As anyone who's ever watched a swim competition knows, there's more than one way to move across a pool, lake or ocean — and each style of swimming demands something different in terms of technique and effort.
Some strokes, like the freestyle, come relatively naturally, even to children and beginners. Others, such as the butterfly, take years to perfect. Wonder which experts think are the simplest — and the toughest? Here's how swim coaches rate each stroke from easiest to hardest. Add them all to your next your swim workout to keep you on your fins.
1. Front Crawl or Freestyle
"Swimmers tend to gravitate to freestyle as it's the fastest," says Jenny McCuiston, co-founder of Goldfish Swim School. "And at the introductory level, it's the easiest to learn."
Didn't master the stroke just yet? Start facedown, body stretched long and tall and move your arms in a continuous cycle (as one arm pulls from above your head to your hip underwater, the other sweeps forward above the water to extend over your head again). The quick, forceful flutter kick uses most of the big, powerful muscles in your legs; your quads, especially, will feel the burn of the effort, says Samantha Caballero, CEO of Swim With Sam in Miami.
The biggest challenge is learning to breathe while turning your head to the side, says Stacy Caprio, a certified Red Cross water safety instructor and coach who swam competitively for 14 years. But once you master the relatively simple movements, freestyle uses the least amount of energy to cover a given distance. That efficiency means you can move more quickly, making front crawl the favored stroke of speed — you'll spot many triathlon swimmers using it.
Read more: 7 Tips to Become a Better Swimmer
Though many people in the military — including the Navy Seals — practice this stroke, it isn't used in competitive swimming, Caprio says. But lifeguards might use it to rescue people from the deep end, as it's easier to drag someone along with you.
To perform this stroke, lie on one side, with your head, back and legs in a straight line. Your arms will move at the same time, but asymmetrically. Reach the arm deepest in the water (your leading arm) forward, then sweep down and backward in a semicircular motion, pushing water back with your palm.
The other arm, called your trailing arm, starts at your side, then bends and slides forward until your palms nearly meet, then pushes back to the starting position. Your legs, meanwhile, power you forward using a scissor kick.
Sidestroke requires little energy and is easy for most people to learn, especially because you don't need to submerge your head. But it's far less efficient than freestyle, says Mike Lucero, head swim coach and president at Golden Road Aquatics in Burbank, California. For that reason, he ranks it as slightly more difficult.
In some ways, backstroke represents the opposite of freestyle, Caballero says. You'll make similar windmill-like reaching and pulling motions with your arms, while your legs perform the same powerful flutter kick.
But because you're doing it all upside down, lying on your back instead of your stomach, the stroke requires added coordination. Reaching back, instead of forward, can fatigue your shoulders and triceps, Caballero says. Kicking on your back requires an added focus on form, including pointing your feet and relaxing your ankles.
Because your face stays above the water, breathing is easier, though many swimmers still time their inhalations and exhalations to their strokes. Beginners often find it challenging to keep their heads in the water and arch their neck upward, Lucero says. Instead, relax your neck and stare skyward as you cycle your arms.
Breaststroke poses a more significant technical challenge than many of the other strokes, with more pressing and squeezing, McCuiston says. Getting it right is all about timing, Lucero notes: "It's pull, breathe, kick, swim — and you've got to work on the glide."
Your arms move similarly to treading water. You'll start with palms together, pushing your arms forward. Then comes the pull, where you turn your palms out and bring your arms back in a semi-circular motion before extending them back in front of you again. All this should represent one fluid motion. And as your arms start to come together, you'll lift your head for a breath.
Meanwhile, your legs do a whip kick. Start with your legs extended behind you, then bend your knees and bring your feet toward your butt. Then, kick out and back forcefully, moving your knees away from each other to the sides and rotating your feet out, a movement often compared to that of a frog.
It's possible to do this stroke while keeping your head above water: Breathing comes easier, you can see where you're headed and you might not need to use goggles. But more competitive swimmers increase their efficiency by dipping their head in to exhale with each stroke.
The combination of strength and coordination required to pull off the butterfly make it the most difficult stroke. Some people, including many triathletes, never learn it, Lucero says. Other swimmers spend a lifetime trying to master it.
Done correctly, your arms move symmetrically, your body whips like a wave and your legs move together in a dolphin kick. Timing is critical: There are two dolphin kicks for each strong pull of the arms, and they must occur at just the right time to maintain forward momentum. Meanwhile, you'll engage your abs with every stroke and summon significant strength from your shoulders to lift both arms out of the water simultaneously.
If that sounds exhausting, it is. The butterfly requires significant physical and mental effort. "It takes a lot out of you to swim more than one lap," says Caballero. But there's a reason to try: "The accomplishment you feel after is incomparable."