Breaking breaststroke into its critical components
The first article in this series, The Three Ways to Swim Faster, outlined the three requirements for fast swimming: increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great timing. The major components of successful breaststroke are:
- Strong catch and propulsive arm action
- Strong catch and effective kick action
- Drive forward
- Timing of the arms and legs
- Streamline posture
Strong catch and propulsive arm action
Although it might not feel like it, great breaststroke pulling is like freestyle and butterfly pulling. In all three cases, there’s a vertical forearm and direct backward pull. In contrast to those strokes, however, breaststroke does not see the hands go past the chest.
To set up the pull, slide straight arms out to the sides, with palms out. The key here is patience. If you rush this aspect of the stroke, you’ll get less out of it.
Hook the water
Once your arms are wide, turn the palms in, while bending the elbows and pressing down. You’re hooking the water to initiate the start of the pull. It can also be helpful to think of “wrapping” the water. This too should be initiated with patience. Once you’ve got the water hooked, you can start to accelerate.
This is where most swimmers make mistakes. They slide the hands back in, rather than squeezing the hands and elbows in. If you slide the hands in, you’re just sculling. If you squeeze in the hands and elbows, you’re pulling. Squeeze aggressively—it should feel like you’re trying to pop balloons in your armpits. This is where you start to put some force into it.
Strong catch and effective kick action
A great kick is a difference maker in breaststroke, and you’ll see a wide range of breaststroke kicking styles. Regardless of the style you choose, create as much pressure on your feet and shins as possible, then move that water backward. Here are some tips to help you do this.
Be patient or aggressive
When setting up the kick, be patient when turning out the feet and shins. Rushing this process will cause you to miss out on most of the propulsion. Once you set up the kick, be aggressive. Once the kick is complete, you can be patient again, until it’s time to recover the feet, then be aggressive once again.
Use the whole foot and shin
When kicking, feel pressure on your entire foot, even your shins. The more you turn your feet out, and keep the feet outside the knees, the more you’ll be able to do so. This might require a narrow or wider kick depending on your anatomy. Use a kick width that keeps pressure high for as long as possible.
While a circular aspect to the kick will arise naturally, the intent should be to maximize pressure by kicking straight back. Set it up, then blast it backward.
What goes up must come down, and the same is true of the head while breathing in breaststroke. But great breaststrokers ensure that they use the breathing action to keep everything moving forward. Here are some tips to help you accomplish that.
Drive into line
Drive the arms, the head, and the body forward, aggressively. This drive should be directed toward the other end of the pool, not down. Regardless of distance you’re swimming, get back to a great streamlined position after your breath. In a 50, you might only be there for a fraction of a section, whereas you’ll likely be there for much longer in a 200. Regardless of how fast you’re swimming, it’s essential to re-establish great body alignment after breathing as fast as possible. Make it a priority.
Press and reach
As you’re getting back into alignment it can help to press the chest so that the hips come back up into alignment. As your pressing, make sure you reach forward you’re your arms right beneath the surface, rather than down. This will ensure you’re in alignment from head to toe.
Timing of the arms and legs
Great breaststroke is about great timing. There are some breaststrokers who have a weak pull and a weak kick, but because they time everything so well, they swim fast. Great timing in breaststroke occurs when the arms move relatively independently of the legs. This allows the arm pull to be performed while the legs are streamlined and vice versa. Great breaststroke is all about alternating between a pull and a kick. You may be recovering the arms and legs at the same time, but the power is applied in an alternate manner. It requires a lot of patience.
Upper body propulsion
When you’re pulling, your lower body should be as long and as streamlined as possible. Delay the recovery of your kick until the arms have finished their pull and are moving forward. Then, recover your legs FAST. If you recover the legs too soon, it’s like putting on the brakes when you’re pulling.
Lower body propulsion
Remember, the legs are getting into position while you’re reaching forward on the arm recovery. Once you get fully extended in the front with your arms, it’s time to blast that kick straight back. Wait until you’re in great line to maximize the impact of the kick.
Better breaststroke is all about superior streamlining. Master these two critical skills to streamline effectively.
Return to your line
You must work to maintain a streamlined posture by returning to a horizontal streamlined position between each stroke cycle. This is key. In short races, you might not stay there for very long, but you still need to get back into line every time.
Minimize excessive lifting of the head and shoulders to breathe and diving upon returning the head to the water. Come up high enough to get a breath, then bring the head back into line while avoiding diving down under the water. This will ensure the spine is moving as straight as possible through the surface water.
A key component of breaststroke racing is the execution of the breaststroke pullout. Great pullouts are all about simple skills performed expertly. Expert pullouts consist of:
- Great body alignment
- Powerful, direct pull
- Well-timed dolphin kick
- Gradual surfacing
Great body alignment
Maintenance of body alignment is critical during the pullout, during both the glide and the dolphin kick. It helps to stay stiff when executing the pullout. To minimize undulation, the dolphin kick should be hidden as much as possible within the body line or drag shadow, and undulation should be minimized. Lastly keep the hands tight to the body when recovering after the pullout and move them fast.
Powerful, direct pull
Slide the hands out a bit like the breaststroke pull, hook and wrap the water, then pull straight back, building pressure as you go. Be direct and snappy. Keep it simple.
Well-timed dolphin kick
The dolphin kick can be placed at the beginning or the end of the pullout. An early dolphin kick can set the hips up for a more powerful pullout, maintaining momentum while hooking the water. In contrast, executing the dolphin kick as the hands cross the belly button can be useful for slightly increasing the propulsive effect of the pullout. Find out which timing works best for you.
The pullout itself should set you on an upward trajectory so that you can smoothly surface while minimizing drag. Not only will this maintain speed, but it will also allow for you to enter your swimming rhythm from the breakout stroke. Try to achieve an inverted line between leaving the wall and surfacing, with the pullout itself marking the beginning of the return to the surface.
Putting it all together
Although breaststroke swimming can be a formidable challenge for those not naturally drawn to it, great breaststroke is the result of several simple components executed extremely well. When a great pull and a great kick are expertly timed, fast swimming is bound to happen. Throw in an aggressive return to a stellar streamline, and your surface swimming should be ready to go. Superior pullouts follow the same basic principles as great breaststroke swimming.
See all the articles in this series:
Swimming Technique: Breaking swimming into its critical components
Butterfly Technique: Breaking butterfly into its critical components
Backstroke Technique: Breaking backstroke into its critical components
Freestyle Technique: Breaking freestyle into its critical components
Underwater Kicking Technique: Breaking underwater kicking into its critical components
- Technique and Training