4+ Swim Strokes That Burn the Most Calories

Swimming burns calories stored in our bodies, with the butterfly stroke topping the list at 450 calories in 30 minutes, followed by freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke.

what swim stroke burns the most calories

The movement of our bodies requires energy, no matter our body shape. The energy needed to fuel our bodies comes from the food and drink we consume and is measured in calories.

We store these calories typically as fat in our bodies. So, you will need to burn off these stored calories, whether your goal is immediate weight loss, seeking that perfect beach body, or just increased fitness levels. 

Swimming as an exercise is highly effective in burning up those calories. But what swim stroke burns the most calories?

Let’s dive right in and look at the top four swim strokes that burn the most calories.

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1. Butterfly

Hitting out the number one spot in addressing what swim stroke burns the most calories, we have the butterfly stroke.

If you ever went to swimming school, you will know that the butterfly is the most technically challenging and difficult stroke to master. With the challenge of actually looking like you belong in a swimming pool, the butterfly is the most exhausting swim stroke out there.

The butterfly is the newest swim stroke, introduced into the competitive arena in 1933. Once mastered, this swimming stroke burns the most calories at around 450 calories in 30 minutes.

Swimming a butterfly stroke for 30 minutes would require superhuman endurance, as it requires using the highest number of our body’s muscles.

The list of muscles used in the butterfly stroke is extensive and includes:

  • Chest/Pectorals
  • Upper and middle back
  • Upper arm
  • Hip and buttocks
  • Hamstring, thigh, and calf
  • Core muscles.

Ok, so that explains why the butterfly stroke is a body killer. Thirty minutes of this extreme energy-burning swimming is not sustainable. It then makes sense to revert to a more effortless swim stroke to stay in the water longer but continue burning those pesky calories.

With this in mind, let’s move on to our next high-calorie-burning swim stroke.

2. Freestyle

The freestyle or front crawl stroke is the most commonly used swim stroke. Think of major global sports events such as the summer Olympics, where the freestyle events comprise most of the swimming competition.

Freestyle is the fastest swimming stroke but gives a less intensive workout than the butterfly.

All that splashing during butterfly with arms lunging, reaching forward, and diving in and out the water like a porpoise certainly burns calories; it just doesn’t translate into the speed that swimming freestyle gives.

So the burning question is, how many calories does swimming freestyle burn? For example, an average 180-pound person will burn approximately 315 calories per 30 minutes of swimming freestyle.

An online calorie-burning calculator is handy for calculating possible calories to burn. You will need to input your weight and swim time and then match up your chosen swimming activity to determine the number of calories burned.

Our muscles require fuel to flex and power our movements, burning calories all the time. The harder we push our muscles, the longer we use them, and the more of them we use, the better for our calorie-burning goals. 

The primary muscles used in freestyle include: 

  • Chest / Pectorals
  • Upper and middle back
  • Upper arm
  • Hip and buttocks
  • Hamstring, thigh, and calf
  • Core muscles.

If you are paying attention, you will notice that this list is the same as the muscles used while swimming the butterfly. The difference is in the intensity of muscle movement required for each stroke.

Our takeaway is that if the butterfly is not your forte, but you want a maximum calorie-burning swimming session, freestyle is just as good. You just need to keep going that extra few minutes to match the calorie-burning potential. 

Don’t feel hard done by! Just think about all the long-distance swimmers; they all swim front crawl.

3. Backstroke

A bit of an oddity if you think about it; this swimming stroke seems unnatural, but it does give you a good workout. Backstroke is particularly useful in exercising your hips to improve hip flexibility and aid posture.

One of the more effortless strokes to learn but challenging to master, backstroke makes for a low-intensity aquatic workout.

So what is the calorie-burning potential if you choose to swim staring up into the sky? On average, expect to burn around 250 calories for every 30 minutes spent swimming on your back.

In terms of sheer calorie-burning potential, backstroke comes in second to last place of the four official swim strokes.

Still, it is an excellent exercise for those who suffer back pain as water is great at supporting your body, lessening any strain on your back injury.

4. Breaststroke

Breaststroke is in last place of the four official swim strokes when we look at what swim stroke burns the most calories.

Swimming breaststroke burns calories at a rate of around 200 calories per 30 minutes swim time. But hold up, let’s not be too hasty and omit this from our exercise regime.

Breaststroke gives us a far better cardiovascular workout than the other high-intensity energy-sapping strokes. Working on your cardiovascular fitness ultimately benefits your ability to burn calories. 

Think about it; the better your cardiovascular fitness levels (CRF), the better your oxygen levels and ability to endure prolonged periods of exercise. Prolonged exercise means an increase in burnt calories.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Many of us have learned to swim by mastering the doggy paddle. This simple swim stroke is excellent for those who have never learned to swim and still want to do some form of water exercise. 

The doggy paddle will burn about the same number of calories as breaststroke, which is around 200 calories per 30 minutes.

Just don’t expect to go far fast, but if it’s the calorie-burning action you want, this will still work for you.

Treading water is also a good alternative, keeping you busy burning about the same calories and not going too far.

Tips for High-Calorie Burning

Before diving straight into the water, consider implementing a few of these calorie-burning tips:

  • Diet plays an important role, you will need to change your calorie intake; remember that for any weight loss, you need to burn up more calories than you eat.
  • Swimming in a fasted state burns up more fat. Early morning exercise before breakfast helps burn more calories as your body is in a fasted state and will use up those calories stored in fat more readily.
  • Three weekly swim sessions upward of 30 minutes each are the minimum you should commit to your swimming exercises. The more activity, the better, but don’t discourage yourself by overdoing it when you start out.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to use a floatation device. If you are starting out and still need to become a strong swimmer, a pool noodle, inflatable vest, or kickboard will help you use your energy to move your arms and legs and not just to prevent drowning.

Frequently Asked Questions about Swim Strokes

Do you still have questions about burning calories while swimming? Here are some answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions.

As a below-the-knee amputee, will swimming help me keep my weight down?

Swimming with an inflatable life vest or a pool noodle is a definite possibility. As mentioned above, these devices will allow you to float in the water and concentrate on the exercise movements. 

Can I swim with weights to burn more calories?

The use of weights while swimming is quite common. Both wrist and ankle wearable weights are readily available to increase the intensity of your swimming training.

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