How to Swim the Breaststroke

Male swimmer doing the breaststroke

 Photo and Co./The Image Bank/Getty Images

Breaststroke may be the oldest recognized swimming stroke as it likely originated from human swimmers trying to mimic the action of swimming frogs. 

You can learn how to swim breaststroke by teaching yourself, step by step. No webbed feet needed!

We are going to look at each part of breaststroke swimming, then put all those parts together. You will see that breaststroke can work better if you think of it as a sequence of movements, not one combined movement.

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Breaststroke Body Position

What should a swimmer look like at the start and finish of each full breaststroke cycle? First, what is a cycle? One swimming cycle is one complete upper body action and one complete lower body action; one full pull and one full kick in the case of breaststroke.

The breaststroke body position looks like a pencil floating in the water. Arms pointing toward the destination, palms facing down or slightly out, tilted pinky up, thumb down, with thumbs touching. Head down, with eyes looking at the bottom of the pool and the top of the head pointing toward the destination. Legs together, feet extended (point your toes). Hands, head, hips, and heels all in a line, near or at the surface of the water.

Each breaststroke swimming cycle starts and ends in the pencil position. While you are learning, and even when you get better at breaststroke, you will also be in the pencil position between each pull and each kick.

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Breaststroke Kick

The breaststroke kick does resemble a frog kick, but it is not exactly the same—people do not have the same legs as a frog!

Start in the pencil position, then bring your feet up toward your rear-end.

Next, flex your feet, heels in toward each other, toes pointing out to the sides and, if you are flexible enough, toes pointing slightly down. You want to turn your feet out so that you can push back on the water with your instep or with the side of your foot, from your big toe to your heel.

Now move your feet and legs in a circular pattern, pushing the water backward as your legs extend and your feet move back, out, and then together again as your legs fully ​extend.

Finally, get back in the pencil position by squeezing your legs and feet together, legs fully extended, toes pointed.

That is one full breaststroke kick cycle: Pencil / Rear-end / Feet Flex / Circle / Pencil

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Breaststroke Pull

The pull for breaststroke starts in the pencil position. Arms extended parallel to the surface of the water, thumbs touching, little fingers tilted up, with the back of your hands forming the inside edges of a letter V.

The first part of the pull is a sweeping action, keeping your arms extended (don't let your elbows bend) separate your hands and push the water out until your arms form a giant letter V (or a Y if you include your body as the bottom part of the letter!). This is the out-sweep.

Next, by bending at the elbow and rotating your palms to be tilted thumb up, little finger downward, sweep your hands in toward your mouth like you are getting a giant scoop of ____ (insert your favorite, food here) and pushing it into your mouth. You want to aim your in-sweeping hands toward your mouth; some people take too large of a pull and their hands end up coming in under their chests—not where you want them to be in this case. As your hands move together by bending at the elbow, at some point they will be closer together than your elbows. Once this happens, it is OK to start squeezing your elbows in and together, too, but not ever closer together than your hands. For this part of the stroke, your elbows are always further apart than your hands. This is the in-sweep.

Finally, once your hands come together under your mouth, you extend back into the pencil position. This extension is a very fast action. Imagine you are trying to shove your hands, fingertips first, through a hole in front of you. This is the extension.

That makes one full breaststroke pull cycle: Pencil / Out-sweep / In-sweep / Extension / Pencil.

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So, where does breathing fit into the breaststroke swimming cycle? You should breathe every stroke once you have the kick and the pull figured out, you need to add in the breathing step.

Remember that in the pencil position, your eyes are looking down toward the bottom. You want to keep that downward eye orientation except when you breathe, and even then you want to keep your eyes tilted down as much as possible while still getting your mouth out of the water. If you look up too high your hips will sink and it gets much harder to swim.

You should raise your head and/or upper body—depending on what you can do and how fast you are going, it may just be a tilting your head up or it might be raising your entire upper body up out of the water at a 45-degree angle—high enough for your mouth to clear the water so you can inhale. Exhale under the water, inhale above the water, then lay your face/upper body back into the water.

You fit the breath in during the in-sweep phase of the breaststroke pull. In-sweep and head up, extend and head down.

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Put the Pieces Together to Swim Breaststroke

This may sound too simplistic, but all you need to do now is practice each part until you feel comfortable doing that part, and you will be swimming breaststroke.

  • Practice pushing off of the wall and getting in the pencil position.
  • Practice (holding on the wall or using a kickboard) the breaststroke kick (Pencil / Rear-end / Feet Flex / Circle / Pencil).
  • Push off the wall and practice the breaststroke pull; do two or three in a row, stop for a few breaths, get back to the wall, and repeat (Pencil / Out-sweep / In-sweep / Extension / Pencil). Don't worry about the kick, you could do a gentle flutter kick.
  • Practice adding the breath into the pulling motion. Push off of the wall, get into pencil, take a pull and a breath (don't worry about the kick, you could do a gentle flutter kick) and repeat several times.

Once you have each part figured out, put them together in sequence, but keep each part in order like this:

  1. Pencil
  2. Pull and Breath
  3. Pencil
  4. Kick
  5. Pencil

That is one full breaststroke swimming cycle. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You are swimming breaststroke.