Of all the competitive strokes, breaststroke provides the most variety among world- and national-class swimmers, though over the past several years the trend has been moving away from lifting the shoulders and head high out of the water and toward a flatter, more forward stroke. Just as with butterfly, breaststroke presents special physics problems. This is the slowest stroke for a reason. The double-arm pull, though truncated, is strong, but the recovery of the arms creates resistance that slows the swimmer. The kick is powerful, but again the recovery of the legs creates tremendous resistance that slows the swimmer. The puzzle for the coach and swimmer is to find ways to lessen the resistance and maintain the momentum created by the powerful pull and kick. He who creates that speed and maintains it best wins. Because of the dramatic decelerations, streamlining is key to the stroke, especially at critical moments such as the transition from pull to kick.
The pull is divided into three parts: the outsweep, which is preparatory and sets up the propulsive part of the pull; the insweeping scull toward the breast, which is the power source of the pull and provides the forward momentum; and the shoot or lunge forward, which is the recovery of the arms to the starting position. Body position, head attitude, and path and speed of the hands and forearms are all crucial factors determining the strength of the pull.
Everything begins from a streamlined position near the surface, with the body stretched long, skinny, and taut (see figure 7.12). Swimmers should squeeze the ears with the arms and look down at the pool bottom. This is also the position to revisit at the end of every stroke. How long the swimmer holds this base glide position is determined by the length of the race and the quality of the kick. The longer the race or stronger the kick, the longer a swimmer may glide between strokes.
When a swimmer’s body is configured like a jellyfish—head up with eyes looking forward, body core soggy, arms apart, legs dangling—she is not going anywhere fast.
Swimmers should keep the head down and the body horizontal on the water’s surface as they stretch forward and press outward with their hands and forearms. Hands should be slightly below the surface and should sweep to about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) outside the shoulders.
Swimmers who lift the head quickly as the hands sweep outward, thus forcing the pull to support the weight of the head and shoulders, change the nature and effectiveness of the pull for the worse.
Swimmers should feel a stretch through the lat muscles of the upper back as they reach and press outward. As the hands round the corner, transitioning from the outsweep to the insweep, swimmers grab onto the water with their hands and forearms and press their hips forward, thus engaging the body core (see figure 7.13). The pull is done with the whole body, not just the arms or the hands.
Swimmers who try to arm the pull, as if the torso did not exist, overwhelm their ability to pull correctly. Also, swimmers who sweep their hands around so far that their insweep begins behind their shoulders have no leverage point and cannot use their torso muscles to help pull the body forward.
Swimmers should sweep and squeeze inward with the whole arm, feeling pressure along the length of the arm; the angle of the elbow is almost constant throughout the sweep. The large muscles of the upper back and chest should be fully engaged during the sweep. As the arms sweep inward, the head and shoulders rise somewhat and the breath is taken (see figure 7.14).
Many swimmers do not use their whole arms to pull, nor do they try to connect the arm pull to the strong torso muscles. They either rip the elbows into the body while the hands and forearms stay put, or they keep the elbows well wide of the body and slide the hands inside.
Read more about Developing Swimmers by Michael Brooks.