Although breaststroke is the slowest of the four competitive strokes, it requires more strength to perform well than any other stroke, including butterfly. It’s also one of the more difficult strokes to master. There are three primary styles of breaststroke – the flat style and the newer wave and undulating styles – but there are countless variations of these three that have been adopted by swimmers. They all use the same kick and stroke motion, but the arm recovery and body alignment are different for each.
The Flat Style
This is the conventional style of breaststroke in which the body remains nearly parallel to the water surface. You use a traditional frog kick, and your hips and shoulders align in a way that maintains a flat position in the water. Your arms make a symmetrical sculling motion in front of you, carving a wide circle under the water until your hands meet just under your chin. At this point, your head pops up from the water to breathe and then you slide your hands forward together to reach out in front of you to glide and begin the arm stroke again. As you are sculling and pulling yourself forward, you bend your knees, bringing your heels up to your buttocks and prepare to kick. As your hands recover under your chin, you kick, snapping your knees together and kicking into a long glide.
The Wave Style
In this version of the breaststroke, you use the same basic arm stroke and leg kick. The difference is in the hand position during the scull and the position of the shoulders: As you begin your pull, you shrug your shoulders upward and the palms of your hands face outward at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees to your forearms. Shrugging narrows the shoulders, reduces drag in the water and helps you utilize your strong pectoral and latissimus muscles in the pull. During the arm pull, your hands should be 6 inches below the surface of the water and slightly outside the width of your shoulders. The palms move from an outward position to a downward position as they circle around to meet beneath your chin.
The Undulating Style
This technique employs an S-shaped glide movement that resembles the butterfly stroke. When your hands meet at the end of your pull, they come together as if in prayer, and instead of pushing forward underwater, they come out of the water and shoot forward and the swimmer dives into the water after them, undulating her body in what is very nearly a dolphinlike glide. The swimmer has already executed a frog kick like all the other forms of breaststroke, but the undulation allows her to add a slight dolphin kick at the tail end of the frog kick.
Within these three breaststroke styles are countless variations involving timing, movement, the sweep of the pull and the width of the frog kick. Swimming author and coach Wayne McCauley once estimated that there were 55 distinct styles of breaststroke, many of which are introduced by champion swimmers and then imitated by those trying to match the champ’s speed. Mike Barrowman, the gold medalist in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1992 Olympics, is credited with introducing the wave style of breaststroke. Rebecca Soni, a gold medalist in the 2012 Olympics in breaststroke, uses an abbreviated kick and a quick sculling motion that has been difficult for other swimmers to imitate.
One thing that all styles of breaststrokes have in common is that the swimmers, whether they are scrunching up their shoulders like Soni or diving forward like Barrowman, is that they keep their heads still. The back of their heads and their necks remain lined up with their spine. Their kicks never break the surface of the water, and they do all they can to reduce the drag caused by bringing their knees up to begin their kick or shooting their hands forward to stretch into their glide. All the varieties of breaststroke also utilize a strong pull-down and efficient streamlining at the start and at each turn.
Jim Sloan is a writer and editor in Reno, Nevada. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years and is the author of two books, "Staying Fit After Fifty," and "Nevada: True Tales from the Neon Wilderness."