A Guide to 3 Non-Freestyle Strokes
By Chuck Scott
The freestyle stroke is the fastest and most efficient of the major swimming strokes, which also makes it the most common. But that doesn’t mean you should restrict yourself to the stroke. Incorporating one or more of the other major swim strokes is an effective way to break up the routine and get a great workout in the water.
The three main competitive strokes in addition to freestyle are the butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. Swim coaches will routinely work in a mix of these into a swimming fitness program.
“There are purposes of the other strokes, which, when done correctly, can actually help gain fitness and use different muscles,” says Rachel Wills, swim coach at Triathlon Lifestyle Coaching and a former NCAA All-American swimmer at the University of North Dakota.
Here is Wills’ take and her tips on how to swim the three main non-freestyle strokes.
How to Swim the Butterfly
“The butterfly is probably the most difficult of the strokes, fitness-wise,” Wills says. “It requires both arms exiting the water at the same time, entering, and pulling through the water.
“The kick is a dolphin kick, feet are together and kicking as one,” Wills says. “There are two kicks for every one arm stroke, so basically when the hands enter the water and when they exit the water, that’s when the two kicks happen.”
Both arms are thrust forward over your head simultaneously, unlike the alternating arm action of freestyle. Because it is such a shoulder-driven stroke, Wills says the primary concern with the butterfly is if you have any shoulder issues.
“It does take quite a bit of strength to be able to rotate your arms out of the water and pull your body through, and pull into that breath when your arms are in the water,” she says, “so it is a pretty physically demanding stroke.”
That makes the butterfly a great option if you’ve hit a plateau with other strokes and are looking for a new challenge.
“It’s definitely not something you want to do in the middle of a triathlon race because it is the most tiring of the strokes,” Wills says.
How to Swim the Backstroke
For a completely different experience — in which your face is always out of the water — roll over and try the backstroke.
“The backstroke is similar to the freestyle except that it’s done on your back,” Wills says. “It is more of a windmill-type of stroke, meaning one hand is opposite the other hand at every point of the stroke.”
Keep your arm straight as you bring it over your head, then rotate your arm and turn your cupped palm outward before it enters the water.
Be sure to rotate your shoulders so each shoulder nearly touches your chin. “You’re moving your body side-to-side without moving your head,” Wills says.
The kick is a flutter kick, similar to what you would use doing the freestyle.
Ease of breathing is a key reason for the popularity of the backstroke.
“You’re able to breathe the entire time, so it’s kind of one of those more resting type of strokes, of the four competitive strokes,” Wills says. “But it can be done very quickly as well.”
How to Swim the Breaststroke
The slowest of the four major strokes, the breaststroke is popular for beginners because it can be done with high intensity or used as a resting stroke by incorporating a long glide at the end of the stroke.
For competitive swimmers, however, it’s considered one of the most challenging strokes to master.
“The breaststroke is probably the hardest technique-wise, of the four major strokes, to do with perfect timing,” Wills says. “As a kid you kind of learn it as ‘pull, breathe, kick, glide,’ but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
With your arms together and extended, turn your palms outward and pull in a circular motion. As you pull, your head comes out of the water to take a breath.
Follow that with the leg kick — with your knees together, pull them in toward your chest, then kick your legs out to each side and quickly thrust them together in what’s commonly called a “whip kick” or “frog kick.”
“The issue with the breast stroke is if you’re not acclimated to the stroke, if you’re doing it improperly you can damage your knees,” Wills says.
You can do a modified breaststroke or a sidestroke with a scissor kick, but you would be disqualified in a swim competition if you were doing a scissor kick with your breaststroke.
“I think breaststroke is the prettiest stroke,” Wills says, “but it is definitely the most difficult to get technique-wise.”