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Swim Strokes

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What are the swimming strokes?

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Breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, and crawl (freestyle) are the most popular swim strokes. The breaststroke and butterfly are more difficult to learn than the backstroke and crawl.


The breaststroke involves exquisite timing, and in fact, you can be disqualified from competition if you miss even one stroke. The stroke involves form that causes your body to bob up and down as you glide forward through the water. This is a difficult stroke and not one to choose if you're just learning how to swim. The basics are that your arms pull, you breathe, you kick (arms alternate with the kick), and you glide. Here are details.

    The leg kick:
    • Bring the knees to chest.
    • Thrust the legs backward and straight.
    • Snap the legs together to push the water and propel you forward (frog kick).
    The arm stroke:
    • Start with the arms overhead.
    • Pull on the water, and bring arms toward the chest.
    • Keep the hands cupped.
    • Return arms to starting position.
    The breathing:
    • Breathe every time you stroke with your arms.


Like the breaststroke, this is a difficult stroke and not recommended for beginners because it requires perfect timing and a good deal of strength. During the stroke, the legs move together in a dolphin kick (imagine a mermaid), the arms move together to push the water downward and backward, and the torso undulates like an earthworm as the body moves forward through the water.

    The leg kick:
    • Bend the knees slightly, and keep them together.
    • Make a downward thrust by straightening the knees and whipping the feet downward.
    • There should be two kicks for every arm stroke.
    The arm stroke:
    • Move the arms together, and pull through the water with the hands cupped.
    • Face the palms outward, and press down and outward.
    • Swing the arms forward above the water in a sweeping motion to complete the stroke.
    The breathing:
    • Breathe at the end of the arm stroke.


The backstroke is easier than the butterfly or breaststroke and similar to the crawl in that you use an alternate windmill arm stroke and flutter kick. Two keys to a proper backstroke are (1) that your arms move with equal strength, otherwise you will swim off to one side, and (2) that your body rolls from side to side so that your arms catch enough water to propel you forward.

    The leg kick:
    • It's a flutter kick where the legs kick in an alternating order.
    • Bend the knees slightly.
    • Relax the feet and ankles (they should be almost floppy).
    • Emphasize the up-kick for propulsion.

    The arm stroke:
    • Move the arms in an alternating, windmill pattern as they rotate and pass your face.
    • Cup the hands, and the thumb leaves the water first.
    • Move the hands in an "S" pattern when they are pushing the water.
    The breathing:
    • Keep your head back and eyes toward the ceiling.
    • You can find your own breathing pattern with the backstroke because the breathing is less coordinated with the arms and kick than other strokes since your head should always be out of the water

Crawl (freestyle)

This is the most popular stroke and the easiest for beginners to learn. It is a simple flutter kick and windmill arm motion, like the backstroke, only on your belly. The most difficult part is coordinating the breathing since your face is in the water most of the time.

    The leg kick:
    • It's a flutter kick where the legs kick in an alternating order.
    • Bend the knees slightly.
    • Relax the feet and ankles (the should be almost floppy).
    • Emphasize the down-kick for propulsion.
    The arm stroke:
    • Move the arms in an alternating windmill motion.
    • Pull each arm through the water with equal strength and arm reach to ensure that you swim straight.
    • Pull arms underwater in an "S" pattern.
    • Cup the hands but keep the wrist and hand relaxed during recovery.
    The breathing:
    • Raise one arm to begin the stroke. As the shoulder rises, turn the head to catch a breath.
    • Turn the head only enough to leave the water to breathe. Do not lift the head because it will slow you down.
    • Take as many breaths as necessary and then exhale through the nose and mouth when the head returns to the water.
    • Repeat the head turn to the other side in coordination with the beginning of the opposite arm stroke.

The freestyle flip turn (when swimming the crawl)

There are a couple of options for turning around when you reach the wall during lap swimming. You can simply touch the wall and turn around and start swimming again or you can do a flip turn. The flip turn is essentially a somersault in the water where you flip and turn and use your legs to power-kick off the wall. The flip turn, when completed properly, is fast, efficient, and time-saving. If you've ever watched Olympic swimming, you see the swimmers gracefully execute their flip turns. Here are the basics.

  • Start the somersault before reaching the wall by tucking the chin and pulling the knees into a tuck position.
  • Blow out air to avoid inhaling water.
  • Straighten out the body-tuck halfway through the flip and extend the legs toward the wall.
  • You will be on your back at this point.
  • Push off the wall.
  • Roll over onto the belly and glide toward the surface of the water.
  • Hold the glide until you break the surface of the water, and then start stroking immediately.

The flip turn takes practice, but with consistent work, you can master it. It's worth trying if you swim laps for exercise.