Side Stroke in Swimming – Technique, Muscles Worked and Benefits

side stroke

The side stroke… although you won’t find this stroke in the Olympics, it might just be what you’re looking for from your weekly swim.

Steeped in aqatic heritage, this stroke has fallen out of fashion in recent years, yet it offers some unique benefits.

In this deep dive (pun intended), we’re exploring everything side stroke. From its technique and the muscles it works, to its benefits and how it stacks up against the fast-paced freestyle, we’re navigating the waters of this classic stroke.

Quick Summary

  • Side stroke combines energy efficiency, full-body toning, and unparalleled neck comfort.
  • Proper arm coordination, a powerful scissor kick, and core engagement are fundamental for mastering this elegant stroke.
  • Side stroke stands out for its versatility, making it suitable for leisurely swims, longer distances, and lifesaving scenarios.
  • While freestyle offers speed and intensity, side stroke provides a serene, energy-conserving alternative with distinct benefits.

Ok, So What Actually is Side Stroke?

Side stroke involves lying on your side, and using a rhythmic scissor kick and sweeping arms to move forwards.

With roots plunging deep into history, this stroke was once the primary method for long-distance journeys and lifesaving endeavors.

Envision lifeguards of yesteryears and wartime soldiers using it not only for rescues but to traverse waters with gear securely in hand.

Its secret weapon? Remarkable energy efficiency.

Zoom into today’s shimmering pools, and while competitive arenas are dominated by the likes of freestyle, breaststroke or butterfly, the side stroke continues to charm recreational swimmers and technique aficionados.

Breaststroke Vs Freestyle

Our latest guide takes a look at breaststroke vs freestyle (front crawl), when it comes to speed, muscles worked, and calories burned.

How to do Side Stroke Properly

Water Positioning

Start by lying on your side, whichever feels natural. Your body should form a straight line from head to toes, as if you’re squeezing between two panes of glass.

Arm Movement

The lower arm (submerged) pushes forward as if you’re serving a tray. Meanwhile, the upper arm sweeps back, like you’re drawing a curtain.

After this initial movement, pull both arms toward each other, meeting in the middle. Think of hugging a giant beach ball.

Leg Movement

The signature move of side stroke is the ‘scissor kick’. With legs extended, the top leg kicks forward while the bottom one drives backward. This motion is powered by your glutes, quads, and inner thighs.

Then, in a snappy motion, bring them back together.

Head Position

One of side stroke’s perks is the relaxed neck. Your face should be half in, half out of the water. Breathe during the glide phase, post the scissor kick.


Throughout the stroke, your obliques and core are actively engaged, ensuring stability and direction. Think of them as the anchor of your movements.

Muscles Worked

With each sweeping arm motion, you’re recruiting your deltoids and lats. The rhythmic scissor kick activates leg muscles like the glutes, quads, and especially the inner thighs or adductors.

All the while, your obliques and core muscles act as the control center, stabilizing your body and orchestrating this elegant water ballet.

Aqua Exercise

If you like the idea of aqua exercise but don’t necessarily like the idea of swimming, activities like aqua yoga are becoming increasing popular and come with unique benefits compared to dryland exercises.


Energy Efficiency

Side stroke is the master of conservation.

Its streamlined body positioning and fluid movements mean you exert less energy, making it ideal for long-distance swims. By minimizing water resistance and optimizing propulsion, you can swim further with less fatigue.

This makes it a great option for long duration wild swimming.

Low Impact, High Reward

The side stroke’s movements are fluid and lack the jarring rotations seen in some other strokes… making it ideal for those nursing injuries or looking for gentler exercise options.

This ensures joints and muscles work in harmony, reducing the risk of strain while still offering an effective workout.

Neck Relief

Those who’ve experienced neck strain with other strokes can breathe a sigh of relief.

Side stroke ensures your neck remains in a neutral position, reducing tension and strain, thanks to its unique half-face-out breathing pattern.


From casual swimmers to seasoned lifeguards, side stroke’s adaptability shines. Its energy-conserving nature paired with the ability to keep one’s head above water makes it invaluable for rescue scenarios or carrying objects across waters.

Total Body Engagement

While it might appear subdued, side stroke is secretly toning you up.

Engaging muscles from the obliques to the quads, it offers a comprehensive workout. Those sweeping arm motions and scissor kicks ensure both upper and lower body muscles get their fair share of action.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Skipping the Glide – The side stroke includes a distinct glide phase post the scissor kick. Some swimmers rush into the next stroke, but embracing the glide maximizes efficiency and conserves energy.
  • Mismatched Arm Movements – Your arms should move in a coordinated fashion, like a well-tuned orchestra. If one arm’s shooting forward while the other’s lagging, you’re sacrificing efficiency and form.
  • Inconsistent Kick – A floppy or weak scissor kick won’t propel you much. Power up that kick using your glutes and inner thighs. Imagine you’re cutting through water, not just brushing past it.

Side Stroke Vs Freestyle

With side stroke, swimmers find themselves lying on their side, orchestrating coordinated arm and leg movements in a fluid dance.

Freestyle, or front crawl, in contrast, propels swimmers forward with alternating arm strokes and a consistent flutter kick, all done belly-down.

When it comes to calories burned, freestyle often takes the lead. Its intensity means swimmers tend to torch more calories per hour.

However, the side stroke’s claim to fame is its energy conservation. Swimmers can often go for longer durations, potentially evening out the calorie count over extended sessions.

Diving into Benefits

Freestyle is the go-to for speed and cardiovascular vigor. Its rapid pace and powerful movements give swimmers a robust workout. On the flip side, side stroke emerges as the champion of energy efficiency and neck comfort. Its versatility is unmatched, especially in scenarios that involve lifesaving techniques.

So, who should take the plunge with each stroke?

Competitive spirits and those yearning for an intense aquatic workout often lean towards freestyle. Meanwhile, side stroke beckons those who value the art of form, wish for a full-body workout minus the neck strain, or aim for longer, serene swims.

In the vast ocean of swimming styles, both side stroke and freestyle have their unique waves. The real question is, which tide will you ride?

Bottom Line

Side stroke is a timeless gem in the aquatic world, offering a blend of energy efficiency, full-body engagement, and neck comfort. Rooted in history and once the swimmer’s staple, it remains an excellent choice for those seeking versatility and ease.

While it moves at a different tempo than the robust freestyle, both have their unique strengths.

Whether you’re aiming for competitive speeds or a tranquil glide, understanding each stroke ensures you’re equipped for every swim journey.

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