4 Types of Swim Strokes You'll See at the 2024 Summer Olympics

There's no doubt swimming is one of the most exciting events at the Summer Olympics. But while tuning in to see who will take home the gold, do you ever wonder exactly what you're watching, particularly when it comes types of swim strokes? Sure, the freestyle seems pretty straightforward, but which muscles are challenged to execute the stroke perfectly? How is the butterfly different from the breaststroke? And what on earth is the individual medley?

No worries, there's still plenty of time to brush up on your swimming vocabulary when it comes to types of swim strokes. Ahead, Jennifer Latchford, former swim instructor for the Bergen Barracudas and the Goldfish Swim School breaks down every stroke. Now you can watch these edge-of-your-seat events at the Paris Games like a true fan. Keep reading for the details!

Types of Swim Strokes

At the Olympics, you'll see the four primary types of swim strokes: butterfly, freestyle, backstroke, and breastroke. Then, there's a medley, which showcases all four strokes in a single race.

  • Butterfly stroke
  • Freestyle stroke
  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Medley (individual and relay)

Keep reading to learn more about each stroke and how they're swam, plus which muscles are worked.

Butterfly Stroke
Getty | NurPhoto / Contributor

Butterfly Stroke

What Is the Butterfly Stroke?

This powerful stroke requires a swimmer to move up out of the water and back down in a smooth, almost wave-like motion. While swimming butterfly, the swimmer is positioned on their stomach, toes pointed. They kick with both legs together (known as a "dolphin kick") and use their arms to help pull their body forward. Both arms come up out of the water and forward in a sweeping motion that mimics — you guessed it — a butterfly.

What Muscles Does the Butterfly Stroke Work?

"A common misconception with swimming butterfly is that it's all in the back and arms, but this isn't true," Latchford told PS. But the "fly" in butterfly challenges a swimmer's arms, shoulders, chest, core, back, and legs.

Freestyle Stroke
Getty | Xavier Laine / Contributor

Freestyle Stroke

What Is the Freestyle Stroke?

The freestyle is the classic stroke you learned as a kid: legs fluttering, one arm at a time coming overhead before cutting into the water. According to Latchford, the flutter kick is a crucial element of the stroke. "Letting your legs drag behind you slows you down and creates more work for your arms," she said. "The swimmer's toes should be pointed and their leg muscles engaged the entire time while swimming freestyle."

What Muscles Does the Freestyle Stroke Work?

This graceful stroke challenges an athlete's core, back, and shoulders.

Getty | Richard Heathcote / Staff


What Is the Backstroke?

The way athletes sail across the water while swimming backstroke makes it seem so simple, but the stroke actually requires a lot of technique. First, a swimmer must keep their head up and back at all times. Then, "similar to freestyle, backstroke requires the swimmer to rotate their body and pull one arm at a time over their head," Latchford told POPSUGAR.

What Muscles Does the Backstroke Stroke Work?

"Backstroke kicks are also similar to freestyle, just on the back," Latchford says. Great backstrokers have amazing shoulder flexibility and core strength.

Getty | Jeff Curry / Stringer


What Is the Breaststroke?

During the breaststroke, a swimmer glides beneath the surface of the water, with their arms stretched out in front of them, then pulls their arms back as they come up for air. This may sound straightforward, but the breaststroke is far more complicated than what meets the eye. "You have to find a balance between remaining horizontal and keeping your kick below the surface," Latchford said. The kick in the breaststroke is also unique, with the legs moving in a frog-like motion.

Like butterfly, breaststroke requires a two-hand touch on the wall when a swimmer turns or finishes, or else they'll be disqualified. Breaststrokers must also master a "pullout" at the start of the race and off of each turn. "In the breaststroke pullout, swimmers streamline glide until they feel like they're beginning to slow, then they pull both arms down to their sides and are allowed one butterfly kick. After this, they breaststroke kick and pull up to the surface and begin the swim," Latchford said.

What Muscles Does the Breaststroke Work?

This types of stroke requires the activation of several different muscles, including the back, shoulders, legs, and arms.

Individual and Relay Medley
Getty | Al Bello / Staff

Individual and Relay Medley

What Is the the Medley?

During the Olympics, you'll also see athletes compete in the medley — either the individual (IM) or relay, which involves all four strokes in a single race. The order for the IM is fly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. A relay medley, on the other hand, involves teams of four, where each swimmer is responsible for swimming a different stroke, per NBC Olympics. "The medley relay sequence is backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle."

What Muscles Does the Medley Work?

The medley involves a combination of all the primary strokes (breaststroke, freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke) — which means a combination of muscles will be targeted. This includes the shoulders, back, core, chest, arms, and legs. The medley is a total body workout.

Melissa Willets is a POPSUGAR contributor.