The 4 Competitive Swim Strokes Explained

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Thanks for your commentary on the strokes! I am a bit confused about the feet going toward the bottom for the breaststroke. Is that right? Did you maybe mean knees toward the bottom or feet toward the top or am I missing something?

Michele Meiser November 09, 2022

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There are 4 swim strokes raced in competition, each with their own technique and style. 

In order to develop into a more well-rounded swimmer, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of each stroke.

The four strokes:

Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke, and Freestyle

Freestyle and backstroke are referred to as long axis strokes. The general motion of these two strokes is side to side. Butterfly and breaststroke are known as short axis strokes, with the body moving in a forward motion. 

Here’s an in depth explanation of each swimming stroke:

Butterfly

To swim butterfly, you’ll need to develop your dolphin kick. Kick with both of your feet together in a down sweeping motion, similar to a dolphin. Once you’ve mastered the dolphin kick you’re ready to incorporate your arms. You’ll start grabbing water with your hands out in front of you in a streamline position. Pull the water down and around your body, ending at your belly button.

From there, sweep your arms out of the water and back around to your starting position to repeat the cycle. For every 2 dolphin kicks, you’ll want to complete one arm cycle. 

Enough practice, and you’ll start to resemble Michael Phelps swimming butterfly.

Backstroke

Backstroke is most similar to freestyle in nature, and is generally learned after freestyle in a typical stroke progression. 

To swim backstroke, you’ll need to master floating in the water flat on your back. From here, use your arms to propel you forward. When rotating your arms, try to keep your arm close to your ear on entry, and keep those arms as straight as possible. Make sure to maintain a strong kick as well. Backstroke relies heavily on the legs, if your kick is insufficient it’ll be very difficult to propel yourself forward using solely your arms. Once you get some practice swimming backstroke, try to work on developing a smooth rhythm, rocking your hips slightly from side to side to generate momentum. 

Breaststroke

Breaststroke is unlike the other 3 strokes. The best breaststrokers harness the momentum they gain from the breaststroke rhythm. 

The arm movement is a scooping motion, with the arms coming under the chest and shooting out together in front. The kick is the most important component to a good breaststroke. The kick resembles a frog’s movement through water, the feet come towards the bottom, then swing outward and come back together at the end with straight legs. In order to master breaststroke you’ll want to develop a rhythm, finding this rhythm will take time and experimentation, so don’t get discouraged. 

Freestyle

The final and most important stroke to master is freestyle. The freestyle stroke consists of utilizing momentum and a good hip drive to generate force in the water. 

Similar to backstroke, rotate your arms one at a time and pull the water down past your hip. In the freestyle pull, it’s important not to cross your arms over the other side of your body, this makes your pull less effective. The kick is the same as backstroke, one foot at a time. Your kick generates a lot of force and having strong, steady kicks allows you to swim more effectively as a whole. Sneak your breath in at the end of an arm cycle, rotating your head 90 degrees out of the water to take a sip of air. 

Something that’s important to note in freestyle, is your hips. Use your hips to your advantage. With each arm stroke, rock your hips ever so slightly in that direction, this will help you catch more water in your pull and it’ll generate more momentum to drive you forward. 

The 4 competitive swimming strokes can take some practice to master, and some are more challenging than others. Maintaining good physical health and incorporating some form of strength-training routine can help you swim for longer periods and with much less strain. 

The most important thing you can do to master the 4 strokes is remaining consistent in your training. You won’t become an olympian overnight, but with consistent training and practice you’ll start seeing significant gains.

( 1 ) Comments

Thanks for your commentary on the strokes! I am a bit confused about the feet going toward the bottom for the breaststroke. Is that right? Did you maybe mean knees toward the bottom or feet toward the top or am I missing something?

Michele Meiser

Leave a comment