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How To Swim Sidestroke (Tips, Techniques & Drills)

Learning to swim includes becoming familiar with many different swimming styles.

These have different uses and benefits, such as in emergencies, leisure, and exercise. 

Certain swimming styles are especially important for practical and even life-saving applications.

You may have heard of the sidestroke and its uses in emergencies.

This useful swim style makes it easier for swimmers to lift their heads above the surface to get a breath of air. 

The sidestroke is an essential part of any skillful swimmer’s repertoire.

This style creates the least possible resistance as you swim while conserving energy for long hauls.

It also makes it easier to lift your head far enough above water to take steady, deep breaths. 

If you are unfamiliar with the sidestroke, read on to find out how and when it can improve your swimming.

What Is The Sidestroke? 

The sidestroke, as the name suggests, is a swimming style in which you lie on one side in the water.

This allows you to rest one side of your body while swimming with the other. 

The sidestroke is extremely useful for rescue and emergencies.

This is because it helps conserve energy.

When you get tired, you can switch to the other side, alternating strain on your muscles. 

By lying on your side in the water, you can achieve stronger scissor kicks.

These propel you more effectively while still saving energy. 

Variations Of The Sidestroke

There are many variations of the classic sidestroke.

Each of these has its own uses and advantages.

Most of these variations include elements of other styles, becoming a hybrid of the sidestroke and something else. 

Combat Sidestroke 

The combat sidestroke was developed by Navy SEALS for combat and other high-risk situations.

These often require stealthy swimming over long distances.

For this reason, it is also sometimes called the combat swimmer stroke. 

By mixing the breaststroke with freestyle and swimming sidestroke, you can endure long distances.

You also cause minimal disturbance to the water’s surface.

Many consider the combat sidestroke to be the most difficult form of the sidestroke to master.

The combat sidestroke has four basic parts: streamline position, two catch and pulls, and a recovery. 

Keep your head down and remain as horizontal as you can.

This lessens your body’s drag on the water around it. 

Put the palm of one hand, facing downward, on the back of the other with both stretched out ahead of you.

This creates a triangle that peaks at your fingertips and lessens hydrodynamic drag on your body. 

Press your top hand palm down and bend your arm at the elbow to start your first catch and pull.

Keep your arm angled downward to make the most of this first pull.

Catch while you rotate onto your side and stay there until your recovery.

Keep your elbow even with your midsection and your hand in line with your top thigh. 

Keep your hand underwater and take a breath.

Perform essentially the same catch and pull with your other arm to propel yourself forward.

Sweep your other arm down with your palm in a fixed position to propel forward.

Your palm should face your rear while your arm is vertical and continue along that path until it rests on your thigh. 

You may notice that this is almost identical to a breaststroke.

You can continue to breathe through this motion or look back down depending on what’s more comfortable.

At this stage, begin your recovery with a scissor kick. 

At the same time, bring your arms through your center-line back to the streamline position.

This is just as you would do for a breaststroke. 

Remember to keep your arms and hands underwater through the entire maneuver.

You should keep your legs straight and your arms as close to your body as you can. 

Trudgen Sidestroke

English swimmer John Trudgen developed what is now known as the trudgen sidestroke.

This combines the freestyle and traditional sidestroke.

It is also sometimes called the racing stroke or East Indian stroke. 

This balanced out the maneuver.

It eliminated both styles’ drawbacks while increasing swimming speed.

The technique is a difficult style to master because of the unique kicks and hand motions.

You swim mostly on the same side with an overhand motion.

Alternating arms, lift them out of the water and kick with the legs.

The legs are spread apart while the left arm is above the head.

The legs extend when the left arm is brought down.

Then, the swimmer brings their legs together in a scissor kick.

Bringing the right arm forward over the water, the left arm is extended once again as it comes down.

Every second stroke is accompanied by a scissor kick, ideally as sharp a snapping motion as possible.

Throughout the trudgen, your face spends most of the time underwater.

You have to breathe when you bring your hand back, while your elbow passes your face.

The trudgen eventually developed further into another distinct style, the front or forward crawl.

Known also as the American and Australian crawl, it is the fastest front primary stroke.

This makes it ideal for freestyle swimming competitions.

When Is The Sidestroke Used?

The sidestroke is often used in emergencies for several reasons.

It has proven itself an invaluable style for survival and rescue operations. 

Because it is so widely used in diverse scenarios, the sidestroke has also developed in other, more specialized ways.

First, the sidestroke offers the opportunity to shield one side of the body.

This can be extremely useful if you have been injured on one side and cannot effectively use both arms or balance both sides of your torso evenly. 

Second, the sidestroke allows the swimmer to conserve a lot of energy.

This is important if you need to swim for a long period or over a long distance. 

Third, the sidestroke allows you to rest one side of your body while using the other.

If you are ever in a situation where you must swim a long distance to survive, this style can save your life.

Once you tire out on one side you can switch to the other and start the process again.

Fourth, swimming on your side allows for wider scissor kicks with more power behind them.

This is more efficient than flutter kicks performed while the swimmer is facing downward. 

swimmer doing sidestroke

Advantages Of The Sidestroke 

The sidestroke has important advantages for swimmers in a variety of contexts.

Many styles are derivatives of the sidestroke because it combines the benefits of other swimming methods.

The sidestroke is an important technique for rescue and other emergencies.

This maneuver uses minimal energy which is essential for long periods and distances in the water. 

It also makes breathing much easier, which is great for those with less practice on breathing techniques.

Lifeguards, emergency responders, and military personnel are taught the sidestroke for these reasons.

Disadvantages Of The Sidestroke

There are few disadvantages of the sidestroke.

The main one is that your vision is partially obscured as you swim, due simply to the angle at which you must hold your head.

This makes it a slightly less efficient swim style in that it sacrifices some speed for endurance.

However, since it is often used for rescue situations, the goal is to conserve energy and stay safe, not speed through the water. 

This, of course, rules out the possibility of using a sidestroke in a swim competition or other competitive setting.

It can also be a tough style to master, especially the various specialized styles.

How To Improve Your Sidestroke 

Like any skill-based activity or sport, swimming requires much practice to master.

Getting the fundamentals of your sidestroke down is important for more advanced techniques and styles.

Don’t lift your head too far out of the water or else you will create unnecessary drag.

This will seriously slow you down and tax your energy resources, shortening the distance you can go. 

Keeping your body as flat as possible is key to effective side strokes.

This applies to both your head, torso, and hips.

The more you bend, the more drag you create in the water.

Make sure to keep your breathing in time with your strokes.

This lets you focus all your attention on your strokes.

Inefficient breathing is not only a distraction, it wastes your energy. 

Practice each movement of the backstroke separate from all the others.

This helps you focus on proper form and practice without tiring yourself out. 

You should practice each separately to ensure you give them the attention needed to master them.

The scissor kick often gives swimmers trouble, but changing positions in the water is another to isolate and practice.

Focus on mastery of each component of the backstroke before you try to combine them.

Once you combine these parts into the whole, make sure you aim for accurate movement over speed.

You will become faster as you learn. Rushing before you master the basics will cause trouble later on.

Techniques For Swimming Sidestroke 

Maintain control of your body positioning throughout your sidestroke.

Your hands and feet will help you keep on your side and alternate to the other. 

Keep your hips and shoulders perpendicular to the ground except while switching sides.

This creates a 180-degree rotation effect.

Your arms should move in unison even though they’re doing different things.

Your upper arm should be used mostly to balance your body, with the lower arm used for propulsion. 

Your lower arm should be used to propel yourself forward while bringing your upper arm toward the chest.

The hands come together at the chest and your lower arm is extended back to its first position.

Controlling your legs is essential to perform a good sidestroke.

Scissor kicking is the vital motion you need to master or the style will not come together for you.

Bring your upper leg forward at the hip like you are kicking slowly. 

At the same time, bring your lower leg behind in a kicking motion, making sure to bend both legs a bit at the knee.

Snap your feet together to push back on the water, propelling you forward. 

Don’t overdo a scissor kick; smooth, fluid movements are far better than forceful ones that slow you down and waste energy.

Don’t forget to keep control of your breathing throughout each motion.

Your head remains above water the entire time you use the sidestroke.

This makes it easier to keep breathing without straining your neck or accidentally taking in water. 

Little water enters the nose or mouth because the speed of the style doesn’t disturb the water much.

Try to breathe in time with each hand stroke to make it even easier.

Inhale through your mouth while you push forward with your lower arm and exhale as your upper arm comes back to start.


The sidestroke is an important style for swimmers looking to expand beyond simpler techniques.

Familiarizing yourself with the sidestroke and its variants offers more options for safer, efficient swimming. 

If you ever find yourself in an emergency, the sidestroke could save your or someone else’s life.

By helping you conserve energy and lift your head to breathe, the sidestroke proves invaluable in a tough spot. 

It pays to become familiar with the sidestroke whether you plan to swim for leisure, work, or personal emergency preparedness.

Regardless of your context, you’re likely to find the sidestroke to be an important tool in your swimming skill set.