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by Scott Bay

December 5, 2023

There are so many moving parts in this stroke

Modern breaststroke traces its roots back to ancient eastern Egypt, where cave paintings depict people swimming the stroke. It’s been described in many cultures around the world, and it’s theorized that the stroke originated by swimmers mimicking the motions of a frog.

Although this stroke is technically the slowest of the competitive strokes, there are several advantages to knowing how to do it effectively, especially when swimming long distances. The first recorded crossing on the English Channel from Dover to France was done using the breaststroke.

Breaststroke has many subtleties and nuances that make it the most complex of the four competitive strokes. Although everyone can learn to swim it, the ability to swim it fast takes a great deal of patience and time.

Types of Pull

There are many ways to swim breaststroke well, but many more ways to swim it poorly. There’s disagreement in the swimming and coaching community on what makes an effective pull, and it depends on what you as a swimmer bring to the table. To start, it’s a good idea to look at different types of pulling patterns and which swimmers benefit from these variations.


It seems like sculling drills have fallen out of favor with many coaches recently, but many breaststrokers are excellent scullers. Sculling is just manipulating your hand position and forearm bend to create forward propulsion. Just like the dynamics that make planes take off, sculling creates high pressure and low pressure on different parts of the hands and that provides forward movement.

Breaststrokers who are good scullers include swimmers such as Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni. She keeps a narrow drag profile—staying small in terms of how wide she pulls and kicks. Swimmers best suited for this type of pull have body geometry that includes big hands and a good feel for the water (proprioception) so they can make micro adjustments to ensure they don’t experience hands slipping or spinning in the water.

Wide Out-sweep

Some swimmers can generate a great deal of speed by going wider than scullers do. This has a lot to do with both the speed and pitch of the hands. Unlike sculling, which creates high- and low-pressure areas on the front and back of the hands, a wide out-sweep is more about getting the hands out and down to get the fingertips down. Often described as wrapping your fingertips down towards the bottom of the pool, it allows for a swimmer to hold the water with the palms to create an anchor point rather than using high and low pressure. The movement resembles the first part of a butterfly stroke.

Breaststrokers who sweep wider are a little less subtle with the feel for the water and have more power or strength in the upper body. Being able to wrap the fingers down and generate both forward propulsion and lift takes some time to develop. Although the wide out-sweep requires more strength than subtlety, it can be effective for many swimmers, both male and female.


This is a relatively modern pull style, but its approach evolved from older teachings. For many years, swim instructors and coaches have used the initials Y-M-C-A to describe the breaststroke pull, to correspond with the shapes of the letters formed during the pull: Y is the out-sweep, M the pitching of the fingers down, C bringing the elbows together, and A the recovery to streamline.

It’s still not a bad way to learn but for many, this separation of movements is a little mechanical and slow. Out of it was born the circular or elliptical pull pattern. The idea is to always keep pressure on the hands and, as is done in the other strokes, accelerate throughout the stroke. The constant application of pressure generates propulsive force, and the acceleration of the hands enables a swimmer to let go of the water quickly to get to the next circular hand motion.

Breaststrokers who have good proprioception or feel for the water love this method. They make micro adjustments to hand pitch and arm and elbow position, along with when and where to let go of the water for the recovery. This type of kinesthetic awareness is not natural for everyone, but better feel can be practiced and improved over time.

There’s no one right method for anything in swimming, so the idea here is to give you some things to think about and try in the pool. Breaststroke is the most complex of the strokes to execute well, and it’s important to base your technique on your unique talents and gifts. The best way to look at which one of these pulling styles works for you is to isolate the movement by using a pull buoy. When you take the propulsive force of the kick out of your breaststroke, your pull has no place to hide.

Perhaps you’re already a good breaststroker. If so, then playing around with these ideas might allow you to get faster or learn something. As with trying anything new, give yourself a chance to learn it well before you dismiss it. You might just find that bit of extra speed you’re looking for.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke