What Are the Six Different Types of Swimming Strokes?

Swimmer in cap breathing performing the butterfly stroke

Swimming provides all-around, low-impact body conditioning as well as exciting competition. Competitive swim meets allow only four strokes -- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and the crawl. Two other strokes -- elementary backstroke and sidestroke -- contribute to swimming longer distances, as different sets of muscles are used.

Fast and Basic

The fastest stroke for most swimmers is the front crawl. The crawl begins in a facedown position with arms and legs extended. The arms alternate pulling against the water along the front of the body, exiting the water just below hip level. The arm returns to the forward position with a bent elbow to maintain balance. Breathe by turning slightly on your side as your elbow comes out of the water, rotating your head back and to the side. As your elbow comes level with your head, return your face to the water and begin pulling against the water with your opposite hand. A flutter kick provides balance to the stroke and assists in propelling the swimmer forward. The backstroke is a variation on the crawl, performed while belly up with your face looking at the sky.

Getting to the Core

Some competitive swimmers can swim the butterfly even faster than the front crawl. The butterfly is the most difficult of all the strokes, as both of your arms and head come out of the water simultaneously. The hands exit the water at hip level and return through the air to an extended position directly in front of you. A dolphin kick with both legs provides forward thrust during arm recovery. The powerful kick begins with the feet and incorporates the thigh and abdominal muscles, creating an undulating movement of the entire body.

Swimming With Scissors

Three strokes incorporate kicks where the legs split apart then thrust back together to provide the main forward movement to the stroke. The scissors kick is the driving force in the sidestroke, a noncompetitive resting stroke accomplished while lying on your side in the water. The top leg bends, extends in a 90-degree angle to the body and snaps back to a straight position. The bottom leg simultaneously bends behind the body and snaps back straight. Breaststroke and elementary backstroke incorporate a frog kick, where the knees bend, extend out and to the side, then snap back to a straight position. Both involve stroking with the arms on the same horizontal plane in a heart-shaped pattern.

Putting It All Together

Freestyle events in swimming meets allow competitors to use any of the four competitive strokes -- crawl, breaststroke, butterfly or backstroke. It's not uncommon to see an athlete vary between strokes in long-distance events, but the crawl is almost always used in sprinting competitions. An event known as the individual medley requires competitors to perform at least three competitive strokes -- butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. The fourth leg is freestyle and can incorporate the crawl or any of the other strokes.