There are three steps to the arm movement: outsweep, insweep, and recovery. The movement starts with the outsweep. From the initial position, the hands sink a little bit down and the palms face inward, and the hands rotate outward and move apart. During the outsweep the arms stay almost straight and parallel to the surface. The outsweep is followed by the insweep, where the hands point down and push the water backwards. The elbows stay in the horizontal plane through the shoulders. The hands push back until approximately the vertical plane through the shoulders. At the end of the insweep the hands come together with facing palms in front of the chest and the elbows are at the side at the body. In the recovery phase the hands are moved forward again into the initial position under water. The entire arm stroke starts slowly, increases speed to the peak arm movement speed in the insweep phase, and slows down again during recovery. The goal is to produce maximum thrust during the insweep phase, and minimum drag during the recovery phase.
As a variant, it is possible to recover the arms over water. This reduces drag, but requires more power. Some competitive swimmers use this variant in competition.
Another variant is the underwater pull-down, similar to the push phase of a butterfly stroke. This stroke continues the insweep phase and pushes the hands all the way to the back to the sides of the hip. This greatly increases the push from one stroke, but also makes recovery more difficult. This style is well suited for underwater swimming. However, FINA allows this stroke only for the first stroke after the start and each turn. In late 2005, FINA has also introduced a new rule which allows you to perform a single downward kick after the push off the wall.
Arms start slowly and speed up during the phases, similar to a motorcycle accelerating after standing on a red light. The arms are never paused until they reach the front and the swimmer is in the glide.
The leg movement, colloquially known as the "frog kick", consists of two phases: bringing the feet into position for the thrust phase and the insweep phase. From the initial position with the legs stretched out backward, the feet are moved together towards the posterior, while the knees stay together. The knees should not sink too low, as this increases the drag. Then the feet point outward in preparation for the thrust phase. In the thrust phase, the legs are moved elliptically back to the initial position. During this movement, the knees are kept together. The legs move slower while bringing the legs into position for the thrust phase, and move very fast during the thrust phase. Again, the goal is produce maximum thrust during the in sweep phase, and minimum drag during the recovery phase. In the recovery phase the lower leg and the feet are in the wake of the upper leg, and the feet are pointed to the rear. In the thrust phase all three parts create their own wake, and the flat end of the feet acts like a hydrofoil aligned to give maximum forward thrust. The resulting drag coefficient (or more precisely the frontal area) is thus doubled in the thrust phase. A fit adult creates a wake. Drag due to a wake is Newton drag and increases with the square of the velocity. For example if the relative speed between the water and the leg is twice as high on the thrust phase than on the recovery phase, the thrust is four times as high as the drag. Assuming the legs are recovered with a relative speed between leg and body which amounts to the same as the relative speed between water and body, the legs must be kicked back with five times the mean velocity of the swimmer. This limits the top speed. Both effects together, velocity and frontal area, yield a thrust to drag ratio of 8 for the legs.
As a variant, some swimmers move the knees apart during the preparation phase and keep them apart until almost the end of the thrust phase. Moving both knee and foot outwards like a real frog avoids the extreme rotation in the lower leg.
All other variants fail to increase the frontal area, yet swimmers using them still generate some thrust by the velocity variation and do not drown. Another variant of the breaststroke kick is the scissor kick, however, this kick violates the rules of the FINA as it is no longer symmetrical. Swimming teachers put a great effort into steering the students away from the scissor kick. In the scissor kick, one leg moves as described above, but the other leg does not form an elliptical movement but merely an up-down movement similar to the flutter kick of front crawl. Some swimming teachers believe that learning the front crawl first gives a higher risk of an incorrect scissor kick when learning breaststroke afterwards.
Breaststroke can also be swum with the dolphin kick in butterfly, yet this also violates the FINA rules. One kick is allowed, however, at the start and at the turn providing that it is part of the body's natural movement.
The harmonic movements of the dolphin kick and flutter kick are in contrast to the breaststroke whip kick, which really deserves the name kick. Scissor kick and frog kick are intermediate. Humans have strong muscles in the legs and would need swim fins (like a frog) to bring all their power into the water and stand with the sole of the feet on the water. Rather the leg grabs almost as much water as the foot and a small amount of water is accelerated to high kinetic energy, but not much impulse is transferred. The toes are bent, the feet point 45° outwards, the sole points backwards, to mimic a hydrofoil. While closing in a V shape to the rear a small “lifting” force can be felt. Unlike in the other kicks, the joints are moved into extrema. Before the kick the knee is maximally bent and the upper leg is rotating along its axis to its extreme outer position and the lower leg is twisted to extreme, at the end of the kick the ankles are maximally turned to the inside so that the soles clap together to achieve a nozzle effect like in a jelly fish. Therefore training involves getting flexible in addition to fitness and precision. The sudden sideway stress on knee at the kick can lead to uncomfortable noise and feeling for the beginner and to wear for the senior.
The best way to breathe during breaststroke is to let the head follow the spine. When your elbows have reached the line of your eye and have begun to rise your head starts to lift. If you use your high elbows as a hinge for the inward sweep of your hands and forearms, you'll create the leverage you need to use your abdominal muscles to bring your hips forward. When your hips move forward, your chest, shoulders and upper back will automatically lift up. Breathing is usually done during the beginning of the insweep phase of the arms, and the swimmer breathes in ideally through the mouth. The swimmer breathes out through mouth and nose during the recovery and gliding phase. Breaststroke can be swum faster if submerged completely, but FINA requires the head to break the surface once per cycle except for the first cycle after the start and each turn. Thus, competitive swimmers usually make one underwater pull-out, pushing the hands all the way to the back after the start and each turn.
Some people keep their head above water at all times when they swim breaststroke. This is not only difficult and unpleasant, but also dangerous for the spine. Swimming with the face held out of the water puts undue strain on the muscles of the neck and back which can lead to damage of the spine’s interior facet joints.
The movement starts in the initial position with the body completely straight, the body movement is coordinated such that the legs are ready for the thrust phase while the arms are halfway through the insweep, and the head is out of the water for breathing. In this position the body has also the largest angle to the horizontal. The arms are recovered during the thrust phase of the legs. After the stroke the body is kept in the initial position for some time to utilize the gliding phase. Depending on the distance and fitness the duration of this gliding phase varies. Usually the gliding phase is shorter during sprints than during long distance swimming. The gliding phase is also longer during the underwater stroke after the start and each turn.
Breaststroke uses the regular start for swimming. Some swimmers use a variant called the frog start, where the legs are pulled forward sharply before being extended again quickly during the airborne phase of the start. After the start a gliding phase follows under water, followed by one underwater pulldown and dolphin kick, then one whip kick as you slide your hands back into a streamline. This is known as the pull-out. The head must break the surface before the first stroke is swum. The downward butterfly kick was legalized by FINA and the NCAA in 2005, and remains optional. The downward fly kick is now allowed in MCSL.
For competitive swimming it is important that the wall at the end of the lane is always touched by both hands (known as a "Two-Hand Touch") at the same time due to FINA regulations.
The turn is initiated by touching the wall during the gliding or during the recovery phase of the arms, depending on how the wall can be touched faster. After touching the wall, the legs are pulled underneath of the body. The body turns sideways while one hand is moved forward (i.e. towards the head) along the side of the body. When the body is almost completely turned, the other hand will be swung straight up through the air such that both hands meet at the front at the same time. At that time the body should also be almost in the horizontal and partially or totally submerged. After the body is completely submerged, the body is pushed off the wall with both legs. Doing this under water will reduce the drag. After a gliding phase, an underwater pull-out is done, followed by another gliding phase and then regular swimming. The head must break the surface during the second stroke.
As a variant, some swimmers experiment with a flip over turn similar to front crawl.
The finish is similar to the touching of the wall during a turn.
The three main styles of breaststroke seen today are the conventional (flat), undulating, and wave-style. The undulating style is usually swum by extremely flexible girls, (e.g. Amanda Beard), and few Masters have the flexibility to accomplish it. The wave-style breaststroke, swum and made famous by Mike Barrowman when he created a world record using it, is now commonly swum by Olympians, though Australian swimmers, most prominently Leisel Jones, generally seem to shun it. Olympian Ed Moses still swims a more flat- style, despite the rapidly increasing popularity of the wave-style.
The wave-style breaststroke starts in a streamlined position, with shoulders shrugged to decrease drag in the water. While the conventional style is strongest at the outsweep, the wave-style puts much emphasis on the insweep, thus making the head rise later than in the conventional style. The wave-style pull is a circular motion with the hands accelerating to maximum speed and recovering in front of the chin, elbows staying at the surface and in front of the shoulders at all times. The high elbows creates the leverage for the powerful torso and abdominal muscles to assist in the stroke. During the insweep, the swimmer accelerates his/her hands and hollows his/her back and lifts him/herself out of the water to breathe. To visualize, some say that the hands anchor themselves in the water while the hips thrust forward.
The hollowed back and accelerating hands would lift the head out of the water. The head stays in a natural position, looking down and forward, and the swimmer inhales at this point. The feet retract to the butt without moving the thigh, thus reducing resistance. The swimmer is at his/her highest point at this point.
Then the swimmer shrugs his shoulders and literally throws his arms and shoulders forward, lunging cat-like back into the water (though the emphasis is to go forward, not down). As the swimmer sinks, he/she arches his/her back, and kicks. The timing is very important in order for the kick to transfer all of its force via the arched back, but the optimum time is when the arms are 3/4 fully extended. Then the swimmer kicks and presses on his/her chest, undulating a little underwater, and squeezing the gluteus maximus to prevent the legs and feet from rising out of the water. The swimmer has now returned to the streamlined position, and the cycle starts again.
Incidentally, the wave motion should not be overly emphasized and the swimmer should only rise until the water reaches his biceps, instead of pushing his entire torso out of the water, wasting a great deal of energy.