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Mastering the Four Distinct Swimming Techniques

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Whether it’s summertime or not, taking a dip in the pool is an excellent way to diversify your exercise routine, reduce stress on your joints, and engage all the muscles in your body.

Uncertain about where to begin or how to perform different swimming techniques? Consider this as your comprehensive manual to the most common swimming strokes – and how to integrate them into your next aquatic workout. (Not interested in doing laps? Give this alternate pool workout a try instead.)

Four Distinct Swimming Strokes You Should Familiarize Yourself With

If you’ve ever watched the Summer Olympics, you’ve witnessed the four most prevalent swimming strokes – freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly – in action. Even if your execution doesn’t resemble that of a professional swimmer, mastering the fundamentals will guarantee an intense workout. (Once you’ve honed these swimming strokes, experiment with one of these swimming workouts suitable for various fitness levels.)

The Freestyle Stroke

“Freestyle is unquestionably the most well-known swimming stroke,” states Julia Russell, C.P.T., a former Olympic swimmer, NASM-certified personal trainer, and proprietor of Inside Out Fitness. “Not only is it the fastest and most efficient stroke, but it’s also the easiest to learn,” she explains. If you’re new to swimming or looking for a challenging workout in the pool, freestyle is an excellent stroke to begin with.

How to Execute the Freestyle Swimming Stroke:

A. Assume a horizontal prone position in the water, facing downwards.

B. Kick your feet in a rapid and compact up-and-down motion called the flutter kick, keeping your toes pointed.

C. Simultaneously, move your arms in a continuous and alternating pattern: as one arm pulls underwater from an extended position (in front of the body, with the bicep near the ear) towards the hip, the other arm sweeps above the water from the hip to the extended position in front.

D. To breathe, turn your head to the side aligned with the recovering arm and quickly inhale before returning your face to the water. (Typically, you will breathe every two or more strokes.)

“The most challenging aspect of freestyle is the breathing. However, it can be easily practiced using a kickboard,” notes Russell. Maintain a flutter kick while holding a kickboard in front of you, and practice rotating your face in and out of the water for breathing until you feel comfortable.

Muscles Engaged During Freestyle: core, shoulders, glutes, hamstrings

The Backstroke

Functioning as the inverted counterpart to freestyle, backstroke is another straightforward swimming technique to master, favored by swimmers of all skill levels, according to Russell.

This swim technique provides a significant advantage: Your facial region remains above the water surface, allowing you to inhale at your convenience. “When you require a short break, backstroke proves to be highly valuable,” she affirms.

Plus, it also comes in handy when you “really want to strengthen your abdominal muscles and muscles in your posterior region,” remarks Russell. Combine backstroke and freestyle in the same pool workout and you’ll have worked your body from all perspectives. (Here’s what to know about swimming on your menstrual cycle.)

How to perform the backstroke swimming stroke:

A. Backstroke is executed in a horizontal supine position (meaning facing upwards in the water), thus the given name backstroke.

B. Similar to freestyle, flutter the feet in a brief and steady flutter kick while the arms move in a constant alternating sequence.

C. During backstroke, pull one arm through the water from an elongated position above the head down to the hip, while the other arm recuperates by performing a semi-circle motion in the air, from the hip to the previously mentioned elongated position.

D. The body will slightly roll from one side to the other as each arm pulls underwater, but the head will remain in a neutral upward-facing position, meaning, yes, it’s simple to breathe as needed.

Muscles engaged during backstroke: deltoids, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings, plus more core (especially the back) than freestyle


Although the tempo of breaststroke, which is quite distinct from freestyle and backstroke, can be challenging to master, “once you get it, you get it for life,” states Russell. “It’s akin to riding a bicycle,” she adds.

Since it requires less effort than other swimming strokes, it may not be your preferred choice for a high-intensity workout. However, since it employs a distinct movement pattern compared to freestyle and backstroke, it’s an excellent way to alter your routine and concentrate on different muscle groups, according to Russell.

Plus, “if you’re unsure about holding your breath, breaststroke is great because you inhale every stroke,” explains Russell. Heck, you can even execute it without submerging your face in the water at all (though that’s not technically correct).

How to perform the breaststroke swimming stroke:

A. Similar to freestyle, breaststroke is performed in a horizontal prone position. However, in breaststroke, the body transitions between a more horizontal, streamlined position (when the body resembles a pencil underwater, with arms and legs fully extended) and a more vertical recovery position, in which the torso is raised out of the water in order to breathe.

B. In this stroke, the legs execute a symmetrical “whip” or “frog” kick that involves bringing the feet together towards the glutes and then whipping them out to the sides in a circular motion until they meet again in a streamlined position. (Seriously, just imagine frog legs.)

C. Meanwhile, the arms move in a symmetrical, triangular pattern. As the legs recover towards the glutes, the hands (which are extended ahead of the body) sweep forward, outward, and then pull into the chest, creating that triangular shape. As the legs perform their frog kick, propel the arms back out into their extended position and repeat.

D. In breaststroke, inhale by raising the head as the arms pull through the water, and tuck the face back down as they extend out in front of the body.

Muscles utilized in breaststroke: pectoral muscles, every single leg muscle


Possibly the most grandiose-looking among the four distinct swimming techniques, the fly stroke is also (by far) the most challenging to conquer. “It’s a rather extraordinary motion. Additionally, it engages virtually every muscle in your body,” elucidates Russell. The outcome: a swimming style that’s not only remarkably sophisticated, but utterly draining, even for professional swimmers.

Given the complexity of the fly stroke, Russell suggests mastering the other three strokes first before attempting it. However, once you reach that point, the average individual can burn approximately 900 calories per hour executing this demanding movement. “It truly elevates your heart rate,” affirms Russell. (See also: 10 Perks of Swimming That Will Have You Plunging Into the Pool)

How to perform the fly stroke:

A. The butterfly stroke, which is executed while in a horizontal prone position, entails an undulating motion resembling a wave, with the chest and then the hips continuously rising and falling.

B. Begin in a streamlined position beneath the surface. From there, the hands assume an hourglass shape beneath the water as they pull towards the hips, then emerge from the water and recover to the extended position by circling forward just above the water’s surface.

C. Meanwhile, the legs execute a “dolphin” kick, where the legs and feet remain together and push up and down, with the toes pointed. (Imagine a mermaid tail.)

D. In the butterfly stroke, breathe when necessary by lifting the head out of the water while the arms are recovering above the water’s surface.

“When teaching the butterfly stroke, I break it down into three segments,” Russell states. First, practice the general movement pattern of alternately raising and lowering your chest and hips, just to get a feel for the rhythm. Then, focus on mastering the dolphin kick. Once you have that mastered, concentrate on the arm movement alone before finally putting it all together. (Next up: How to Safely Embark on Open-Water Swimming)

Muscles engaged during the butterfly stroke: literally each and every one of them (particularly the core, lumbar region, and calf muscles)

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