What Are the Five Basic Swim Strokes?

Michael Phelps swims the butterfly stroke in the 2012 Olympic medley relay.
i Al Bello/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

There are many different types of swimming styles, including four that are commonly used in competition: the freestyle -- also known as the front crawl or the Australian crawl -- plus the butterfly, breaststroke and backstroke. Among other common strokes, the sidestroke is particularly important because it’s a good technique to use to rescue someone from the water.


    Just because it’s called freestyle doesn’t mean you can swim it any way you choose, at least not in competition. Like the breaststroke and butterfly, competitive freestyle swimmers begin a race by diving off of a starting platform. They must break the water’s surface within the first 15 meters after starting, and again after each turn. Swimmers using the crawl technique combine overhand arm motions to pull themselves through the water with small, fast up-and-down kicking motions to push themselves forward.


    The butterfly stroke, an offshoot of the breaststroke, is the youngest competitive stroke, which didn’t enter Olympic competition until 1956. Swimmers keep their shoulders about level with the water’s surface while simultaneously moving their arms and legs. The arms move together in an overhand stroke while the legs do a dolphin kick, moving up and down together, rather than fluttering up and down individually. If you swim the butterfly competitively you may want to use a two-stroke breathing style, keeping your head underwater for one stroke, then lifting your head to breathe on the next stroke.


    As with the butterfly, breaststroke competitors must touch the wall with both hands when they’re turning and finishing. In between, the swimmer’s hands begin near the upper chest and push sideways then back, but they may not travel beyond the hips, except when the swimmer is starting or turning. The elbows remain underwater, the head comes above the water during each stroke, and the legs execute a frog kick in which the swimmer bends her knees then snaps her legs straight back to help move forward.


    Competitive backstrokers begin in the water with their hands and feet against the pool’s edge. The stroke is similar to an upside-down front crawl. The swimmer’s arms travel one at a time in a windmill style from the competitor’s side, up and over the swimmer’s head and then into the water, while the legs execute flutter kicks. Swimmers must remain flat on their backs except when they’re turning. Competitive swimmers need only touch the wall with their feet when they’re turning. The backstroke can also be comfortable if you’re a noncompetitive swimmer because your face remains out of the water, making breathing easier.


    As the name suggests, sidestrokers align their bodies on their sides with one hip pointed up and the other pointed toward the bottom of the pool. The swimmer pushes forward with an alternating scissors kick, while the head remains above the water. The lead arm -- on the underwater side of the body -- extends forward and pulls straight back toward the swimmer’s chest, while the other arm also travels backward through the water, beginning at chest level then extending toward the legs.

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