Breaststroke is a swimming style swum on the breast. It is the most popular recreational style due to its stability and the ability to keep the head out of the water a large portion of the time. In most swimming classes, beginners learn either the breaststroke or the front crawl first. But in competitive swimming, the breaststroke is regarded as one of the most difficult strokes, requiring comparable endurance to other strokes.
Breaststroke is swum while leaning on the chest, with the arms only breaking the surface of the water slightly and legs always underwater, while the head is underwater for the second half of the stroke. The kick is sometimes referred to as a "frog kick" because of the resemblance to a frog's kick, but when done correctly it is more of a "whip kick" due to the whip-like motion that moves starting at the core down through the legs.
The body is often at a steep angle to the forward movement. This slows down the swimmer more than any other style. Professional breaststrokers utilize abdominal muscles and hips to add extra power to the kick, although most do not perfect this technique until the collegiate level. This much faster form of breaststroke is referred to as "wave-action" breaststroke and fully incorporates the whip-kick.
A special feature of competitive breaststroke is the underwater pullout. From the streamline position, one uses the arms to pull all the way down past the hips. As the arms are pulling down, one downward dolphin kick is allowed (as of the 2005 season), though still optional (However, any upward motion with the dolphin kick is strictly forbidden, and will result in a disqualification). This is followed by the recovery of the arms to the streamline position once more, and then a kick. The pullout at the start and after the turns contributes significantly to the swimming times. Therefore one way to improve the swimming times is to focus on the start and the turns.
Of the four competitive strokes of swimming, breaststroke is the most efficient in terms of energy consumption, though it is the slowest. Race breaststroke has the most resistance in water compared to the other strokes and requires the most energy compared to the other strokes. Many often assume that, because it can be swum slowly quite easily, this translates to what it's like to race it, but this is incorrect. For example, a properly swum butterfly is much more efficient at moving forward than breaststroke is, and thus requires slightly less power to be fast. However, the roles are reversed when it comes to leisure swimming.
The history of breaststroke goes back to the Stone Age, as for example pictures in the Cave of Swimmers near Wadi Sora in the southwestern part of Egypt near Libya. The leg action of the breaststroke may have originated by imitating the swimming action of frogs. Depictions of a variant of breaststroke are found in Babylonian bas-reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings.
In 1538 Nicolas Wynman, a German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book, Colymbetes. His goal was not to promote exercise, but rather to reduce the dangers of drowning. Nevertheless, the book contained a good, methodical approach to learning breaststroke.
In 1696, the French author Melchisédech Thévenot wrote The Art of Swimming, describing a breaststroke very similar to the modern breaststroke. The book (Benjamin Franklin became one of its readers) popularized this technique.
In the pre-Olympic era, competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke. A watershed event was a swimming competition in 1844 in London, notable for the participation of some Native Americans. While the British raced using breaststroke, the Native Americans swam a variant of the front crawl. The British continued to swim only breaststroke until 1873.
The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis were the first Olympics featuring a separate breaststroke competition, over a distance of 440 yards (402 m). These games differentiated breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle.
1928 was the start of the scientific study of swimming by David Armbruster, coach at the University of Iowa, who filmed swimmers from underwater. One breaststroke problem Armbruster researched was that the swimmer was slowed down significantly while bringing the arms forward underwater. In 1934 Armbruster refined a method to bring the arms forward over water in breaststroke. While this "butterfly" technique was difficult, it brought a great improvement in speed. One year later, in 1935, Jack Sieg, a swimmer also from the University of Iowa developed a technique involving swimming on his side and beating his legs in unison similar to a fish tail, and modified the technique afterward to swim it face down. Armbruster and Sieg combined these techniques into a variant of the breaststroke called butterfly, with the two kicks per cycle being called dolphin fishtail kick. Using this technique Sieg swam 100 yards (91 m) in 1:00.2. However, even though this technique was much faster than regular breaststroke, the dolphin fishtail kick violated the rules. Butterfly arms with a breaststroke kick were used by a few swimmers in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin for the breaststroke competitions. In 1938, almost every breaststroke swimmer was using this butterfly style, yet this stroke was considered a variant of the breaststroke until 1952, when it was accepted as a separate style with its own set of rules. In the early 1950s, another modification was developed for breaststroke. Breaking the water surface increases the friction, reducing speed; swimming underwater increases speed. This led to a controversy at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, and six swimmers were disqualified, as they repeatedly swam long distances underwater. However, a Japanese swimmer, Masaru Furukawa, circumvented the rule by not surfacing at all after the start, but swimming as much of the length underwater as possible before breaking the surface. He swam all but 5 m underwater for the first three 50 m lengths, and also swam half underwater for the last length, winning the gold medal. The adoption of this technique led to many swimmers suffering from oxygen starvation and even to some swimmers passing out during the race, so a new rule was introduced by the FINA, limiting the distance that can be swum underwater after the start and after every turn, and requiring the head to break the surface every cycle.
Since then, the development of breaststroke has gone hand-in-hand with the FINA rules. In about the mid 1960s, the rules changed to prevent the arm stroke from going beyond the hip line, except during the first stroke after the start and after each turn. In about the mid 1980s, swimmers were allowed to break the water with parts of the body other than the head. This led to a variant of the stroke in which the arms are brought together as usual under the body after the pull but then are thrown forward over the water from under the chin until the arms are completely extended. There was a controversy at the 2004 Summer Olympics at Athens after Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima won the gold medal in the 100 m breaststroke race over American Brendan Hansen, the world-record-holder. Video from underwater cameras showed Kitajima using a dolphin kick at the start and at some of the turns. Officials claimed that these kicks were not visible from above the surface of the water, so the result stood. In July 2005, FINA changed the rules to allow one dolphin kick at the start and at each turn, this change taking effect on 21 September 2005. The breaststroke starts with the swimmer lying in the water face down, arms extended straight forward and legs extended straight to the back.
Another variant is the underwater pull-down, similar to the push phase of a butterfly stroke. This stroke continues the insweep phase and pushes the hands all the way to the back to the sides of the hip. This greatly increases the push from one stroke, but also makes recovery more difficult. This style is well suited for underwater swimming. However, FINA allows this stroke only for the first stroke after the start and each turn. In late 2005, FINA has also introduced a new rule which allows you to perform a single downward kick after the push off the wall.
As a variant, some swimmers move the knees apart during the preparation phase and keep them apart until almost the end of the thrust phase. Moving both knee and foot outwards like a real frog avoids the extreme rotation in the lower leg.
Another variant of the breaststroke kick is the scissor kick, however, this kick violates the rules of the FINA as it is no longer symmetrical. Swimming teachers put a great effort into steering the students away from the scissor kick. In the scissor kick, one leg moves as described above, but the other leg does not form an elliptical movement but merely an up-down movement similar to the flutter kick of front crawl. Some swimming teachers believe that learning the front crawl first gives a higher risk of an incorrect scissor kick when learning breaststroke afterwards.
Breaststroke can also be swum with the dolphin kick in butterfly, yet this also violates the FINA rules. One kick is allowed, however, at the start and at the turn providing that it is part of the body's natural movement.
The harmonic movements of the dolphin kick and flutter kick are in contrast to the breaststroke whip kick, which really deserves the name kick. Scissor kick and frog kick are intermediate. Humans have strong muscles in the legs and would need swim fins (like a frog) to bring all their power into the water and stand with the sole of the feet on the water. Rather the leg grabs almost as much water as the foot and a small amount of water is accelerated to high kinetic energy, but not much impulse is transferred. The toes are bent, the feet point 45° outwards, the sole points backwards, to mimic a hydrofoil. While closing in a V shape to the rear a small “lifting” force can be felt. Unlike in the other kicks, the joints are moved into extrema. Before the kick the knee is maximally bent and the upper leg is rotating along its axis to its extreme outer position and the lower leg is twisted to extreme, at the end of the kick the ankles are maximally turned to the inside so that the soles clap together to achieve a nozzle effect like in a jelly fish. Therefore training involves getting flexible in addition to fitness and precision. The sudden sideway stress on knee at the kick can lead to uncomfortable noise and feeling for the beginner and to wear for the senior.
On recovery the lower leg stays in the wake of the upper leg. Around 2000 the distance between the knees in the recovery phase was reduced to harmonize it with the optional body undulation.
Some people keep their head above water at all times when they swim breaststroke. This is not only difficult and unpleasant, but also dangerous for the spine. Swimming with the face held out of the water puts undue strain on the muscles of the neck and back which can lead to damage of the spine’s interior facet joints.
Breaststroke uses the regular start for swimming. Some swimmers use a variant called the frog start, where the legs are pulled forward sharply before being extended again quickly during the airborne phase of the start. After the start a gliding phase follows under water, followed by one underwater pulldown and dolphin kick, then one whip kick as you slide your hands back into a streamline. This is known as the pull-out. The head must break the surface before the first stroke is swum. The downward butterfly kick was legalized by FINA and the NCAA in 2005, and remains optional. The downward fly kick is now allowed in MCSL.
The turn is initiated by touching the wall during the gliding or during the recovery phase of the arms, depending on how the wall can be touched faster. After touching the wall, the legs are pulled underneath of the body. The body turns sideways while one hand is moved forward (i.e. towards the head) along the side of the body. When the body is almost completely turned, the other hand will be swung straight up through the air such that both hands meet at the front at the same time. At that time the body should also be almost in the horizontal and partially or totally submerged. After the body is completely submerged, the body is pushed off the wall with both legs. Doing this under water will reduce the drag. After a gliding phase, an underwater pull-out is done, followed by another gliding phase and then regular swimming. The head must break the surface during the second stroke.
As a variant, some swimmers experiment with a flip over turn similar to front crawl.
The finish is similar to the touching of the wall during a turn.
The wave-style breaststroke starts in a streamlined position, with shoulders shrugged to decrease drag in the water. While the conventional style is strongest at the outsweep, the wave-style puts much emphasis on the insweep, thus making the head rise later than in the conventional style. The wave-style pull is a circular motion with the hands accelerating to maximum speed and recovering in front of the chin, elbows staying at the surface and in front of the shoulders at all times. The high elbows creates the leverage for the powerful torso and abdominal muscles to assist in the stroke. During the insweep, the swimmer accelerates his/her hands and hollows his/her back and lifts him/herself out of the water to breathe. To visualize, some say that the hands anchor themselves in the water while the hips thrust forward.
The hollowed back and accelerating hands would lift the head out of the water. The head stays in a natural position, looking down and forward, and the swimmer inhales at this point. The feet retract to the butt without moving the thigh, thus reducing resistance. The swimmer is at his/her highest point at this point.
Then the swimmer shrugs his shoulders and literally throws his arms and shoulders forward, lunging cat-like back into the water (though the emphasis is to go forward, not down). As the swimmer sinks, he/she arches his/her back, and kicks. The timing is very important in order for the kick to transfer all of its force via the arched back, but the optimum time is when the arms are 3/4 fully extended. Then the swimmer kicks and presses on his/her chest, undulating a little underwater, and squeezing the gluteus maximus to prevent the legs and feet from rising out of the water. The swimmer has now returned to the streamlined position, and the cycle starts again.
Incidentally, the wave motion should not be overly emphasized and the swimmer should only rise until the water reaches his biceps, instead of pushing his entire torso out of the water, wasting a great deal of energy.
There are 8 common distances swum in competitive breaststroke swimming, 4 in yards and 4 in meters. 25 yard pools are common throughout the United States and are routinely used in age group, high school and college competitions during the winter months.
25 yard pool distances
25 meter or 50 meter pool distances
Breaststroke is also part of the medley over the following distances:
Occasionally other distances are swum on an ad hoc, unofficial basis (such as 400y Breaststroke in some college dual meets).
These are the official FINA rules. They apply to swimmers during official swimming competitions.