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The biomechanics of the breaststroke recovery are highly debated, likely from the variable technique seen in elite breaststroke swimmers. Now, many note breast is the most variable stroke, but a clear understanding in fluid dynamics and physics suggest this phase should not be variable.

Basically, there are three different varieties of the breast recovery:

  1. Above water: This technique is typically advised remove drag associated with water by having the arms recover above water. Unfortunately, this recovery requires large amounts of vertical motion likely causes aberrant and unnecessary motions resulting in higher amounts of drag. This position also causes the hands to frequently break the water surface, likely resulting in greater wave drag.

  2. Though the water: This technique instructs swimmers to burst through the water with their hands. Some feel this is the most direct line to the end position, but the thrusting through the water once again creates significant wave drag.

  3. Underwater: This techniques advises swimmers to slide their hands underwater on the recovery. It is true water is more dense than air, causing greater drag in comparison, but drag is significantly less (~7 – 14%) at depths of 0.2 m underwater (Lyttle 2000). This position also creates the most direct line for the fastest recovery and least disruption to the stroke.

Many swim coaches let swimmers “find” their stroke. Unfortunately, this often leads to swimmers performing what looks “cool” or simply mimicking an elder swimmer, even if they have bad biomechanics.

Practical Implication
All swimmers should recover their arms underwater, as underwater recovery has significantly less drag compared to on surface recovery. Just think of dolphin kick, this is arguably the fastest form of swimming due to the low amounts of drag, why would the breast recovery be any different? The myth and misconception of above water recovery must halt as an above water recovery still creates unnecessary motion resulting in elongated phases of the stroke and significant wave drag. Stop the madness today!


  1. Lyttle, A., & Blansky, B. (2000, june 2000). A look at gliding and underwater kicking in the swim turn. Paper presented at the XVIII International Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports. Applied Program: Application of Biomechanical Study in Swimming, Hong Kong.
  2. Rushall, B. S. (2011). Swimming Pedagogy and a Curriculum for Stroke Development (Second Edition). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Association.
  3. Arellano, Raúl, Pardillo, Susana, & Gavilán, Arantxa. (2002). Underwater Undulatory Swimming: Kinematic characteristics, vortex generation and application during the start, turn and swimming strokes. Paper presented at the XXth International Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports – Applied Program – Swimming, Cáceres (Spain).

By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
  1. February 18, 2015

    Unfortunately, too many coaches still don’t keep up with current swimming science/research, thus they teach what they were taught decades ago. Also, it’s not at all easy to change a swimmer’s techniques even if the coaches tried their best.

    The question I have on the recovering arms is should they come together ASAP or be separated until fully extended?

    • February 18, 2015

      Great points, changing technique is extremely challenging, for swimmers and coaches.

      Per your question, I think it depends on the swimmer. I’d most often suggest to have the swimmer shoot their arms forward, directly after the insweep (separated until fully extended) in order to get the arms extended faster. However, if a swimmer has a slow recovery, it may be best to have them have them streamlined, then recover. Different strokes for different folks, literally.

      • February 18, 2015

        I think I read in one of Dr. Rushall’s ebooks that it takes about 3000 correct repetitions to make the new technique habit. He also advocates backward shaping. I wonder if you have any opinion on that. If backward shaping is much more effective as Rushall wrote, why so few coaches use it?

        • February 18, 2015

          Yes, not sure where he got 3,000 repetitions, but the current motor learning theory is that a new movement must be performed more than the old movement to override it.

          For backward shaping, in theory it makes sense, why not teach the more influential aspect of the stroke (ie the catch) first, so the likelihood of doing it correct is higher. However, this is a dramatic shift that is unlikely to occur. Also, backward shaping, like most things, likely depends on the learner, everyone is different.

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