Financial markets are enormously complex, but most trading strategies tend to fall into one of two categories: trend following or swing trading. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages, as well as specific requirements that investors must follow consistently in order to avoid errors. However, many investors randomly apply these contrary strategies without understanding how that can undermine profitability. Identify whether you are a trend trader or a swing trader in order to hone your strategy correctly.

In theory, the trend trader takes risk in an uptrend or downtrend, staying positioned until the trend changes. In contrast, the swing trader works within the boundaries of range-bound markets, buying at support and selling at resistance. Swing trading tends to work best for shorter time frames, while trend-following strategies can be applied for months. However, the lines have blurred in recent decades due to the availability of real-time charting for all time intervals. (For more, see: What Type of Trader Are You?)

New and intermediate traders should choose one of these disciplines early in their market educations and stick with it until mastered or until they find out they're better suited to the other approach. Experienced traders can mix and match these strategies at will, often building highly effective hybrids that require strong discipline but produce excellent bottom-line results.

This dual effort works best for those with strong multi-tasking skills who can contain each strategy within its proper boundaries while adjusting risk management to address unique characteristics of hybrid strategies. For example, typical long-side swing trades require fast exits at resistance such as old highs, while trend-followers sit on their hands and allow securities to test and break those levels. A hybrid approach might be to sell half the position at resistance, keeping the other half in hope of a breakout.

[Whether you're a trend trader or a swing trader, your profitability will depend on your ability to apply an array of technical tools to your analysis of a particular market or security. To learn more, check out the Technical Analysis course on the Investopedia Academy, which includes educational videos and interactive content to help you boost your trading skills.]

Trend Trader Versus Swing Trader

Still confused about key differences between swing traders and trend traders? These trading characteristics below will help you identify your current approach.

  • Position Size: Swing traders hold larger positions for shorter time frames, while trend traders hold smaller positions for longer time frames. Swing traders apply leverage more often than trend traders.
  • Position Timing: Swing traders seek perfect timing because the average win or loss will be smaller than for trend traders, who can miss the beginning or end of a trend and still book substantial profits.
  • Entry Strategy: Trend traders enter positions while momentum is strong or wait for a counter-trend to lower risk. Swing traders take risk at support or resistance, fading the barrier by positioning in the opposite direction and placing stops where they're proven wrong.
  • Exit Strategy: Swing traders exit positions when stops are hit or profit targets are reached. Trend traders hold positions until the trend changes, regardless of time frame. They place stops at the price level that signals the trend change. (See also: Exit Strategies: A Key Look.)

The Bottom Line

Swing traders and trend traders execute market timing strategies that require different skill sets. While experienced players can successfully mix and match these strategies, new and intermediate traders should focus on one approach and stick with it until fully mastered. (For additional reading, check out: Introduction to Stock Trader Types.)