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Breaststroke 101

Posted by Barbara Hummel on May 21, 2009 03:16PM

 Breaststroke has a reputation for being one of the most difficult strokes to learn... and to teach. Dave Denniston, on our GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE DVD, makes breaststroke look SOOOO easy, but the reality is that he worked hard to master a thousand different things, from the timing of his kick, pull, and breath, to the angles at which he holds his hips, knees, ankles, toes, elbows, and wrist.

Dave makes it look easy, but what if you're an absolute beginner? Where do you START when you want to learn this really cool stroke? And, if you're a coach or swim teacher, where do you start to TEACH breaststroke?

As the coach of an age-group team, and as a learn-to-swim teacher for kids and adults, I face this question every day. Here's a teaching sequence that I've found works well to teach breaststroke at the beginner level.

Teach the Kick First and Practice Out of the Water!
Breaststroke kick requires you to turn your hips, knees, and ankles in ways that can feel VERY unnatural for a beginning swimmer. Until you've awakened your muscles and joints to these new sensations, it's best to practice on deck before you get in the water.

Practice Lying Down
1. Place a mat or kickboard on the deck and lie belly down on the mat.
2. Keep the knees together and bring both legs UP and hold them there.
3. Turn your ankles OUT.
4. Bring both legs around and TOGETHER and HOLD.
Repeat this sequence, pausing at the top to make sure the ankles are turned OUT, and pausing at the bottom to imprint a streamlined GLIDE with toes pointed.  Once you get a feel for the correct ankle position, make the movement more continuous, pausing just at the bottom for the glide.

Practice Standing Up
1. Stand on deck (hold on to the wall of to thediving board for stability) and practice kicking one leg at a time.
2. Keep the knees pointed down and hold them close together.
3. Bring the leg up and BACK, not out to the side.
4. Turn the ankle OUT at the top of the kick.
5. Kick the feet together.
Repeat this movement 5 to 10 times on one leg, then 5 to 10 times on the other leg. Then alternate legs every 2 to 3 kicks.

Practice While Sitting at the Side of the Pool
1. Sit on the side of the pool with legs together and outstretched.
2. Keep the knees together and bring the heels BACK to the wall.
3. Pause and turn the ankles OUT. The sides of your feet should be pointed UP.
4. Bring the feet around and TOGETHER and HOLD.
Practice this sequence with pauses at each step, then make it more continuous, but HOLD for the glide.

Practice with Your Belly Against the Wall
1. Hang on to the side of the pool and try to hold your belly against the wall. Practice the same kick sequence as on deck, and KEEP YOUR BELLY AGAINST THE WALL. This ensures that your kick happens BEHIND your body.

If you practice kicking while lying on the floor, or while sitting at the side, or with your belly against the side of the pool, you eliminate any chance for three of the most common errors in breaststroke: scissors kick; drawing up the knees in front of the body; and letting the knees fall too far apart.

This is one time you shouldn't be in a hurry to GO SWIM. Practice on deck and on the side of the pool until you've got a good muscle memory for the correct kick. Once you've mastered UP, OUT, TOGETHER, GLIDE, it's time to go swim, but...

Start on Your Back
1. Start on you back with your hands at your sides. Bring the legs up behind your body and try to touch your ankles to your hands.
2. Kick the feet together and hold them for a long glide.

Little kids and beginner adults often don't have enough power in their kick to stay afloat at this stage of learning. If this is the case, tell them to use their arms in the classic movement of Elementary Backstroke, and it should give them enough propulsion to stay afloat while they focus on the kick.

Kids and beginners need to practice this OVER AND OVER. It may take several weeks of lessons until they gain strength and mastery, especially if the swimmer is a long-time runner or cyclist.  Don't give up! It takes time to learn the correct ankle position, and to keep the legs behind the body, and to make the kick symmetrical. It's also important to learn to GLIDE for a few seconds each time the feet come together. Beginners tend to want to kick kick kick, with no glide phase. This will get you into trouble when you finally...

Flip It Over
1. Start by lying stretched out on the surface with arms extended above your head and feet together.
2. Take a MINI pull and a quick breath, then KICK THE HANDS FORWARD into a streamlined glide.

Make sure the pull is TINY and the breath is quick. Most beginners take a HUGE pull, and want to pull their hands all the way down to their sides. They may also want to pull DOWN rather than out to the sides.

Again, practice this over and over for several lengths, each time you go to the pool. Most beginners won't master this in the first lesson or even the first few weeks. It takes time to get the timing.  And if a beginner reverts to scissors kick when on the stomach, have them go back to practicing on their back until they lock in the correct movement.  

Practice SLOWLY at first, and make sure you have a glide phase in your stroke. During the glide, you should be streamlined from fingertips to toes. Once you have the timing, you can pick up the pace a bit, and you'll find that the techniques demonstrated by Dave Denniston on GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE will be within your reach. As with everything in this sport, master the basics first, then GO SWIM.

Archived Comments

Responded May 21, 2009 08:05PM

Just a question for the breaststrokers.
I know everything is important but if you were to choose between drawing the hips forward or kicking as an element that makes you faster...which would you choose?

Responded May 22, 2009 01:43AM

Well...this is a...question...I think. You should kick in breastroke. Though I wasn't aware there was a debate.

Responded May 22, 2009 10:20AM

Pretty sure you need them both. But I think Tomas is asking which is the most important for going "faster". Since you can kick without drawing the hips, and since we know that generally, the more you focus on getting faster from your kick, people usually make the kick bigger... focusing on drawing the hips up would more than likely be the logical (though not instinctual) choice. In my opinion.

Responded May 24, 2009 11:11PM

I vote for drawing the hips too

Responded May 27, 2009 12:10PM

What do you mean by "drawing the hips" ?
I'm sorry but I don't understand neither the "flip it over" : we should take a mini pull of what ? hands or legs ?
What does "kicking the hands forward" mean ?
Shoul we do that while lying on the back and breaststroke kicking ?

Responded May 27, 2009 01:55PM

Drawing the hips forward means keeping the legs together and extended as you initiate the insweep part of your pull. If you keep the legs extended as you initiate the insweep, you should get the feeling that you're pulling your hips forward. It means that you're waiting till the last moment to separate the legs, bend the knees, and get your legs ready to deliver the kick.

Flip it over means that you're on your stomach. Mini pull is a small pull -- with the hands and arms.

Kicking the hands forward means that you want to get your arms back to the front (extended) at the same time as you're delivering the power of the kick. Actually, you want the arms to be extended BEFORE you deliver the kick, but this is sometimes hard for a beginner to do. If a beginner can deliver the kick and extend the arms at the same time, that's the first step to developing proper timing for the stroke.

If you're on your back and breaststroke kicking, keep the arms extended above your head.

Hope this helps.

Responded May 27, 2009 02:36PM

Thank you for your detailed explanations.

Responded May 27, 2009 08:46PM

Thank you Barbara.
The drill was probably obvious to understand for english mother tongue swimmers, but as a foreigner, I had problems understanding what I was supposed to do !
Sometimes a figured-sense word or an expression makes the text difficult to understand.

Responded May 29, 2009 03:32AM

Where does the effort in the kick come from? I have been told that you should feel the muscles of the hip working as you deliver the kick. But when I raise my feet behind me as Barbara suggests, I can only feel the quads. I have some severe knee issues so I started allowing my knees to come slightly forward so I can drive them back with my butt and hamstrings. It seems to relieve a lot of knee strain. I know my quads are part of the action, but the decreased focus helps me. What am I missing?

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