Grab your goggles and dive on in. These four swimming strokes are all you really need for an incredible pool workout.

By Lauren Del Turco
August 06, 2019
Lammeyer/Getty Images

Whether it's summer or not, jumping in the pool is a great way to mix up your workout routine, take the load off your joints, and burn major calories while using pretty much every muscle in your body.

Not sure where to start? Consider this your guide to the most common swimming strokes—and how to incorporate them into your next water workout. (Don't wanna do laps? Try this non-swimming pool workout instead.)

4 Swimming Strokes You Should Know

If you've ever tuned into the Summer Olympics, you've seen the four most popular swimming strokes—freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly—in action. And while your strokes may not look quite like Natalie Coughlin's, nail the basics and you're pretty much guaranteed a killer workout. (Once you've mastered these swimming strokes, try one of these swimming workouts for every fitness level.)

1. Freestyle

"Freestyle is definitely the best-known swimming stroke," says Julia Russell, C.P.T., former Olympic swimmer and swim coach and trainer at Life Time Athletic in New York City. "Not only is it the fastest and most efficient, but it's also the easiest to master."

If you're new to swimming or want to get a solid workout in the pool, freestyle is a great stroke to get you started. Swim freestyle at a medium to vigorous effort level for an hour, and a 140-pound person will burn upwards of 500 calories.

How to do the freestyle swimming stroke:

  • You swim freestyle in a horizontal prone position (meaning face-down in the water).
  • With pointed toes, you kick your feet in a quick, compact up-and-down movement known as the 'flutter kick.'
  • Meanwhile, your arms move in a continuous, alternating pattern: One arm pulls underwater from an extended position (in front of your body, bicep by ear) towards your hip, while the other arm recovers by sweeping above the water from your hip out to the extended position in front of you.
  • To breathe, you turn your head to the side of whatever arm is recovering and inhale quickly before turning your face back down again. (Typically, you'll breathe every two or more strokes.)

"The hardest aspect of freestyle is the breathing," says Russell. "However, it's easy to work on with a kickboard." Flutter kick while holding a kickboard out in front of you and practice rotating your face in and out of the water to breathe until you feel comfortable. (Here are some more tips to make the most of every swimming workout.)

Muscles worked during freestyle: core, shoulders, glutes, hamstrings

2. Backstroke

Essentially the upside-down counterpart to freestyle, backstroke is another easy swimming stroke to master that's popular among swimmers of all ability levels, says Russell.

Though the average person only burns about 300 calories per hour swimming backstroke, the stroke offers one major perk: Your face stays out of the water, so you can breathe whenever you want. "Backstroke is extremely useful when you need a bit of a rest period," says Russell. (Related: How This Woman Uses Swimming to Clear Her Head)

Plus, it also comes in handy when you "really want to strengthen your abs and back muscles," she adds. Combine backstroke and freestyle in the same pool workout and you'll have worked your body from all angles.

How to do the backstroke swimming stroke:

  • You swim backstroke in a horizontal supine position (meaning you're face-up in the water), hence the name 'backstroke.'
  • Like in freestyle, you kick your feet in a short, constant flutter kick while your arms move in a continuous alternating pattern.
  • In backstroke, you'll pull one arm through the water from an extended position above your head down to your hip, while the other arm recovers by making a semi-circle motion in the air, from your hip to that extended position.
  • Your body will roll slightly from side to side as each arm pulls underwater, but your head will stay in a neutral upward-facing position, meaning, yep, you can breathe easily as needed.

Muscles worked during backstroke: shoulders, glutes, and hamstrings, plus more core (especially back) than freestyle

3. Breaststroke

Though the tempo of breaststroke, which is quite different from freestyle and backstroke, can be tricky to nail, "one you get it, you get it for life," says Russell. "It's like riding a bike." (Related: The Best Swim Goggles for Every Situation)

Since the average person burns just shy of 350 calories per hour swimming breaststroke, it may not be your go-to for a high-intensity workout. However, since it uses such a different movement pattern than freestyle and backstroke, it's a great way to switch things up and focus on different muscle groups, says Russell.

Plus, "if you're hesitant to hold your breath, breaststroke is great because you breathe every stroke," she explains. Heck, you can even do it without putting your face in the water at all (though that's not technically correct).

How to do the breaststroke swimming stoke:

  • Like freestyle, you swim breaststroke in a horizontal prone position. However, in breaststroke, you move between a more horizontal, streamlined position (when your body is like a pencil underwater, with arms and legs outstretched) and a more vertical recovery position, in which you pull your torso up out of the water to breathe.
  • Here, your legs perform a symmetrical 'whip' or 'frog' kick that involves pulling your feet together in towards your glutes and then whipping your feet out to the sides in a circular motion until they meet again in a streamlined position. (Seriously, just picture frog legs.)
  • Meanwhile, your arms move in a symmetrical, triangle-like pattern. As your legs recover towards your glutes, your hands (which are extended out ahead of you) sweep forward, outward, and then pull into your chest, creating that triangle shape. As your legs perform their frog kick, you'll shoot your arms back out into their extended position and repeat.
  • In breaststroke, you breathe by lifting your head as your arms pull through the water, and tuck your face back down as they extend out in front of you.

Muscles worked during breaststroke: chest, all the leg muscles

4. Butterfly

Perhaps the most epic-looking of the four swimming strokes, the butterfly is also (by far) the most difficult to master.

"It's a pretty unusual movement," Russell explains. "Plus, it utilizes just about every muscle you have." The result: a swimming stroke that's not only technically very advanced, but absolutely exhausting, even for the pros.

Because butterfly is so tricky, Russell recommends mastering the other three strokes before giving it a try. Once you get there, though, know this: It's a wicked calorie-burner. The average person torches close to 900 calories an hour swimming butterfly. "It really gets your heart rate up there," she says.

How to do the butterfly swimming stroke:

  • Butterfly, which is performed in a horizontal prone position, uses a wave-like undulating movement in which your chest, followed by your hips, continuously bobs up and down.
  • You'll start in a streamlined position underwater. From there, your hands make an hourglass shape under the water as they pull towards your hips, and then exit the water and recover to that extended position by circling forward just above the water surface.
  • Meanwhile, your legs perform a 'dolphin' kick, in which your legs and feet stay together and push up and down, with pointed toes. (Picture a mermaid tail.)
  • In butterfly, you breathe as needed by lifting your head up out of the water while your arms recover above the water surface.

"When I teach butterfly, I break it down into three parts," Russell says. First, practice the general movement pattern of alternatively bobbing your chest and hips up and down, just to get a sense of the rhythm. Then, practice the dolphin kick. Once you've got that down, work on just the arm movement before finally piecing it all together. (BTW, did you know you can take mermaid fitness classes while you're on vacation?)

Muscles worked during butterfly: literally all of them (especially the core, lower back, and calves)

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