The Breaststroke: Add It to Your Workouts

The breaststroke is a beautiful and graceful stroke, but is also very complicated. Once you get it down it is a great addition to your workout, as it can be very restful but also very high intensity. While most of the strokes involved a complicated upper-body pull and most of the power of the stoke comes from the arms, the breaststroke utilizes the legs much more. The complication for this stroke comes from the timing of the pull and the kick. We will get into that in more detail later.
There are many different theories involved in how to swim the breaststroke. Most of them are involved with the competitive swimmer. The stroke I’m going to describe is for the recreation swimmer who just wants to add a bit more to their workout. If you are a highly competitive swimmer I recommend that you work with your coach on developing the stroke that works best for you.

Breaststroke pull looks nice and gentle — much like the makeup commercials you see where the person never puts her head in the water. It is really much more complicated than that. The pull starts with the arms outstretched while the body is face down. The hands should be together one on top of the other. The pull starts with an outward downward diagonal motion. Hands will end up slightly outside of the shoulders with elbows just short of a 90-degree bend. The shoulders will have rotated forward a bit as well. It is important to think of leaving the elbows high and not dropping them to your side. This is a common mistake. By dropping the elbows you lose all of the power you have gained. It is called “slipping.” Now you want to take your elbows, which are still in front of your body, squeeze the elbows, forearms and hands together. Almost like you are praying. The next step is to push those hands forward keeping the arms together. It is important to stretch out as long as you can — reaching for that wall. A good visualization of the pull is that you are making a heart in the water.

Remember that you will not get a lot of power out of this pull, so if you are practicing it without the legs use a pull buoy to help you keep your balance and body position. It will take a while to get down to the end of the pool. With all aspects of the breaststroke there is a power phase and a recovery/preparation phase. You want to make sure that your pull is in the power phase when your kick is in the preparation phase, and your kick is in the power phase when your pull is in the recovery phase. It makes more sense when you are in the pool.

The breathing works in along with the pull. It is very common for people to breath too late in the stroke. Remember the power phase of the pull is when you are pulling down and out and squeezing in, so this is where you want to have your head up taking your breath. That means your head starts to lift the same time that your arm starts to pull. Your head should be going down when your hands are starting to move forward. This takes a bit of practice, but you can do it. It is important to remember that you need to exhale while your face is in the water, so you have time to inhale when your head is up.

Now for the kick: Here is where most of the power is and it is also a great leg shaper. The whip kick is the only one that strengthens and tones the inner thigh. So learn to do this kick if you want to tone those legs. The whip kick is a combination of rotating ankles and knees and is a difficult one to master well. The legs start together stretched out behind you. Keep the knees together or slightly apart is fine — usually not more than two-fists-width apart. The feet are flexed (toes pointing to shins) and the motion is to bring the heels to your bum. During this motion your shins are going to rotate outward so now your ankles are outside your bum, but your knees are still pointing inward and slightly together. I know sounds funky but your legs will really do this! All of this is the recovery phase and is essential to get you ready for the power phase. Now comes the whip part of whip kick. The legs will whip around and push back leading with the bottom of feet. When the legs are extended the bottom of the feet rotate so they are facing each other and snap to a finish. You are now back to the start. The whip part will take half the time of the preparation phase. Keep practicing this – it is difficult but once you get it, it is worth the work. If you have access to someone who can help you and watch your kick, use him or her. If you find that you aren’t going anywhere — which is common — think about where your feet are. Many times people forget and don’t rotate their feet properly.

Now for the timing of this stroke: Think back to the power phase of both the pull and the kick — they are at opposites. You want to be in the power phase in the pull while in the prep phase of the kick and the other way around as the stroke progresses. So as you are pulling your legs are coming up, and as your legs are extending your hands are pushing forward. Again this takes time but you can do it.

Another helpful hint is to glide. Since we are not looking for a competitive stroke take the time to stretch out and glide for a second. This allows you to gather your stroke again at the beginning and to just think about your stoke. It also helps you to relax and be comfortable.

Enjoy working on your new stroke. It is a complicated but fun one. If you need help do not be afraid to ask for it.


Nice and easy – mix up
300 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 100 breaststroke.
10 x 100 swim – 15-second rest every three 100 different stroke
10 x 50s kick same as above
200 cool down
2,300 yards total

A bit more intense
300 swim
6 x 150 (50 backstroke, 50 breaststroke, 50 freestyle) 10-second rest
6 x 100 swim – build 1 to 3 and 4 to 6 (so 3 and 6 are all out)
6 x 50 full effort
300 swim
2,400 yards total

Distance work
400 swim
300 pull
200 kick (choice)
6 x 200 swim build within the 200
3 x 400 descending so the last 400 is full effort
500 swim – every fourth length full effort
200 swim
4,000 yards total

Sprint work
400 swim long and easy — mixing in some drills
10 x 50s with 10-second rest
5 x 100s with 15-second rest
100 easy
6 x 50s your choice of kick
100 easy
300 pull
200 swim
2,300 yards total

Have fun with your water workout!