Side Stroke Swimming: All You Need To Know

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Danila Novikov
All-American swimmer and founder of NYC based swim school.
Hi, my name is Dan. I am a professional swim coach, and in my blog, I share swimming tips for beginners. Today, we will talk about side stroke, its history, techniques, and when to use it.

Let's dive right into it.

What is side stroke?

Side stroke is an old swimming style formerly used in competitive swimming from 1800s to 1900s. Today, it's primarily used as a rescue swimming style as lifeguards and navy seals widely use it.

The name of this swimming stroke is pretty self-explanatory, as it's performed on the side. The swimmer uses both arms and legs to propel the body forward while staying on the side. There are different variations of the side stroke, but a traditional one goes like this:
combat side stroke
The first phase starts when the swimmer executes a pull with the lead arm while the opposite arm is sliding up. Once hands meet in the middle point, we enter the second phase. In this phase, the swimmer pushes the water back with the opposite hand and performs a leg motion. Simultaneously, the lead arm is sliding back to the initial position. As the stroke cycle ends, the swimmer glides in a streamlined position.

Leg movements can be performed in different ways. We are going to talk a little more about it once we cover the history of the stroke.

The history of sidestroke

The history of swimming sidestroke goes back to the 1800s when swimmers experimented with different swimming styles.

Side stroke became one of the prominent swim strokes of the century as it allowed swimmers to conserve energy while swimming long distances. It was also a way more efficient stroke. Thus, it was widely used for competitive swimming.

For a century, people were creating and perfecting different varieties of side stroke to find the fastest and easiest way to swim. In the early 1900s, side stroke became one of the fastest competitive strokes before the invention of the front crawl.

The closest variation of the side stroke looked almost like the modern freestyle stroke, invented by English swimmer John Trudgen.
swim sidestroke
Trudgen sidestroke is more aggressive and explosive, and its technique is not sustainable for long-distance swimming.

Trudgen sidestroke is fundamentally different in one aspect: instead of staying on the same side, the swimmer turns from side to side during arm movements, and every arm pull is supported by kicking motion.

Trudgen sidestroke allows you to use different kick techniques: scissor kicks, flutter kicks, or dolphin kicks.
streamline position sidestroke
Although we no longer use any variation of the side stroke in competitive swimming, the Trudgen stroke is frequently used as a front crawl technique drill. Due to the aggressive nature of this stroke, it can be a good way to increase your stroke rate and generate more power per arm stroke.

Combat side stroke

Combat swimmer stroke is another variation of a side stroke developed by former Navy Seals. This swimming style allows soldiers to conserve energy and swim for long distances with equipment, and the low profile body position makes them less likely to get noticed on the combat field.
combat side stroke technique
The difference between the combat side stroke and traditional side stroke is that it's performed with wider scissor kicks that generate more power.

Another key difference: instead of staying above the water surface the entire time, the combat sidestroke technique allows you to be above the surface only while breathing.

Once the swimmer gets a breath in, they recover both arms fully extended overhead and glide forward in a streamline position.

The efficiency, low visibility, and power of the combat side stroke make it one of the best swimming styles for survival in critical situations.

How to swim sidestroke: step-by-step guide

Swimming sidestroke can be a good way to practice freestyle stroke and keep your body in a straight line body position.

Exercise #1. Upper arm-supported side stroke.

  1. Get into a starting position. For this, you'll need to lay one hand on the kickboard, and that will be your top arm. Your bottom arm will stay relaxed next to your hip.

  2. Push of the wall on your side. Lean on the side of your top arm and push off the wall. Keep your cheek close to the water. Allow your head and chest to rest on the water's surface. Your upper body should remain in a well-aligned, streamlined body position.

  3. Initiate scissor kick. Stay on your side and keep your top arm close to your head. In that position, initiate a scissor kick.

  4. To finish the stroke, pull the water back with your bottom arm at the end of the scissor kick.

Pro tip: With every kick and pull you take, focus on reaching forward with your top arm.

Exercise #2. Putting it all together.

Now that you're more comfortable being on your side, it's time to connect your other side and perform a hand stroke with your lead arm.

  1. Your starting position will remain the same. The only difference is that you'll let go of a kickboard.

  2. Your stroke cycle begins when you initiate the pull with your lead arm. That pull has the same mechanics as the first half of a front crawl pull.

  3. When you pull with your upper arm, slide your lower arm up until your hands meet.

  4. When your hands meet, pull the water with your bottom arm back while your upper arm slides overhead. Simultaneously, the legs perform a variation of a flutter or scissor kick.

Pro tip: Practice side strokes in different variations. Switch sides frequently to find the right side for you.

Exercise #3. Challenge yourself with a combat side stroke.

Once you get comfortable with other variations of a side stroke, try giving a combat sidestroke a shot.

It's a great mix between breaststroke and front crawl and can teach you how to glide more effectively in a streamline position. Combat side stroke is performed almost like a traditional sidestroke.

The key difference is you really turn to your side to take a breath, and once you finish the hand motions, both arms extend overhead, and you propel yourself by kicking with your legs.

Practice sidestroke with both flutter kick and dolphin kick to understand the fundamentals of propelling yourself forward while keeping your body's drag to a minimum.

Should you learn sidestroke in 2023?

Yes. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned swimmer, you should learn sidestroke at some point down the road. Although this stroke is no longer used for competitive swimming, its benefits for improving your head & body position are unparalleled.

Additionally, it's a good way to practice & understand freestyle breathing techniques and leg and arm movements.
conserve energy swimming styles