, is swum on the back.
The backstroke is the third fastest stroke in competition—faster than the breaststroke but slower than the butterfly.
The backstroke is swum in the supine position. The body rolls from side to side in the direction of the arm entering the water. The head remains in a neutral position with the face turned upward.
The arms perform alternating movements. One arm is brought to the hip from the forward extended position with an s-shaped movement in the water, providing propulsion. The other arm leaves the water at the hip and is swung forward in an extended manner over the head.
The legs perform an alternating flutter kick. This involves moving the legs up and down alternately in small, quick movements with pointed toes.
Since the face is directed upward and remains above the water’s surface, breathing can occur freely. However, it makes sense to synchronize the breathing with the arm movements—for example, inhaling during the pulling phase of the left arm and exhaling during the pulling phase of the right arm.
Backstroke contributes to a balanced musculature and should be an integral part of any training plan.
For the same reason, doctors often recommend backstroke to patients suffering from back pain.
The backstroke can also be helpful in open water competition to catch your breath or take a short break.
The sidestroke is an old swimming stroke that is no longer used in competition and has been somewhat forgotten. However, since this technique allows you to swim in a very relaxed and efficient way, it is worth rediscovering.
The sidestroke is swum in the lateral position. The swimmer remains on the same side throughout the entire stroke cycle. The head is turned to the side and slightly upward, with the face remaining above water the whole time.
In the lateral starting position, both legs are extended and held together. The upper arm rests on the side of the body, while the lower arm is extended forward.
In the first stroke phase, the hand of the lower arm is pulled backward in the water, from the forward extended position to the chest, providing propulsion. Meanwhile, the hand of the upper arm is moved forward along the body until both hands meet in front of the chest.
In the second stroke phase, the lower arm is brought forward again, while the upper arm pushes back against the water, providing propulsion until it is fully extended and placed back on the side of the body.
In the sidestroke, the legs perform a scissor kick. In the first stroke phase, the knee of the upper leg is bent and pulled towards the chest; the knee of the lower leg is also bent, but the hip is slightly overextended so that the foot moves toward the buttocks.
In the second stroke phase, the legs are extended and brought together again, providing propulsion. Thus, the back of the upper leg and front of the lower leg push against the water. A short glide phase follows this before the cycle starts anew.
Since the head remains above water, breathing can occur freely. However, similarly to the backstroke, synchronizing breathing with arm movements is helpful. For example, one can inhale during the pull phase of the lower arm and exhale during the pull phase of the upper arm.
- The sidestroke is easy to learn and can be a welcome alternative to more familiar swimming strokes.
- A slightly modified form of the sidestroke is still used today in rescue swimming to tow away victims.
The elementary backstroke is swum in the supine position. It uses an inverted breaststroke kick and a simple arm stroke.
In the starting position, the swimmer is supine with the head in neutral position and the face turned upward. The arms are at the sides of the body, and the legs are extended and held together.
To start the stroke cycle, the hands are drawn to the armpits. From there, the arms are extended to the side at a 90° angle to the body. Finally, the extended arms are brought back to the side, creating propulsion.
The leg movements are synchronized with the arm movements. The legs are first spread with knees bent, then stretched again and brought together. In doing so, the insides of the legs and feet press against the water and provide additional propulsion.
Breathing can occur unimpeded, as the face is always kept above water. Again, it makes sense to synchronize the breathing with arm and leg movements. For example, one can inhale during the preparation phase of the arms and legs and exhale during the pressure phase of the arms and legs.
Despite its simple technique, the elementary backstroke allows efficient swimming with unrestricted breathing and is interesting for beginners.
However, it requires a reasonably good supine position, which can be a hurdle for beginners.
The Combat Sidestroke / Combat Swimmer Stroke
The combat sidestroke is a sidestroke variant used by US Navy SEALs; it is particularly efficient and can be used for long-distance swimming.
The Trudgen Stroke
The trudgen stroke is an older precursor of the front crawl. It consists essentially of a combination of the arm stroke of the front crawl and the scissor kick of the sidestroke.
This concludes our overview of the most common swimming strokes. Other swimming strokes usually combine the individual arm and leg techniques of the above swimming strokes, so we will not cover them here.