4 Competitive Swim Strokes

4 Competitive Swim Strokes - Wallen Swim Schools in Roseville

There are four different competitive swim strokes that are far different from one another.

Each of them is unique but the order in which they should be taught is key to learning how to swim properly.

The four strokes are: 

  • Freestyle
  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly

Freestyle and Backstroke are known as long axis strokes where the body rotates from side to side. Breaststroke and Butterfly are known as short axis strokes where the body moves forward in a wave-like motion.

At  Steve Wallen Swim School, swim instructors are highly trained and experienced to teach all four competitive strokes.

However, there are two strokes that must be focused on before the other two. Here is everything you need to know about each of the strokes.


Freestyle is the first and most important stroke to learn.

Learning to swim freestyle, builds a foundation for future strokes to come. It helps swimmers: get used to putting their eyes underwater, kick with straight legs, reach for the wall/step for safety, and more.

Once a swimmer knows freestyle, it will be much easier for them to learn other water safety skills.

Straight leg kicks are one of the first skills taught as it is an essential skill learning to swim. Using your “big arms” out of the water is next followed by learning rollovers to first understand breath control and developing water safety and awareness.

The next progression is learning side breath, which is how freestyle is performed properly. Mastering all three components: straight leg kicks, big arms, and side breathing is important to develop proper freestyle swimming.

At Steve Wallen Swim School, we follow our progressions in order to teach freestyle swimming to babies, kids, and adults.


Backstroke can be taught in tandem with freestyle after mastering back float.

Learning how to float on your back is very important. With this knowledge, swimmers become more comfortable when learning how to breathe for each stroke as well as adding kicks and arms more easily.

Steve Wallen Swim School encourages younger swimmers to master back float before moving onto backstroke because it is near impossible to learn it otherwise. The key to a successful back float and stroke is keeping the chin and stomach up while being in a more relaxed state.

If a swimmer is too stiff or tight then having the head and belly up will not matter much.

Not everyone can keep their stomach up forever, that is why being more relaxed is helpful because then a person can push their head and stomach out of the water when necessary.

A mastered back float is also key in learning how to perform a rollover between the stomach and back for swimmers. The swimmer learns about the rotation of the body and keeping a still head while moving.

These components are important in mastering both freestyle and backstroke as swimming is about moving efficiently through the water.

After a swimmer masters freestyle and backstroke then they should be able to swim on their own.


Breaststroke and butterfly are what competitive swimmers call short axis strokes, where freestyle and backstroke are long-axis strokes. Short axis strokes do not move the body in a rotating movement but a forward movement of sweeping the arms out and in.

Breaststroke tends to be called the “frog stroke” because the kick and arm movement looks like a frog.

The kick is the hardest part to master due to the unusual movement of the legs compared to freestyle kicks. The feet come towards the bottom, then swing outwards and come together at the end with straight legs.

The arms are easier to understand as they sweep out, comes under the chest and shoot out together in front.

The breath occurs every arm stroke with the head coming up when the arms sweep out and it goes down when the arms are shooting forward.

The pattern for the stroke is- pull, breathe, kick, glide.

It is important to note that the short axis strokes are best swam slowly at first because developing good technique is the best way to move water than speed.


In comparison to breaststroke, the butterfly is not as complex in its movements.

The butterfly is simple but does need muscle strength and flexibility. The kick is often called “dolphin kick” as it looks very similar to how a dolphin moves through the water. The arms come under the stomach, out behind the body and come around to the front.

When the arms are out over the water horizontally, it looks like a butterflies wings; hence the name of the stroke. Age plays a part in butterfly because of muscle and flexibility in a swimmer; therefore there are two ways to learn the stroke.

The first progression has the swimmer kick two times while the hands are in front then complete an arm stroke.

The second progression, which is how the butterfly stroke is performed properly, separates the kick where one kick happens in the front and the other happens when the hands are exiting behind the body.

The breath occurs when the hands are dropping to go sweep under the tummy and the head goes back down as the hands are coming forward. The stroke axis strokes deal with timing technique which can be challenging.

In Summary

Steve Wallen Swim School teaches swimming lessons and water safety for babies, kids, and adults of all skill levels.

From first time students to competitive swimmers, our experience allows us to tailor or program to meet your specific needs. Private or small group swim lessons provide the opportunity for one-on-one interaction with highly trained swim instructors.

SWSS firmly believes that swimming is a life skill that everyone should develop.

Whether learning to swim for water safety and awareness or practicing to gain that extra edge in your next swim competition, SWSS is prepared to meet and exceed your expectations. Contact us today to enroll!  

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