Beginner's Guide to the Different Swimming Strokes

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

woman practicing different swimming strokes in a pool
Photo: 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 use pretty much every muscle in your body.

Not sure about where to start, or how to do the different swimming strokes? 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 Different 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. Even if your strokes don't look quite like a pro swimmer'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.)


"Freestyle is definitely the best-known swimming stroke," says Julia Russell, C.P.T., a former Olympic swimmer, NASM-certified personal trainer, and owner of Inside Out Fitness. "Not only is it the fastest and most efficient, but it's also the easiest to master," she explains. 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.

How to do the freestyle swimming stroke:

A. Freestyle is done in a horizontal prone position (meaning facedown in the water).

B. With pointed toes, kick the feet in a quick, compact up-and-down movement known as the flutter kick.

C. Meanwhile, move the arms in a continuous, alternating pattern: One arm pulls underwater from an extended position (in front of the body, bicep by ear) toward the hip, while the other arm recovers by sweeping above the water from the hip out to the extended position out in front.

D. To breathe, turn the head to the side of whatever arm is recovering and inhale quickly before turning face back down again. (Typically, you'll breathe every two or more strokes.)

"The hardest aspect of freestyle is the breathing. However, it's easy to work on with a kickboard," notes Russell. 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.

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


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. This 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," she adds.

Plus, it also comes in handy when you "really want to strengthen your abs and back muscles," notes Russell. Combine backstroke and freestyle in the same pool workout and you'll have worked your body from all angles. (Here's what to know about swimming on your period.)

How to do the backstroke swimming stroke:

A. Backstroke is done in a horizontal supine position (meaning faceup in the water), hence the name backstroke.

B. Like in freestyle, kick the feet in a short, constant flutter kick while arms move in a continuous alternating pattern.

C. In backstroke, pull one arm through the water from an extended position above the head down to the hip, while the other arm recovers by making a semi-circle motion in the air, from the hip to that extended position.

D. The body will roll slightly from side to side as each arm pulls underwater, but the head will stay in a neutral upward-facing position, meaning, yep, it's easy to breathe as needed.

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


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," she adds.

Since it's less taxing than different swimming strokes, 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," explains Russell. 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:

A. Like freestyle, breaststroke is done in a horizontal prone position. However, in breaststroke, the body moves between a more horizontal, streamlined position (when the body is like a pencil underwater, with arms and legs outstretched) and a more vertical recovery position, in which the torso is pulled up out of the water to breathe.

B. Here, the legs perform a symmetrical "whip" or "frog" kick that involves pulling the feet together in toward the glutes and then whipping the feet out to the sides in a circular motion until they meet again in a streamlined position. (Seriously, just picture frog legs.)

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

D. In breaststroke, breathe by lifting 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 worked during breaststroke: chest, all the leg muscles


Perhaps the most epic-looking of the four different swimming strokes, the butterfly is also (by far) the most difficult to master. "It's a pretty unusual movement. Plus, it utilizes just about every muscle you have," explains Russell. The result: a swimming stroke that's not only technically very advanced, but absolutely exhausting, even for the pros.

Because butterfly is so tricky, master the other three strokes before giving it a try, recommends Russell. Once you get there, though, the average person burns around 900 calories an hour doing this intense movement. "It really gets your heart rate up there," says Russell. (See also: 10 Benefits of Swimming That Will Have You Diving Into the Pool)

How to do the butterfly swimming stroke:

A. Butterfly, which is performed in a horizontal prone position, uses a wave-like undulating movement in which the chest, followed by the hips, continuously bobs up and down.

B. Start in a streamlined position underwater. From there, the hands make an hourglass shape under the water as they pull toward the hips, and then exit the water and recover to that extended position by circling forward just above the water surface.

C. Meanwhile, the legs perform a "dolphin" kick, in which the legs and feet stay together and push up and down, with pointed toes. (Picture a mermaid tail.)

D. In butterfly, breathe as needed by lifting the head up out of the water while the arms recover above the water surface.

"When I teach butterfly, I break it down into three parts," says Russell. 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. (Up next: How to Safely Dive Into Open-Water Swimming)

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

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