by Wayne McCauley

The Modern Breaststroke

Tips to Improve Your Stroke

Breaststroke is in a state of change, with many Masters swimmers are in the process of converting from the conventional or flat style to the wave style of breaststroke. Having a knowledgeable coach who is willing to share the principles of the wave breaststroke is one way to learn the "wave." But not all Masters swimmers are so fortunate. This article offers tips that will aid in your conversion to the more modern stroke.

Understanding breaststroke requires an intimate knowledge of the breaststroke rules, which have been continually revised in recent years. The rules must be known to avoid disqualification and to be used to one's advantage. The rules stated in this article are excerpted from the 1995 USMS Rule Book.

Head Position & Breathing

"Some part of the swimmer's head shall break the surface of the water at least once during each complete cycle of one arm stroke and one leg kick..." Article 101.2.2

The base position for the breaststroke should be with body flat in the water and streamlined. The head should rest between the arms. Because less resistance is encountered with the body underwater than at the surface, each kick should begin with the body and head slightly submerged. The breath should be taken at the end of the insweep of each stroke, with the head looking downward or slightly forward.


"The arms shall move simultaneously and in the same horizontal plane without any alternating movement."

Article 101.2.2

Contrary to popular belief, there is no backward pull in the modern breaststroke. The pulling action is simply an outward scull and an inward scull to just under the face. Begin the pull by shrugging the shoulders up, with elbows turned out and the palms of the hands facing outward. The shoulder shrug places the shoulders and arms in a similar position as the butterflyer whose arms are extended forward. Shrugging the shoulders at the beginning of the out-scull narrows the shoulders and reduces resistance. The shrug also keeps the elbows from dropping, a major stroke problem for many swimmers. Additionally, the shoulder shrug brings into play the strong pectoral and latissimus muscles.

To gain propulsion from the out-scull, pitch the hands at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees to the forearms. The hands should be positioned about six inches under the water's surface when beginning the out-scull. Move the hands out and slightly upward so that the hands are just under the surface at the catch point and slightly past shoulder width. At the catch, the position of the palms is changed from out and back to down and back. This downsweep begins the powerful insweep.

The insweep is the propulsive portion of the arm movement. With the shoulders shrugged, the hands are accelerated down and then inward until the palms come together under the chin. The insweep ends with the hands moving up and forward together.

The easiest way to learn the outward scull and the insweep is to start by swimming a length of breaststroke, arms fully extended in front. Scull out about ten inches and then scull in with the hands until they clap together. Swim a second length sculling out to about 12 inches, emphasizing the insweep. On the next length scull out to a comfortable point beyond shoulder width, emphasizing the power of the insweep.

"The hands shall be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the surface of the water."

Article 101.2.2

Pushing the hands forward and together is called the arm recovery. Squeeze the elbows together in the front of the chest, with the palms together. Bringing the elbows together forces the hands to move quickly from the insweep to the recovery. Many breaststrokers erroneously pause at this point. When the arms are almost fully extended, shrug the shoulders to begin the next out-scull.


"All vertical and lateral movements of the legs shall be simultaneous. The feet must be turned outward during the propulsive part of the kick movement. A scissors, flutter, or downward butterfly kick is not permitted."

Article 101.2.3

The secret of breaststroke is the kick. The most important aspect of the kick is in finishing with the toes pointing to the bottom of the pool and the soles of the feet coming together. The feet are also kicked downward from the water surface, not straight back. Gradually accelerate the feet until the soles and ankles come together. Kicking as described and pressing downward with the chest will cause the hips to rise. Recover the legs with minimal resistance by bringing the feet to the buttocks rather than pulling the knees forward underwater.


Timing is the key to a powerful and efficient breaststroke. There are three patterns currently in use: glide, continuous and overlap timing. Beginners may prefer the glide pattern, which is characterized by a brief pause after the kick when the arms are fully extended. The continuous pattern involves beginning the outsweep at the completion of the kick. This style is not recommended due to the lack of propulsion in the out-scull just after the kick. Overlap timing involves beginning the outsweep while the legs are coming together at the finish of the kick. Most fast breaststrokers will use overlap timing to reduce the period of deceleration following the kick and the insweep of the arms.

The breaststroke race is not only about the stroke itself, the start and turn must also be executed properly. For more information on the breaststroke turn, refer to the John Moffet article in the March/ April 1994 issue of SWIM.

Wayne McCauley is the librarian for Southern Pacific Masters Association, which boasts the largest collection of videos and books in Masters swimming. He is a Masters All-American in the 50- and 200-meter breaststroke events.