May 07, 2021 10 min read

Swimming is a great low-impact exercise that burns fat and helps tone muscles.

Most of the muscle groups in the human body get a good workout from swimming and there are various stroke techniques you can use to target particular muscles.

But if you don’t have the proper swimming form, you could be missing out on some fitness gains. Swimming won’t be near as fun if you’re struggling to move through the water or experiencing discomfort that stems from the wrong swimming technique.

Whether you’re a beginner swimmer or already familiar with swim training, you can use the information in this guide to perfect your swimming form and tailor it to boost your weight loss and muscle toning.

free style men competition in swimming pool

What Are the Swimming Strokes?

You’ve probably heard of a few swimming strokes already. Breaststroke and freestyle stroke are two popular examples. But if you can’t pull off the freestyle swimming technique or you want to add some variation to your swimming routine, you can mix in some of the following swim strokes.

Backstroke

If you want a great back workout, this is the swim stroke for you. It also helps reduce back pain in some cases. To swim the backstroke, you alternate circular motions with each arm while on your back in the water.

While it’s much easier to breathe during the backstroke, it has a significant disadvantage - you won’t be able to see where you’re going. The backstroke helps tone your glutes, legs, arms, stomach, and shoulders. Your hips gain flexibility and your posture will improve.

Breaststroke

A common swim stroke for beginners, the breaststroke is a bit simpler because you don’t need to put your head underwater while you swim. During the breaststroke, your arms should be making simultaneous semi-circular movements ahead of your body and your feet should be kicking out to either side before making a circle and coming together.

Alternate your hand and feet movements so that your feet are kicking when your arms aren’t moving. This guarantees your body will continue to propel itself through the water.

The breaststroke is the most commonly used swim stroke for triathlons because it’s easier than more complicated swim strokes like the butterfly and more economical than a front crawl.

Triathletes include the breaststroke in their training plan to build endurance and cardio strength, something everyone should aim for in their swimming plan.

Freestyle (Front Crawl)

The freestyle stroke is one of the most common swim strokes. It’s also the fastest one, which causes many people to make mistakes. When you swim freestyle, you work out some important back muscles such as the deltoids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi, as well as your triceps and biceps.

If you already know how to swim freestyle, you may still have form errors that make this swim stroke more difficult than it should be. You should be using what’s called a flutter kick for your front crawl.

Rather than moving your legs out to the side as you would in a breaststroke, kick your feet straight up alternatively without bending your knees. Keep your torso parallel with the water and move your arms in circular, windmill-like motions.

Go one arm at a time and train yourself to turn your head slightly at every other arm stroke to take in some air. That head tilt also takes lots of time to practice - if you turn too far, your body will sink into the water, which will slow you down and consume more of your energy.

Muscular young man doing the butterfly in a swimming pool

Butterfly

Undoubtedly one of the most challenging swimming strokes, the butterfly works a ton of different muscles. Your back muscles, traps, teres major and minor, rhomboids, glutes, groin, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and even some foot muscles all get a good workout during the butterfly swim stroke.

To swim the butterfly stroke, your stomach should be facing the bottom of the pool. Both arms need to go over your head before you plunge them into the water and scoop outward to propel yourself forward. Bring both arms back to the surface of the water to go into the next stroke.

For the lower body, you’ll be kicking your legs up together as if they were one leg. Try to keep them fluid, kind of like a mermaid. This move is called a dolphin kick. Make sure you have plenty of open water to execute the butterfly, as your arms will be going out wide and you’ll be creating quite a lot of splashing.

Sidestroke

This swimming stroke requires you to swim on one side of your body. Although it’s not ideal for competitions or triathlons, it is useful for lifeguards who may have to swim while supporting another person through the water. It also requires the least amount of energy, which makes it useful for covering long distances.

On one side of your body, reach your lower arm out ahead of you as far as it will reach. Bring your arms together in front of your chest, then reach one arm ahead of you again. The lower body is the source of propulsion for the sidestroke while this arm movement only serves for stabilization.

You’ll perform a scissor kick to move forward. A scissor kick is when one leg goes in front of you and the other kicks out behind simultaneously. A common mistake with the sidestroke is going too quickly with the scissor kick and tiring yourself out or failing to propel yourself sufficiently. 

Swimming Tips for Beginners

Swimming is great for fitness and even mental health.

Understanding the difference between proper swimming technique and improper form can be challenging for newcomers to the sport. After all, if you’re moving forward across the surface of the water, what could be wrong?

To move more efficiently and save your energy, follow some of the swimming tips below. With that additional energy, you can give your muscles a greater workout and see better toning and weight loss results more quickly.

1. Learn Proper Breathing Technique

Coordinating your inhales and exhales with your head position in swimming strokes like the forward crawl takes some time. To make things easier, try practicing your breathing technique while gliding when your body positioning isn’t such a big concern.

Most people hold their breath when they go underwater. It makes a kind of intuitive sense, but if you want to have a more economical breathing technique, you should exhale while your nose and mouth are beneath the surface of the water. That way, you don’t have to waste time exhaling when your nose and mouth are out of the water.

You can also practice the correct breathing pattern on dry land. Breathe in through your mouth and then slowly exhale through your nose. Many swimming coaches recommend you hum while exhaling so that you don’t breathe in and out too fast.

2. Master the Two-Beat Kick

Propelling yourself with your lower body is another challenge no matter which swimming stroke you’re using. The most common misconception is that you have to kick harder to propel yourself more quickly. However, that will likely only tire you out without getting you anywhere.

What you want for optimal swimming is to keep your legs in the shadow of your upper body so that they can draft. Your legs can drag on the water if they are out to the side. If speed isn’t your greatest concern, consider the extra effort required when your legs go too far out to either side.

The two-beat kick is when you kick twice per arm movement. Once you have it mastered, you can try the four-beat and six-beat kick when you want to get going faster. 

3. Lift Your Face, Not Your Head

This swimming tip only applies to swim strokes that require you to have your torso facing the bottom of the pool or your head in the water. The backstroke doesn’t require you to lift your head or face, for example.

If you try to lift your head out of the water, you’ll be forcing your shoulder or torso to go deeper into the water, which will negatively impact your swim speed and take more of your energy. Practice turning your head without lowering other parts of your body to compensate.

Maintaining the proper body position when you’re trying to get air is a skill that takes a long time to master. Your hips are the most likely to sink lower in the water, so concentrate your energy on keeping them at the same level.

Tuck your chin when you aren’t turning your head to take a breath and get your mouth just high enough above the surface of the water that it can inhale.

4. Rotate Your Hips

Many swimmers forget about their midsection and core when they’re swimming. They rely on their arms or their lower body to propel themselves. The result is hips that don’t move throughout the swim stroke. The hips coordinate the movement and transfer of power and momentum between the upper and lower body.

It’s crucial for efficient swimming to rotate your hips. Imagine trying to show your belly button to each wall of the pool during each arm movement and you’ll have some idea of what the proper hip movement should be. It’s not just your hips that need to turn.

Your core muscles should be the main drivers of hip movement throughout your swimming stroke. If you find yourself fatiguing, you’re likely either letting your hips sink, keeping them still, or your core muscles need a strength boost.

5. Coordinate Upper & Lower Body Movement

No matter which swimming stroke you use, you’ll have to coordinate the movements of your arms with those of your legs and hips. Practice the arm strokes with your feet on the bottom of the pool and then add in the kicking movement once you’re comfortable.

Remember that you can change how many kicks you do per arm movement. A two-beat kick is two kicks per arm movement while a 4-beat and 6-beat kick are 4 and 6, respectively. Most professional swimmers use the 2-beat kick the majority of the time and then increase it to 4 or 6 during the last part of a race or anytime they need to speed up.

6. Finish Your Stroke

The propulsion of a given stroke is usually not at the tail end of the movement, but completing the arc of your arms and your kicking motion is important so that you’re in the right body position to get into the next stroke. You can save time and effort by completing your strokes.

When you’re using swimming to lose weight or tone muscles, failure to complete the stroke is robbing your body of burnt calories and your muscles of energy expenditure that would otherwise lead to exhaustion, hypertrophy, and strength gains.

7. Increase Your Pace

When you first start swimming, you’re likely going to be taking things pretty slowly. That’s great for making sure you master the fundamentals but make sure you speed it up eventually. Not only is this the only way to get the best cardio and weight loss out of your swimming routine, but it’s also the key to better form.

Swimming slowly with no time constraints encourages your brain to go into automatic mode, leading to lazy form and technical mistakes. Every so often, you should include speed drills in your swimming routine so that your muscles are put through a greater workout and it will make any form mistakes more obvious. Remember that bad form leads to slow swimming, so if you can’t beat your time goals you’re likely making some form mistakes. 

8. Don’t Point Your Toes

Pointing your toes while you’re swimming causes your ankles to tighten up and become functionally useless. The ankles need to be flexible so that they can move your feet through the water with ease. This will help you determine your direction and speed much more efficiently.

If you find that you can’t keep your toes in a natural position, consider curling them. This will put your feet in the right direction for swimming while also allowing the ankle joint to stay loose and flexible.

Young man swimming the front crawl in a pool

Common Swimming Questions

1. What are the proper breathing techniques for swimming?

The best breathing pattern for swimming is to inhale when your mouth is above the surface of the water and exhale the entire time you’re underwater. All the time you have access to fresh air should be spent inhaling if you want to swim as efficiently as possible.

2. How do I swim without getting tired?

For one thing, you have to build strength and cardio so that your muscles can make it through a long, intense swimming session.

The temperature of the water could also be the issue - your body spends energy reheating itself after swimming in a cold pool. Sun exposure and nutrition timing could also be causing fatigue.

3. What are the 5 basic skills in swimming?

The seven basic swimming skills are coordination, floating, breathing, stroking, and kicking. Any one of these subjects could take up an entire swimming lesson if you’re just starting, but bringing them all together is the hardest part of swimming like a pro.

4. What is the most efficient swimming technique?

The freestyle, or front stroke, is widely regarded as the most efficient swimming stroke. It takes less energy to get further in less time, which is why it’s the first stroke most people learn and by far the most common one you’ll see at neighborhood pools and gyms.

5. What are some tips for freestyle swimming?

Maintain a neutral head position, lift your face rather than your head, exhale in the water, use a high elbow position, don’t overreach with your leading arm, and rotate your hips on each arm stroke for the best and most efficient freestyle swimming.

6. What is the best way to kick when swimming freestyle?

The flutter kick is the best for freestyle swimming. It makes it easier to keep your legs and feet within the shadow of your body, streamlining your limbs for better movement through the water. You shouldn’t be pounding the water and creating a bunch of foam - a simple but consistent flutter kick is all you need to swim freestyle.

7. What is the proper form for swimming?

It will vary greatly with the specific stroke you’re using, but the correct body position for almost any stroke is to have your body horizontal and your legs behind you. Your arms generally float ahead of you. The particular swim stroke will dictate where you go from this basic starting position.

Conclusion:

Swimming is a great way to lose weight and get some cardio into your fitness routine. Plus, it’s more fun than running on a treadmill and has far more benefits for more muscle groups all over your body.

Follow the tips and use the swimming strokes in this guide to get trim and build toned muscles next time you hit the pool. Mix swimming in with your other exercises and you’ll have the ideal workout routine for a strong, lean body.


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