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The Strokes Simplified III- Breaststroke

As with all strokes, great breaststroke is the result of the same principles for fast swimming- increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great timing. The major components of successful breaststroke include-

  1. Strong catch and propulsive arm action

  2. Strong catch and effective kick action

  3. Use of momentum of the head, torso, and recovery

  4. Timing of the arms and legs to maximize propulsion at times of minimal resistance

  5. Streamline posture

Strong Catch and Propulsive Arm Action

As with the other strokes, a strong upper body pull consists of achieving a vertical forearm, open arm pit position that utilizes the strongest muscle of the upper body. In contrast to the other strokes, breaststrokers do not bring the hands past the breast. However, they do fully adduct the shoulder and close the arm pit, making full use of the strongest portion of the pulling action.

It is important to note that there is minimal sculling involved. The initial aspect of the stroke is a repositioning of the arm into the catch position and does not serve a propulsive purpose. This is followed by a directly backward pull where the arm pit is closed as the elbow are strongly pulled into the torso. At this point, the hands do not ‘scull’ in, but simply follow the path of the elbow. If the hands move inwards ahead of the elbow, it is an indication that the swimmer is focusing on sculling as opposed to finishing the pull by closing the armpit.

Strong Catch and Effective Kick Action

Effective breaststroke kicking is similar to the arm action in that the swimmers goal is to create as much surface areas as possible, maintain that surface area for as long as possible, and move that surface area with as much force as possible. Due to differences in anatomy, different solutions are possible for effective kicking.

While individual differences exist, certain mechanical principles should be respected. While varying knee widths can be appropriate, the feet should always be outside of the knee. This creates the potential for swimmers to use the shin as a propulsive surface, in addition to the foot. Further, this position also creates the opportunity for swimmers to turn the feet out as much as possible, creating a greater surface area. Once the kicking action commences, the knees should not move outward. They should maintain position until the kick finishes where the knees will come together. While kicking, the intent should be to kick directly backwards, as opposed to a circular or downward motion.

Use of Momentum of the head, Torso, and Arm Recovery

While recovering the head, arms, and torso, it is critical that this motion be aggressive and directed forward. This movement is similar to the ‘lunge’ popularized by Mike Barrowman and his coach, Josef Nagy. The head be snapped down quickly and the arms recovered very aggressively. This action should also incorporate the entire torso so the entire upper body is aggressively moving forward. All motion should be directed forward toward the other end of the pool, and not down. There should be no disturbance of horizontal alignment, by diving under the water.

This process can help facilitate a ‘body wave’ that results in brief period of acceleration. By aggressively recovering the arms and head forward, it also helps to ensure that the hips and torso quickly move back into a streamlined position. This is particularly important in the sprint events where high stroke frequencies allow minimal time to return the head. Swimmers of lesser qualification often struggle to return to a truly streamline position.

While the breathing action disturbs horizontal alignment, how the swimmers recovers from the breath can help to mitigate the negative effects on body position, as well as maintain velocity.

Timing of the Arms and Legs to Maximize Propulsion at Times of Minimal Resistance

As the arms and legs are recovered under water, breaststrokers are subject to high levels of drag. How they choose to time the arms and legs can greatly affect the impact of drag on velocity. Successful breaststrokers have chosen to perform the arm and leg actions in a relatively independent manner. This allows the propulsive action of the arms to be performed while the legs are streamlined and vice versa. To prevent increased exposure to drag and loss of propulsive force, the arm and leg recoveries are performed very quickly. The speed of these recoveries serves to compensate for the delayed initiation of the recoveries.

Upper Body Propulsion

Elite breaststrokers demonstrate excellent horizontal lower body alignment while executing the highly propulsive arm action. Initiation of the recovery of the legs is delayed until the arm pull has been completed to allow for the highest velocity possible.

Lower Body Propulsion

The same concepts are applied when the lower body is applying force. The best breaststrokers achieve a streamlined position in the front of the stroke prior to initiating the propulsive portion of the kick. While the legs are recovered prior to achieving a full streamline, actual propulsion is not created until the swimmer has reached a streamline position

Streamline Posture

Beyond the timing of breaststroke, swimmers must work to maintain a streamline posture. This is characterized by returning to a horizontal streamlined position between each stroke cycle. During the duration of the stroke cycle, undulation should be optimized as well. Excessive lifting to breathing and diving upon returning the head should be eliminated. As described above, how the arms and legs are timed will also influence the drag profile.

A key difference between the 100m and 200m timing is the duration for which the streamlined position is held between stroke cycles. However, it is important to appreciate that it is achieved in both circumstances.


A key component of breaststroke racing is the execution of the breaststroke pullout. As with breaststroke, effective pullouts are about simple skills performed expertly. Expert pullouts consist of-

  1. Maintenance of body alignment and streamline

  2. Direct propulsive action

  3. Well-timed initiation of the dolphin kick and pullout

  4. Gradual surfacing

Maintenance of Body Alignment

As with breaststroke in general, maintenance of body alignment is critical during the pullout. This is true of the gliding phases, but also when executing the dolphin kick. Many swimmers attempt to create a large amount of propulsion with the dolphin kick and in doing so, create large amounts of drag. The dolphin kick should be ‘hidden’ as much as possible within the body line, and undulation should be minimized.

Upon returning to the surface, the breaststroke must work to minimize the exposed surface area of the recovering limbs. Further, the limbs should be recovered as quickly as possible to avoid resistive positions.

Direct Propulsive Action

As with the breaststroke pulling action, the pullout should consist of setting up an open arm pit and vertical forearm, and then maintaining that position for as long as possible, as forcefully as possible. The pulling action should be direct. A critical component to the pullout and the dolphin kick is the rigidity of the torso when these actions are performed. There should be an obvious stiffness to the torso. In addition, the propulsive actions should be as powerful as possible. It is not about big and strong, but about direct and snappy.

Well-Timed Initiation of the Dolphin Kick and Pullout

The arm/leg recoveries and the pullout itself should be timed to occur just as body velocity begins to slow to swimming velocity. The dolphin kick can be placed at the beginning of the pullout or the end. The advantage of placing the dolphin kick at the beginning of the pullout is that the kick can set the hips up for a more powerful pullout. It also creates momentum so that the swimmer can easily get into the catch without a loss of velocity. This makes it easier for a swimmer to maintain velocity and accelerate throughout the pullout. For those unable to accurately time the kick in the front, the dolphin kick in the back can be useful for slightly increasing the propulsive effect of the pullout.

Gradual Surfacing

The pullout itself should set the swimmers on an upward trajectory so that they can smoothly surface as horizontally as possible. Not only will this maintain speed, but it will allow for swimmers to enter their swimming rhythm from the first stroke. The pathway of a swimmer should resemble a checkmark from leaving the wall to surfacing.

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