Your Guide to Swimming Strokes (Which Muscles Will Get a Workout?)

A swimmer doing a butterfly stroke.

There are 4 competitive swimming strokes: Freestyle, Breaststroke, Butterfly Stroke, and Backstroke. Each of these swimming strokes uses different muscles to achieve the fastest lap times while maintaining the correct form.

Let’s dissect each swimming stroke to go over the swimming style, the muscles that are used, and how to breathe correctly while performing the stroke.

Before we get started, it is important to know where each muscle is located on your body.

Upper Body

  • Deltoids. These are also known as the delts. They are the triangular-shaped muscles on the shoulders that give the shoulders their rounded shape.
  • Latissiumus Dorsi. These are the muscles on the side of the abdomen.
  • Trapezius. These are also known as traps. These muscles are located behind the neck and down the spine. The muscles can be seen behind the neck when they are built up.
  • Triceps. These muscles are on the backside of the upper arm between the elbow and the armpit. This muscle helps the elbow extend the arm to a straightened position.
  • Biceps. These muscles are on the front side of the upper arm between the elbow and the deltoid. Biceps are what give the arm definition as well as help the arm bend after it has been in a straightened position.
  • Pectoralis Major. These are also known as the chest muscles. This is what gives the chest definition and firmness.

Lower Body

  • Quadriceps. The muscles that are located on the upper leg above the knee that extends outward.
  • Hamstrings. The muscles on the back of the leg above the knee and below the buttocks.
  • Glutes. The muscles that make up your buttocks.
  • Calves. The muscles on the back of the lower leg below the knee.
  • Hip Flexors. A combination of muscles that connect the abdomen to the upper legs.

1. Freestyle

A swimmer doing the freestyle stroke.

The freestyle stroke is also known as the front crawl. To freestyle, you will put one arm out in front of the other to pull the water and propel yourself through the water while your legs and feet remain underwater, kicking quickly to accelerate your momentum.

To breathe while doing the freestyle, you will turn your head to the side and lift your head above the water to take a breath. Breathing is done during the recovery phase when your hand and arm are leaving the water beside your hip.

As your hand and arm are coming around to make a circle and reenter the water in front of you, this is when you will take a breath. You will always want to turn your head to the side of the body where the arm is leaving the water. Hold that breath and release it through the nose while you are underwater and repeat the process as needed for the duration of the race.

During the freestyle stroke, your body will tilt from side to side as it follows the arms. When your right arm is entering the water, your left side will tilt higher. As your right arm pushes water back and your left arm comes out of the water and back around to the front, the tilt of your torso will shift from the left to the right.

All of this occurs while your legs and feet remain underwater and kicking to keep your momentum.

The Muscles that Will Get a Workout With the Freestyle

The freestyle stroke uses most of the muscles in both the upper body and the lower body, with the primary focus being on the deltoids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, triceps, and biceps.

The freestyle uses the muscles in the upper body to pull the swimmer through the water. These muscles have to be strong enough to pull your body weight through the water, which is what causes them to get the biggest workout. Your arms are in constant movement as one arm is put in front of the other to cut through the water and push it back while you propel through the water.

While your arms are cutting through the water during each stroke, your legs are constantly kicking to keep your momentum going. This uses your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves of your lower body while your upper body does the primary work.

2. Breaststroke

A swimmer doing the breast stroke.

The breaststroke is a unique and identifiable swimming stroke because of its four distinctive moves: the pull, the breath, the kick, and the glide. When you are doing all 4 of these moves correctly, you are successfully executing the breaststroke.

The breaststroke is the only swimming stroke that has a more dominant kick than pull, meaning it uses more of the muscles in the lower body than it does the upper body.

The Pull

Beginning with your arms fully extended in front of you and your hands cupped together, you will turn your hands to face outward and push them back through the water, stopping at your waist and bringing the hands back together with the palms cupped together to repeat the process.

The Kick

The kick is the most important move in the breaststroke. The kick is what will propel you the most through the water. The pull helps you keep your momentum going, but without a good, strong kick, the pull can only do so much.

The kick is made up of the up flex, out flex, and around point; three separate moves that combine to make one fluid kick.

To kick, you will start with your legs extended and your toes pointed outward. You will bring your feet up near the surface of the water and move your toes to a flexed foot position. This is called the up flex.

Your knees will be pointed to the bottom of the pool, and our feet will turn to point to the sides of the pool. This is known as the out flex. At this point, you will kick your legs out to propel you through the water by extending your legs and returning your feet to their original pointed position when you began, which is called the around point.

The Glide

The glide of the breaststroke happens when you are completely underwater in between the time you kick and pull. This step is important because it allows you to go a maximum distance in the pool with little energy.

When you have kicked and pulled successfully, you should have a substantial amount of momentum to take you underwater and glide you through the water before having to come up and take a breath and repeat the process. This will help save time and energy on your stroke.

The Breath

Breathing at the right time is important in the breaststroke. To breathe correctly, you will need to inhale as you enter the pull of the stroke. At this point, your head will be out of the water and your hands will be cupped together before separating and facing outward to begin the pull. You will take your breath at this time and release it through your nose as you enter the kick and glide.

The Muscles that Will Get a Workout With the Breaststroke

Because the breaststroke focuses on powerful kicks that will send you through the water and a pull that will help keep your momentum going, the lower body gets the most workout during the breaststroke.

The muscles in the legs and lower body, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, will get the maximum workout from the breaststroke because of the powerful kicks that the swimming stroke requires. However, this does not mean the upper body gets a free pass.

The pull of the breaststroke requires the muscles in the arms and shoulders to be used, including the delts, biceps, triceps, pectoral muscles, and the latissimus dorsi.

The breaststroke is a great full-body workout that can be as intense or as mild as you choose it to be.

3. Butterfly Stroke

A swimmer doing the butterfly stroke.

The butterfly stroke focuses mainly on the arms to propel you through the water, while the lower body performs dolphin kicks to keep your momentum going. The butterfly stroke is arguably the most difficult out of all of the swimming strokes.

To properly complete the butterfly stroke, you will begin with your body stretched completely out in a straight line with your feet together. Keeping your feet together, your arms will push the water back while your hands face outward and then down as you complete the stroke.

Once your arms have completed the stroke, they will come out of the water simultaneously and return to the position in which they started; extended in front of your head with the back of the hands spaced apart by a few inches.

As your body completes the strokes, your legs will also do some work, though it is not as intense as the work your arms and upper body will do.

As your arms and hands push the water back, your legs will go into a dolphin kick. To do this, you will take your hips and drive them down through the water. Your legs should be fully extended at this point. Follow this move by kicking your legs just at the knees in the same motion with your ankles flicking at the end.

You will need to breathe whenever your head comes out of the water as the arms come out of the water and return to the front of the body before the next pull. You will hold your breath and exhale through your nose underwater.

The Muscles that Will Get a Workout With the Butterfly Stroke

The butterfly stroke focuses solely on the arms and upper body to pull the swimmer through the water. The kick helps the swimmer maintain momentum from the pull; however, the pull is what creates the momentum.

The muscles that are used in the upper body from the pull include the delts, traps, biceps, triceps, pectoral muscles, and latissiumus dorsi.

The kick of the butterfly stroke uses mostly the quads, glutes, and hamstrings of the legs because of the dolphin kick that has to be done after each pull.

4. Backstroke

A swimmer doing the back stroke.

The backstroke is the only swimming stroke performed on your back. Instead of your head remaining underwater and watching the lines on the bottom of the pool as you pull, you will look up and follow the line of the ceiling to maintain a straight line.

To do the backstroke, you will need to keep your body as straight as possible. Try not to arch your back when swimming.

You will begin by extending your hands one at a time over your head with your hands open and tilted at an angle where your pinky finger will enter the water first. As the rest of your hand and arm follows, you will push the water back with your hand as you bring it to the side of your body. Once your hand is at the side of your body, your other arm will follow the same movement that your first hand and arm followed.

Your arms will want to be opposite of one another. Unlike the butterfly stroke, where the hands and arms enter the water at the same time, the backstroke will alternate the times when the hands and arms enter the water.

As your arms alternate pushing through the water, you will need to kick to continue your momentum.

To kick during the backstroke, you will keep your toes pointed while your legs are extended. Kick your legs by slightly bending at the knees. This will give you propulsion to move quickly through the water after each pull. The toes will need to remain pointed during each kick. As your foot moves towards the surface of the water, your leg will need to be as straight as possible.

Each time your arm enters the water, your body will naturally turn. You should follow this motion so that you extend as far as your arm can reach. This will allow you to cut through the water quickly without using too much time or energy.

The backstroke is the easiest swimming stroke for breathing as your mouth and nose are never fully submerged in water. For this reason, breathing is relatively easy to accomplish without needing to learn how to incorporate it into the stroke. Just make sure to take as deep breaths as possible as your muscles will need oxygen to optimally perform.

The Muscles that Will Get a Workout With the Backstroke

The entire body gets a workout with the backstroke, which makes it a great option for any type of workout you choose. You can make the workout as intense or mild as you want. The backstroke is also a great recovery workout if you need to get a light workout in but don’t want to overdo it.

The backstroke uses muscles in the upper body, including the delts, triceps, traps, biceps, and latissimus dorsi. These muscles are what pull you through the water and propel you forward.

The muscles in the lower body are used to keep your momentum going. Because the backstroke uses muscles in the entire body, both the upper body and the lower body gets a workout.

These muscles in the lower body that get a workout include the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and hip flexors.

Which Swimming Stroke is Best for Working Out?

While each stroke has its own unique style, they are all ideal for getting a full-body workout in. If you are looking to focus on one part of the body (upper body vs. lower body), then you will want to choose the swimming stroke that requires the most use from that part of the body.

A swimmer doing the butterfly stroke.

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