4 Basic Swimming Strokes to Know

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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4 Basic Swimming Strokes to Know

There are lots of reasons to add swimming to your fitness routine. It’s low-impact. It’s a welcome alternative to hitting the weight room (again) or running around your neighborhood (again). It’s a full-body workout that burns fat, increases your heart rate — and it’s super-efficient.

A half-hour of swimming burns roughly 333 calories, according to MyFitnessPal (based on a 150-pound male). Compare that to just 100 calories for walking, 200 for light bicycling or roughly 250–300 for running at a moderate pace. There is also an intense physicality to it — it’s just you and the water, and your stroke is an almost primal response to the risk of drowning — unmatched by any other exercise.

Yet, for many of us, it can be hard to know where to begin, especially if we haven’t swam since our grade-school swim lessons. But the potential payoff, as mentioned, is huge, and it’s a skill you can take just about anywhere. In that spirit, we’ve outlined a few basic strokes and notes on form to get you started.

Before you begin, make sure to warm up. It’s a full-body workout, so you’ll want to incorporate the same stretches and/or dynamic exercises you’d do before running or lifting.

Here, we break down the four basic swimming strokes: freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly:

FREESTYLE

Calorie burn: 333 calories over 30 minutes

The most common stroke, also called the crawl because you kick lightly with your legs while crawling forward with your arms.

Arms: With each stroke, reach your hands out as far ahead of you as possible. Slide your hands into the water, palms outstretched toward the sides of the pool, and pull forward. You’ll rotate slightly at the hips as you do, making sure to move your arms as efficiently as possible.

Legs: Meanwhile, keep your feet stretched yet relaxed, like a ballet dancer’s, turning them into fins as they flutter behind you. Keep your legs straight as you kick, so they’re directly behind your torso, which helps reduce drag.

Breathing: Your goal is to keep your head low, looking toward the bottom of the pool, as you breathe every third stroke for bi-lateral breathing. As you begin, you’ll likely need to breathe with every stroke, turning your head as little as possible when you do. Inhale quickly before exhaling into the water all that you can. With time, you’ll get better at breath management.

A note on form: Think of your body as an axis, rotating slightly as your arms pull you forward. Do it right, and you’ll almost feel as if you’re climbing a wall of water, extending your arms and propelling yourself forward. (Yes, your kicks are motoring you forward, too, but after a while that feels instinctive.) Keep your abs and back taut, as slouching creates drag. Count how many strokes it takes to get from one side of the pool to another. As you get more efficient and stronger, you become more efficient, and that stroke count decreases.

BREASTSTROKE

Calorie burn: 216 calories over 30 minutes

This is likely the easiest stroke for beginners since you can keep your head above water and take it slowly. While all swim strokes are full-body workouts, the breaststroke is especially useful if you want to build upper-arm strength.

Arms: Both arms move in tandem, pulling you forward in the water. Start with them fully outstretched, palms down. Keep your elbows high as you pull your hands back toward your hips, then pull your elbows back in as you push your hands through the water again and back to your original position.

Legs Start with your legs straight, then bend at the knees, bringing your heels together as you pull your feet toward your backside. Then, flex your feet back and snap your legs out again. (When you’re extending your arms, kick.)

Breathing:: This can be a bit tricky, but basically, the snapping motion of the breast stroke should propel you forward in bursts, during which you can pop your head out to inhale. Then dip your head back into the water and exhale as you begin your stroke again.

A note on form: Keep your body as straight and flat as possible throughout the stroke. This reduces drag.

BACKSTROKE

Calorie burn: 233 calories over 30 minutes

This is another great beginner’s stroke, as the breathing component is simplified by the fact your head stays above water; however, you have to be aware of where you are in the pool so as not to hit your head on the wall. Also: You can easily do this while holding a kickboard, which is perfect for true beginners.

Arms: Similar to freestyle, you want to keep your arms as long and straight as possible, with your hands outstretched, leading the way. Your shoulders are internally rotated so your hands enter the water pinky-first, at full extension, and then “pull” yourself through the water by bringing your lead hand back to your hips. Again, think of your body as an axis, and strive to keep your body as straight as possible.

Legs: Keep your legs straight, your feet pointed like a ballet dancer’s, and yet relaxed. Then flutter kick away.

Breathing: Because your face is above water, you can focus on breathing as you would during any cardio workout. That is to say: steadily and deliberately.

A note on form: Keep your hips and legs high in the water. Because you’re on your back, you might have a tendency to sag or slouch a bit. Resist that, to help you go faster and work on strengthening your core.

BUTTERFLY

Calorie burn: 366 calories over 30 minutes

This is the lower-body corollary to the breaststroke, but, a caveat, this isn’t the easiest stroke. But, you can do it; Here’s how:

Arms: Point down, with palms back. As your arms enter the water, push back, propelling your body forward. Keep your elbows wide as you do. Pull yourself forward, then remove your hands from the water and repeat, aiming to minimize splash for maximum efficiency.

Legs: A two-parter, and a defining element of this stroke. You’re basically kicking when your arms/body enter the water and again at exit. Keep your feet in the water while bending your knee downward, creating an almost wave-like motion in your lower body.

Breathing: As with the breaststroke, you inhale by pulling your chin out of the water after you thrust forward. Try to keep your head as low as possible so you don’t waste any energy, preserving it for the swim itself.

A note on form: Because this is a leg-powered stroke, you can introduce yourself to it more easily by doing a one-armed version, where you essentially only remove one arm out of the water as you go, resting the other on a kickboard. (You can alternate arms with each stroke.) This helps you focus on form (and still makes for a great workout!)

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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