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Can't Coach It- Breaststroke Pullouts Part II

In part I, we explored the process of applying the ideas of skill acquisition to a specific skill, the breaststroke pullout. The intention was to demonstrate that improving pullouts, or any skill, goes WELL beyond simply instructing a swimmer about how to move ‘better’. While such an approach may create aesthetic change in the short term, it’s not likely to create significant performance improvements over time.

To improve pullouts, we need to ensure that they are both effective (FAST!) and economic (require as little energy as possible). To do so, we need to make sure that swimmers have the physical prerequisites to create high levels of force, as well as create the appropriate alignment to reduce resistance in the water.

Once these abilities are in place, swimmers must learn how to effectively apply force into the water, as well as achieve the appropriate body positions. Over time, they need to be able to accomplish these tasks at high velocity and under significant fatigue.

While the specifics of achieving the required physical qualities have been addressed elsewhere, I’d like to examine a couple sample pool sets that illustrate the principles described in part I.

For all of these examples, distances, intervals, and frameworks can be adjusted as necessary. Each round can be performed as many times as desired, and the rounds can certainly change each time through. The sets are for illustrative purposes to demonstrate the principles. They will need to be adjusted for the specific goals you are trying to accomplish, as well as scaled to the ability of the swimmers you are working with.

Force Application

To improve force application in the pool, there are three main strategies that I’ve seen to be effective-

1. Use resistance

2. Change propulsive surface areas

3. Measure everything

The 3rd strategy is critical and must be integrated into all tasks. The focus is on performance- going farther and going faster. Regardless of the set, we need to focus on solving the problem of performance.

Technique is not about aesthetics. Ask Janet Evans. It is about effectiveness. We tend to focus on what skills look like, rather than if they WORK. The principles described in part I are all illustrated in the following examples of how to design learning opportunities that help swimmers improve their performance during breaststroke pullouts.

As these sets are learning opportunities, the focus is on skill acquisition. Over time, swimmers must also be exposed to progressively more challenging race development sets, and execute their newly acquired skills in these settings. This idea has been explored HERE.

Distance Example

4 rounds

4xTriple pullout on a stretch cord@45 seconds; continually try to get farther out

Rd 1 tennis balls in hands/Rd 2 no gear/Rd 3 small paddles/Rd 4 bigger paddles

25 Fast; Time performance to 15m and 25m

The purpose here is to inform swimmers about how well they are applying force. If they are applying high levels of force, they will go farther. While their alignment will influence how far they get, the impact is dramatically reduced due to the resistance of the cord. The cord is preventing progress to a much great extent than their alignment.

By using different propulsive surface areas, swimmers can learn how the size and shape of the hand and forearm influences force application. As importantly, the contrast in sensation allows swimmers to FEEL what is going on when they pull, and this can help them learn how to apply force. If they can better perceive the environment, they have more options for action.

If swimmers want to get farther, they need more force. They can produce higher peak forces through the actions they use, they can extend the duration of force application, or they can improve the consistency of force application. Having distance targets on the bottom or side of the pool can help swimmers orient their goals towards progress. Figure it out!

Because the band is actively pulling the swimmer back, they must also work on ensuring that they are getting OUT of non-propulsive positions as quickly as possible. They must recover the hands and the legs as quickly and effectively as possible, or else they will be pulled backward.

By performing 52 high-quality pullouts in a short period of time, they are also getting A LOT of repetitions, coupled with a lot of feedback about the quality of repetitions. This facilitates learning opportunities. A major limitation with many practice strategies is there simply aren't enough repetitions for skills like pullouts. A set like this solves that problem.

Performing the 25m fast effort after each series of pullouts gives swimmers a chance to transfer their skills into a race-relevant setting. It is the test that helps swimmers evaluate their learning. If these numbers are getting better, swimmers are improving.


In the example above, we worked on improving the distance of the pullout. In this example, we’ll focus on improving the velocity of pullouts.

4 rounds thru

2x20m@1 Timed resisted* pullouts

2x15m@1 Timed resisted* pullouts

2x10m@1 Timed resisted* pullouts

Rd 1/Rd 2 tennis ball in one hand/no gear in other/Rd3/4 small paddle in one hand/no gear in other

25 Fast; Time performance to 15m and 25m

*The type of resistance can be whatever you have available. It could be a parachute, an elastic cord, a sponge, a power tower, a weighted pulley system, a bucket, or whatever else is available. You can also change the amount of resistance or the type of resistance each round.

The purpose here is to make sure pullouts are fast, and the setup requires that swimmers produce a lot of effective force if they want to go fast. If they create ineffective forces, they won’t move forward with any speed. If they don’t produce enough force, the same result occurs. By judging performance based upon TIME, swimmers are looking for solutions that produce speed.

Because of the resisted load, gliding will be punished and swimmers can't go faster by gliding better. Performance is thus limited by the ability to create force and create force quickly. If coaches want to further constrain performance, they can also put an individually appropriate limit on the number of pullouts for each repetition. Likewise, they could use a tempo trainer to limit the pullout rate.

This is largely unnecessary as the resistance limits the impact on gliding, putting an emphasis on effective force production. However, for swimmers that need a new challenge, it can be a good increase in demand.

As with the example above by changing the surface area with different paddles, swimmers learn to better position the hand and the forearm in different contexts. As importantly, different sensations provide more awareness of what is happening, helping swimmers become better attuned to how they are moving in the specific drill, as well during as all other activities they do.

In this example, the surface area on each limb is different. This creates further awareness because of the contrast. An appropriate instruction would be to ‘make both limbs feel the same’. When using a tennis ball, the swimmer will need to better orient the forearm to match the free hand. When using the paddle, the swimmer will need to better utilize the free hand to match the paddle.

As with the above example, the final 25 is to put the pieces together and to test what has been learned. Is it working? Is there progress? What can be better? Consistently re-orienting with performance in relevant environments can help to ensure that the learning process is on the right track.


When working in the pool to improve alignment during pullouts, the goal is to help swimmers FEEL their position as they move through the water. Outside of obvious losses of alignment, many alignment errors will not be visible to coaches. The only way to improve these mistakes is to provide swimmers the opportunity to recognize and correct these mistakes for themselves.

Swimmers need to establish an awareness of what they are feeling, and then reference that feedback against objective performance criteria. This is facilitated through effective practice design. While coaches cannot necessarily provide the answers, they can provide the questions.

1. Use overspeed

2. Create extra resistance

3. Measure everything

By using overspeed, we can take advantage of the heightened drag to create more awareness. The faster swimmers move through the water, the more drag they will feel. This will highlight areas that are not effectively aligned. For example, if the head or the feet are low relative to the body, swimmers will feel more resistance on their head or feet. This gives them the opportunity to make that change.

Similarly by creating extra resistance on specific body parts through the use of t-shirts, shorts, weight belts, drag sox, shoes, etc,, we can create better awareness in specific body areas. Swimmers will be able feel their position, and get feedback as to whether that position is effective. When you take the added gear away, that awareness remains and swimmers will have a better sense of water flowing over their body.

As with force application, measuring everything creates performance feedback that let’s swimmers know if their changes are effective. They need to be able to calibrate their changes.

Overspeed Example

4 rounds through

4x25@40 FINS; 4DK blast right into a streamline glide + 4 DK blast into pullout + glide hands by the side

25 Fast; Time performance to 15m and 25m

On the 4x25s, the goal is to transition into 2nd set of dolphin kicks once there is a significant loss of speed, and then transition into the pullout once there is a significant loss of speed. After the last pullout, the swimmer would glide as far as possible.

There are 3 goals on these 25s. The first is to recognize when speed is lost and when the appropriate transition time is. When swimmers can recognize speed loss, they then want to DELAY that speed loss for as long as possible. They can accomplish this by improving their alignment. The more streamlined they are, the better they will be able to delay speed loss.

Improving alignment will come from paying attention to where on the body resistance is felt, and then working to re-position the body to reduce this resistance. Swimmers will be need to use their own feedback to improve the shape of the vessel.

The final goal is to get as far as possible without excessive gliding during the first two transitions. The better the alignment, the longer they can hold their glide WITHOUT losing speed. They should go farther because they are gliding for longer and they are gliding faster, both as a result of improved alignment. The more aligned they are after the pullout itself, the longer they will be able to ride that glide as well.

After each set of 25s, the swimmers will perform a full 25, timing speed to 15m and 25m to evaluate the speed of the pullout as well as the overall effect on the whole swim. This distance can be whatever you want, provided you are giving feedback specifically to the speed of the pullout.

Over time, swimmers can learn how to manage their position in the water better by being exposed to higher speeds which provide louder feedback about what swimmers are doing.

Resistance Example

4 rounds through

25@45 6 Pullouts*; get across the pool as FAST as possible

25@45 5 Pullouts*; get across the pool as FAST as possible

25@45 4 Pullouts*; get across the pool as FAST as possible

25@45 3 Pullouts*; get across the pool as FAST as possible

25 Fast; Time performance to 15m and 25m

25s pullouts are Rd1 T-Shirt/Rd2 Shorts or weight belt Rd3 Drag sox or shoes/Rd 4 no equipment

25s swims are always no equipment

*Adjust the number of pullouts based upon the abilities of your swimmers

The purpose here is two-fold. The general structure of the set provides clear performance feedback about how fast swimmers are executing their pullouts, as well as how effective each pullout is. Swimmers must optimize their propulsion and optimize their alignment. The goal is to perform the first 25 as fast as possible and then hold as close to the that time as possible for the next 3 25s.

As the number of pullouts decreases, swimmers will need to rely on optimal alignment to maintain their speed, as they have fewer opportunities to create propulsion. By using different gear each round, more awareness is drawn to potential alignment opportunities. As the gear changes, there is a also contrast between the rounds. The swimmer can then try to put it all together on the last round with no equipment.

Each round ends with a 25 fast that can be performed from a dive or push, timing to 15m and 25m to determine whether pullout speed is improving, and whether those improvements are transferring to the full 25. By performing this last 25 without any training equipment, the swimmer also experiences a contrast in the sensations they feel, further creating awareness of how they are moving through the water.

This set could also be performed in reverse, starting with 3 pullouts and moving up to 6. This would place more priority on maximizing propulsion as the goal would be to see how much faster the swimmers could go by adding pullouts. In this case, adding different types of paddles could provide contrast as opposed to wearing different resistive gear.

*Bonus Option*

If you have swimmers that are REALLY stiff and struggle to get into the appropriate positions, you can combine dryland mobilizations prior to performing each round of the above alignment sets, or any other set you design to improve streamline.

This set up would be ideal with small groups, as HOW each exercise is performed is critical. For more information about the potential areas to target, check out THIS post. If you have access to a strength and conditioning professional, use them as a resource to help identify range of motion limitations, as well as different exercises to improve those limitations.

Performing these mobilizations can provide a ‘window of opportunity’ where there is greater range of motion in the desired joints. Performing skill work within that window can help swimmers learn to move through larger range of motion and solidify those ranges so that they become permanent. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just done consistently.

Moving Forward

Creating technical change is about more than providing appropriate instructions. It is about designing a plan that addresses physical limitations and provides opportunities for swimmers to learn the required skills. Most importantly, these opportunities are performance-driven. Better skills must result in better performances in training. The outcomes of the tasks inform swimmers of the effectiveness of their skills.

The intention of this article was to make these ideas concrete. If coaches are to improve the pullouts of their swimmers, they need to create approach that is performance driven and integrates technical change into training. They are inseparable.


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