8 Different Swimming Styles and Strokes

Whether you want to learn how to swim for competition, exercise, or safety, it’s best to learn several different swimming strokes as each offer different advantages in different situations. 

The different types of swimming styles and strokes mainly include the freestyle stroke, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly stroke, and sidestroke.

For competition, the versatility will allow swimmers to compete in multiple events. For exercise, different muscles are used for different strokes, so learning all of the strokes provides a more comprehensive workout. For safety, different strokes can be used depending on the dangers of a particular situation.

Here Are 8 Different Swimming Styles and Strokes:

Freestyle/Front Crawl

The front crawl is likely the first swimming stroke you think of when you picture swimming. It is commonly called the freestyle stroke as most swimmers choose to use this stroke in freestyle events as it is the fastest.

To execute the front crawl, you lie on your stomach with your body parallel to the water. Propel yourself forward with alternating arm movements in a sort of windmill motion that starts by pushing underwater and recovers above water. Your legs should propel you with a flutter kick, which is performed with pointed feet as your legs move up and down in alternation. Do not bend your legs at the knee.

Time your breathing to match your swimming strokes by turning your head to the side while your arm is in the recovery (above water) position. Do not turn your head too far and face upward or you will actually sink into the water rather than remain above it.


The backstroke requires similar movements to the front crawl, but it is done, as the name suggests, on your back. Doctors often recommend this stroke to individuals with back problems as it provides a great back workout.

To perform the backstroke, while floating on your back, alternate your arms with a windmill-like motion to propel yourself backwards. Like the front crawl, your arms should start the circular motion by pushing underwater and recovering above water. Your legs should engage in a flutter kick. Your face should be above the surface as you look straight up.

Keep your body as straight as possible, with a slight decline in the lower body to keep your legs underwater. Don’t allow your hips to get too low or your body to bend too much or it will slow you down. Keep your legs close together and use the motion from your hips to get a more powerful kick.

Your face will remain out of the water, but you will still want to be cognizant of your breathing rhythm. Again, match your breaths to your strokes.


The breaststroke is the slowest competitive swimming stroke, and it is the most commonly learned stroke. It’s often taught to beginner swimmers because it does not require putting your head underwater. However, in competitive swimming, swimmers do submerge their head and breathe at designated points in the stroke.

This stroke is performed with your stomach facing down. Your arms move simultaneously beneath the surface of the water in a half circular movement in front of your body. Your legs perform the whip kick at the same time. The whip kick is executed by bringing your legs from straight behind you close to your body by bending both at your knees and at your hips. Your legs then move outward and off to the side before extending and coming back together. This swimming technique is often compared to a frog’s movement.

Time each arm stroke to match your leg movements for more effective propulsion by resting the arms while the legs kick, and straightening the legs while the arms push you forward. This way, there is always something working to continue forward movement.


The butterfly is an advanced swimming stroke that provides an excellent workout. It can be more difficult and tiring to learn, but it is also a lot of fun. It is the second fastest competitive stroke, and the favorite stroke of Olympic legend Michael Phelps.

To perform the butterfly stroke, start horizontal with your stomach facing the bottom of the pool. Bring your arms simultaneously over your head and push them into the water to propel you forward and bring them up out of the water again to repeat. As you move your arms into the water, you will push your head and shoulders above the surface of the water.

Your legs will perform a dolphin kick, which requires your legs to stay together and straight as you kick them similarly to how a dolphin’s lower body and tail moves. Move your body in a fluid wave-like motion.

The best time to take a breath will be when your arms are just starting to come out of the water, just before you begin the next forward thrust. Lift your head straight in front of you during this move and do not turn your head to the side.


This is an older swimming style that is not typically used in swim competitions, but is still an important stroke to learn for safety reasons. It is most commonly used by lifeguards when they rescue someone, as this stroke most easily allows you to pull something along with you. It involves swimming on your side, as the name implies, propelling yourself forward with a scissor kick and alternating arm movements. It’s one of the easier strokes to learn, and can be a nice break from the more popular swim strokes if you’re looking to add more variety into your routine.

One way to remember the sidestroke is by comparing it to apple picking. Your first arm will stretch above your head and pick an apple, then your hands will meet in front of your chest. The first arm hands the apple to the second arm (the side of the body that is on top and partly out of the water). The second arm will reach out to toss the apple behind you as the first arm reaches above your head for another apple.

Elementary Backstroke

This is a variation from the typical backstroke you see. It uses a reversed breaststroke kick while your arms move in sync beneath the water. It’s called “elementary” because of its simple technique that’s easy to pick up, and is often one of the first swim strokes taught to new swimmers for this reason.

This stroke is often taught to children using fun nicknames for the parts of the movement. Bring your hands to your armpits like a monkey, spread your arms like an airplane, then push them down to your sides like a soldier.

Combat Side Stroke

This is a form of the sidestroke that all US Navy SEALs have to learn. Efficient and energy-saving, the combat side stroke is a kind of a combination of breaststroke, freestyle, and, obviously, sidestroke. It reduces the swimmer’s profile in the water, making them less visible while allowing them to swim with maximum efficiency–two critical criteria for combat operations that require swimming on the surface. You will focus on balance, length, and rotation. The combat side stroke is a relatively complicated stroke to learn, so click here for the full official description and steps.


This stroke evolved from the sidestroke and is named after the English swimmer John Trudgen. You swim mostly on your side, alternating lifting each arm out of the water and over your head. It uses a scissor kick that only comes in every other stroke. When your left arm is over your head, you spread your legs apart to prepare to kick, and then as the arm comes down you straighten your legs and snap them together for the scissor kick. This stroke is particularly unique because your head remains above the water for the entirety.

What are the Basic Skills of Swimming?

There are five skills that are important for every swimmer to know:

  • Breathing technique
  • Gliding with your face in the water
  • How to coordinate various body parts during movement
  • Stroke styles/swimming techniques
  • Diving

How Do You Become a Good Swimmer?

As with any sport, the best way to improve or to become truly great is with hard work and practice. Taking swimming lessons is a great place to start, regardless of age or skill level. And most importantly, spend as much time as you can in the water!

Sign up for lessons at SwimJim in order to learn and master the different styles of strokes in swimming. Not sure which level to start out on? Visit our SwimJim Levels page and we will help you figure it out.