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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.

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