4 Swim Strokes You Need To Know To Become a Lifeguard



4 Swim Strokes (1)

Ready to pass your lifeguard exam? Good. Here’s our best advice: don’t let yourself feel anxious about it, you’re going to pass with flying colors. While many people are under the impression that it’s more comprehensive than the bar exam, it’s actually quite straightforward—as long as you know what to expect.

For the deep-water physical test, here’s how it essentially breaks down (though you’ll still want to check with your local pool, as this is based on American Lifeguard Association standards):

  • You’ll first be asked to swim for 300 continuous yards, untimed. This means that your main goal should be energy conservation and solid form.
  • Next you’ll need to tread water for 2 minutes. You cannot use your arms during this portion, which is why leg training is exceedingly important, especially as you master your kicks.
  • Third, you’ll have to retrieve a 10lb weight, submerged at 7-10ft underwater, bring it to the surface and swim it back to the side (about 20 yards) all while holding the weight with both hands above the surface.

While these tests may seem intimidating at first, it just takes a little practical experience and you’ll feel on top of it in no time. As you train, make sure that you are very consistent in your form for each. If you begin to mess up one part earlier on and don’t correct it, the outcome could prove disastrous.

But if you can practice these four strokes even for just a few weeks before your test, you’ll be more prepared than David Hasselhoff. Make sure that you consult a properly certified instructor before mastering any of the forms described below. Respect the water and it will respect you!

Front Crawl (Freestyle)

front crawl animation
As this extremely helpful video shows, the front crawl is quite simple and probably the most familiar looking stroke when we think of professional swimmers.

Start with the torso: you won’t necessarily be asked to do a professional dive in to start your 300 yards, but once you come up from entering the pool you should be in position. Have your hands overlapping in front of you making a backwards V-shape. You arms should be touching your ears.

Alternating hands you will pull through the water. This is the key to efficient speed, so make sure that as you pull, all four fingers are tight together.

While you can exhale right into the water, inhaling should take place every third hand-pull on the same side as the pulling arm. That will alternate each time.

Finally, when you kick, your knees should have a slight bend and your ankles should be extremely loose. Your legs are essentially flopping at a very rapid pace. This will also be a key to propelling you, and something you’ll need throughout the exam.


breastroke animationA good breaststroke, as this video shows, is a very technical move, so don’t underestimate your practice time on this one.

For the top part of your swim, your arms will be alternating between what we can call “pizza” and “spear.” With pizza, your arms will go out in a round motion, like spreading dough. Then as they get closer to your chest, bring them together and “spear” them through the middle and back out to your maximum reach.

With your legs, the move is almost the opposite. Bend your knee so that your heels come up towards your butt. Then as you kick out, separate and rotate your legs, bringing them back together at the end.

Mastering the kick is essential, as it will be extremely useful during the “rescue” part of your exam. It’s a very powerful kick that can save more than a couple lives.

The breaststroke is all about patience. While it may seem like pro swimmers are constantly popping out of the water in this one, they’re actually being extremely patient as they move through the water.

Popping out constantly is actually counter intuitive, because your maximum distance will be achieved during the under water portion of this stroke. Don’t go up too quickly, but don’t just linger until you’re totally stopped in the water, either.

Elementary Backstroke

backstroke animation

The elementary backstroke is a recreational stroke that you can use during the rescue portion of your exam. It’s important to remember that, because you must use the freestyle or breaststroke during the rest of the exam.

You start by laying on your back, hips close to the water. You’ll bring your arms up at the same time along your torso, until they’re basically up at your arm pits. Then flick them outward, and push down using that same cupping position with your hands that you mastered in freestyle.

Your feet will essentially mirror your arms, bringing them up with your knees going out wider than your hips, and then thrusting through and brining your legs back together.

When holding the weight, this position and kick can be extremely useful as you can essentially breath through the entire stroke.


Finally, the sidestroke is another stroke that you can use when rescuing the weight and getting back to the edge. Later on, it will also be useful in dragging a person along with you.

Because it’s on its side, this stroke can seem a little wonky. Your forward arm, or the one that’s most submerged in the water, seems to do most of the work.

As he said in the video, you can think of it as grabbing an apple, passing it to your other hand when they meet in the middle, and then using the other hand to put it in a basked behind you.

Then, your legs are simply doing a basic scissor motion across your body, rather than up and down. The leg that’s further below in the water going out in front of you, and the one above goes behind toward your back.

Once you’ve mastered these helpful strokes, you’ll be more than on your way to being the summer’s best lifeguard. Now grab some zinc and get going!

Animations via BBC Sport Academy


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