How to Do the 4 Swimming Strokes

Swimming is an incredible form of exercise; its non-weight bearing so it’s easy on the joints, and a total body activity, strengthening all your major muscles, including your abs, biceps and triceps, glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. It’s an excellent cardio workout, and is an important life skill to boot.

There are several different strokes you can use when you swim; each of which has it’s uses and advantages, and targets different muscles.

Choose your swimming stroke according to the muscles you’re targeting and the type of workout you want.

Front Crawl (Freestyle)

Main muscles used: Front crawl, also called freestyle, works your chest and upper back muscles as well as your triceps, thighs and abs.

Good for: Front crawl is the fastest of the 4 main strokes, which means it’s almost universally used during  freestyle swimming competition, and is also the reason it is often simply called freestyle. Also, as the most economical swimming stroke, freestyle is ideal for longer workouts and therefore a good option for calorie burning and weight control. The extended body position means your muscles are used through a wide range of movement which is great for joint mobility and muscle flexibility.

Not so good for: Proper freestyle technique requires that you keep your head low and your face in the water, which some people dislike. If you prefer to keep your head and face clear of the water, freestyle is not for you.

Technique tips:

  • Make sure you are not overly reliant on your arms. Focus on kicking rhythmically with your legs too.
  • Keep your fingers together and your hands slightly cupped to grab as much water as you can.
  • Try to breathe on both sides – every third stroke – to ensure you develop both sides of your body equally.
  • Remember to “pick and apple and put it in your pocket” to ensure you use a full range of motion with your arms. In other words, reach out and pull back from full stretch to your hips.


Main muscles used: Breaststroke uses your upper back, triceps, chest, shoulders, butt and legs.

Good for: Breaststroke is a relatively uneconomical stroke as your body breaks the surface of the water at around chest-height. This means that you won’t be able to swim as fast or as far – though you’ll burn lots of energy trying. This makes breaststroke a good option if you need a short but challenging workout. You can dip your face in the water when doing this stroke. However, many swimmers tend not to, so if you are wary of putting your face in water, the breaststroke is a good option.

Not so good for: The high chest/low hips position in breaststroke can place a lot of stress on your lower back which can prove problematic for some swimmers. Breaststroke is a relatively easy stroke to learn as breathing is easy with your face out of the water! The frog-style kick is hard on the knees to if you have any knee issues exacerbated by lateral knee movements breast stroke is not for you.

Technique tips:

  • Make sure your kick is no wider than your shoulders.
  • Keep your toes pulled up to your shins as you extend your legs and try and push yourself through the water.
  • Remember to “pull, breathe, kick, glide” each stroke to ensure you coordinate your arms and legs effectively.
  • Keep your fingers together and slightly cupped to catch as much water as possible per stroke.
  • Don’t make small, choppy strokes as this makes an already energy-intensive stroke only more uneconomical. Instead, try and cover as much distance per stroke as possible.


Main muscles used: Backstroke uses your chest, shoulders, upper back, core and legs.

Good for: The backstroke is a good partner to the front crawl as it conditions the opposing muscles and will help ensure your muscles are equally developed on the front and back of your body. Backstroke uses an elongated body position which makes it economical and thus good for swimming long distances. You’re facing skywards, so your face stays clear of the water and breathing is not an issue, making the backstroke a good choice for those who like to keep their face above water.

Not so good for: Swimming backward can be a little unnerving for some, as you can’t see where you are going. While you can use lane ropes and ceiling markers to monitor your progress, not all pools have these facilities. Turning to look over your shoulder to see where you are in the water will break up the continuity of your workout.

Technique tips:

  • Try to keep your body flat and do not let your hips drop, as this will make you less streamlined.
  • Your arms should pass very close to your head using an alternating arm action – don’t try and use both arms at the same time; sometimes known as old-English backstroke.
  • Keep your head back and your ears in the water to ensure you are as streamlined as possible.


Main muscles used: The butterfly stroke uses your chest, back, shoulders, arms, core and legs all at the same time. Though mostly reliant on upper body power.

Good for: Of all the swimming stokes, the butterfly is arguably the hardest – both technically and physically – and will challenge the fittest of athletes. This stroke requires endurance and strength. If you want to drive your heart rate sky high as quickly as possible (e.g. interval training), butterfly is for you. This stroke is also very good for developing your upper body muscles. The butterfly is a sprinting stroke.

Not so good for: If you want to swim for an extended period of time, butterfly isn’t your best choice. The large range of movement that happens at both shoulders simultaneously means that this stroke is tough on the shoulder joints. You need good mobility, strength and flexibility to even attempt butterfly. The undulating body action may be unsuitable if you have any history of lower back problems.

Technique tips:

  • Keep your legs close together to maximize drive and minimize drag.
  • Both legs kick together like a fish’s tail fin using the hips and knees together.
  • Kick twice per arm stroke.
  • Don’t forget to breathe – it’s very easy to just keep your head down and thrash wildly with your arms but that’s a quick way to end up exhausted.
  • Build up gradually in terms of distance and frequency.

Whether you swim occasionally or for fitness, hitting the pool can do you plenty of good. Make sure you get the most from your swimming by choosing the best stroke for your needs and using the best technique you can. If in doubt, get some coaching so you master your strokes of choice.

Even if you choose not to swim for exercise, swimming is an essential skill that could one day help save your life or the life of another. If you can’t swim, consider joining one of the many adult learn to swim classes.

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