Have you ever wondered how Olympic swimmers can glide effortlessly through the water?

Not only do these athletes have broad shoulders, an extraordinary cardiovascular system, and a talent for swimming, they have also spent an enormous amount of time perfecting their swimming technique.

Arguably the most important factor separating the very best swimmers from the rest of their peers is their immaculate technique.

Whether you are just learning how to swim or you are training for the 2.4-mile swim in an ironman, it is crucial to have a thorough understanding of different swimming strokes techniques.

Not only will swimming with the right technique make you a faster swimmer, but it will also prevent you from getting injured.

Even though swimming is a non-contact and non-weight-bearing sport, musculoskeletal injuries are remarkably common in competitive swimmers.

Shoulder injuries are the most common swimming injury; past research indicates that shoulder pain affects up to 91% of swimmers. This article will teach you the essential basics of the major swimming styles and provide you with a solid base to become a stronger and more efficient swimmer.

What Are the Different Types of Swimming Strokes?

In competitive swimming, there are four recognized official strokes: freestyle (or front crawl), breaststroke, butterfly, and backstroke.

You swim these strokes competitively in a pool with races ranging in the distance from 50 meters to 1500 meters.

You typically swim distances longer than 1500 meters at open water competitions and triathlon races in lakes and oceans around the world. Besides, there are other lesser-known strokes, such as:

  • The sidestroke used by lifeguards in rescue missions,
  • The combat side stroke used by the military to sneak up to their enemy
  • The elementary backstroke used by beginners to get familiar with the feeling of full submersion
  • The Trudgeon stroke is an older stroke with a scissor kick and was the precursor to the modern front crawl

Front Crawl or Freestyle

The front crawl is the fastest and most energy-efficient stroke of all and is used almost exclusively by top triathletes for these reasons.

While it is not the most effortless stroke to master, it is the most critical stroke to have under your belt.

The Arms

Your arms move in a windmill pattern to propel the body forward.

There is a pulling phase underwater, which starts with your arm in full extension straight above your shoulder and ends with your arms parallel to your side.

The recovery phase happens above the water, where the arm is “reloaded” to get ready for the next pulling phase.

The Legs

The legs help maintain your streamline in the water and propel you forward with a flutter kick. It is imperative to make sure your legs are held straight without bending at the knee.

Keep in mind that according to various studies, the majority of freestyle propulsion comes from the upper body, so for longer distances, such as 2.4 miles in an Ironman, it is wise to save some energy and only use your legs sparingly.


Breathing in freestyle happens by turning your head towards the arm in the recovery phase (above the water).

Try to minimize the upward motion of your head and only turn it just enough to take a quick breath of air.

You should aim for a breathing ratio of 3:1 (arm rotations to breaths) so that you are breathing on both sides equally.


Breaststroke is the slowest, yet the most common stroke first taught to beginners.

When you learn to swim, you can do breaststroke without fully submerging the head, and this creates resistance in the water.

In breaststroke, timing between the kick and breath is vital to becoming more efficient and faster.

It is also a popular stroke for athletes who have rotator cuff injuries, since breaststroke can be modified to have less painful overhead pulling than the other three strokes.

The arms

Both arms move simultaneously in a full horizontal semi-circle parallel to the water.

The arms start together in a streamline position above your shoulders, and then your arms separate symmetrically until they reach the height of your shoulders.

This movement is followed by an inward squeeze to your chest and a lunge forward, which initiates a short gliding phase.

The legs

Unlike other swimming styles, a lot of the propulsive forces in breaststroke comes from the legs utilizing asymmetrical whip kick.

The whip kick uses the bottom of your feet to push yourself forward, and is often compared to the movement of frog legs.


While keeping your head above the water may feel comfortable, it creates a lot of resistance and drag, which slows you down.

Therefore, if you want to increase speed and efficiency, it is important to have your head fully submerged with your ears squeezed between your biceps when you initiate the kick.

If you are having trouble with your breathing during your swimming, you might consider increasing your workout focus on your breathing muscles. If your breathing muscles become too tired, you will quickly experience a general muscle fatigue. Keep one step ahead of your training game with the Airofit breathing trainer to strengthen your breathing muscles.


Butterfly is considered the most exhausting of the strokes, and is often the last stroke learned by beginners.

It requires tremendous upper body strength to propel yourself out of the water.

Most beginners and triathletes only incorporate short distances of this advanced stroke to work on increasing strength and power.

The Arms

The arm cycle starts with your arms straight above, and slightly wider than your shoulders.

The underwater pulling phase mimics the outline of a lightbulb. It is crucial to accelerate your movement towards the end of the lightbulb so that your upper body and head reach high enough above the water to catch a breath.

The Legs

The legs produce a dolphin kick by moving up and down symmetrically with the feet fully extended, and the knees slightly bent.


Backstroke is the only stroke swum on your back. It resembles an upside-down front crawl with similar alternating windmill movement of the arms and a flutter kick of the legs.

The head stays in a neutral position with the face-up, allowing you to breathe continuously.

The Arms

Just like with freestyle, the arms alternate between an underwater pulling phase and an above the water recovery phase.

It is essential to rotate your upper body left and right while keeping the head still; this allows for a deeper catch of water during the pulling phase.

The Legs

The legs perform a flutter kick, alternating up and down movements with fully extended feet. Try to limit the bend of your knees as much as you can to reduce drag.

BONUS: Two Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them

1) Short-range of motion of the pulling phase – Not reaching far enough and / or forgetting to finish the pulling phase completely

Do this instead: Insert your hands as far as you can right in line with your shoulder, and make sure to finish your stroke down to your outer thigh (middle of chest for breaststroke). Rather than pulling your hands out of the water prematurely, try and use your triceps to finish your stroke with power.

2) Keeping the fingers too tight together – Too many swimmers are taught (incorrectly) to focus excessively on keeping their fingers tightly together.

Do this instead: It is ok to have a slight space between your fingers. Due to surface tension forces between your fingers, you will grab onto more water every stroke.

3) FREESTYLE-SPECIFIC: Keeping arms too straight in the recovery phase

Do this instead: Focus on keeping a generous bend in your elbow during the recovery phase. This position allows your shoulders, biceps, and triceps to relax briefly and regain some energy.