Swim breaststroke like an inchworm?
Yes, however, not in the sense of up and down movement, think more in terms of the horizontal plane:).
Breaststroke is probably the easiest stroke to swim, however, the toughest along with butterfly to learn to swim correctly.
If you look around your local swimming pool, you will see many people casually swimming breaststroke or at least something that very distantly resembles proper breaststroke.
Many open water swimmers or triathletes also use breaststroke to take a break from their swim or to take a few moments to orientate themselves and sight their target (whether breaststroke is the best choice of stroke for this is another discussion :)).
So, one could make the assumption, there is not much to breaststroke since a majority of people can perform some sort of variation of the stroke.
As someone wise once said though, "the devil is in the details" and this principle can also be applied to swimming breaststroke on a higher competitive level.
On my master's swim team in Finland, I have one very capable breaststroker (Johanna) who is a multiple national record holder in her age category, was second in all her breaststroke events in the 2011 European Masters Championships in Yalta.
Very impressive results, however, there is always room for improvement right? :) And furthermore, one should never stop striving to be better otherwise we'd never evolve.
Since Johanna is an advanced swimmer, she masters all the common beginner breaststroke mistakes, so we need to look at her stroke from different angles.
One of the approaches is to streamline her stroke with the focus on converting all her power and energy to help her go forward by minimalizing any other movement which would cause her body to slow down in the dense water.
This may seem a simple concept, but it is not as easy to achieve as one might think.
We made an underwater video of her breaststroke swim and looked at different ways (not all) to make her body glide through the water smoother.
Here are just a couple of pointers that you can take away from the analysis:
1) Streamline off the wall and on the underwater pullout:
It is very important to keep the body in a long tight streamline when coming off the wall or off the start.
Since you have great momentum from your push-off, your speed is the fastest during this part of the swim, therefore you need to take as much of an advantage of this as possible by making sure your body is as smooth as an arrow. (btw, this does not pertain to only breaststroke).
After the initial streamlined glide, you will need to do the underwater pull with a breakout which consists of one double arm pull, one double leg kick and another double arm pull to get you swimming at the surface.
Even if your off the wall streamline is as smooth as a javelin, a lot can go wrong during this arm pull and leg kick sequence.
Any movement of your arms and legs which deviates from your body line or goes against the direction you are going in is a hindrance, so eliminating as much of any unnecessary big movements is a key.
a) On your initial arm pull, make sure to pull water backward and not lift your body one or two steps up in the water column. Very common mistake indeed.
Many swimmers, are very excited and try to make the initial underwater pull as large as possible not realizing that while doing so, their entire body is bending under the exerted arm pressure and instead of going smoothly forward, they travel upwards in a very abrupt jump.
It cannot be rushed otherwise you will miss out on finding the proper initial catch. Hint: after you finished your catch and are gliding through the water in the head first position, try shrugging your shoulders, you will be amazed at the effect:).
b) After you pulled and glided for a bit, you need to move the arms back forward (also called the recovery).
We usually do not pay much attention to this, however, during the recovery your elbows can easily come high above your back and your hands far away from your body thus causing a disruption in your body line.
Keep your arms and elbows as close to your body and chest as possible, so you minimize the drag and finish in an extended streamlined position again.
c) The breaststroke kick that comes after the recovery can also cause you to slow down. (this does not only pertain to underwater breaststroke, but to breaststroke as a whole).
If you think about it, when you are loading your legs by bringing your heels closer to your body, the motion is against the direction where you are going. So ideally, the kick will be quite narrow staying within the constraints of the hole our body already made through the water.
Obviously this is impossible as we have to bend the legs, but we can get very close.
First, do not bring your knees forward, keep them back and think of it more as bringing your heels to your butt (practicing breaststroke kick on your back while keeping your knees underwater is a very good drill for this).
Another way to think about this, that your thighs should be in line with your spine as if an extension of your spine.
Second, when you do the actual kick, do not concentrate on pressing out with your legs, but push the water backward as if there was an imaginary wall and you are using your outer rotated ankles and shins to push off of it.
Finally, don't forget to squeeze your legs together. Use those butt cheeks and inner thighs at the end of every one of your kicks to squeeze the soles of your feet together at the end of the kick. This will make sure your body is nicely streamlined during the glide phase of breaststroke.
Word of caution here though, this squeezing part of the stroke, as simple as it sounds, is actually quite tiring on your body and on your mind, so introduce it into your stroke gradually.
Perhaps, you can utilize this technique every other lap and see how you get on before you add it to your stroke permanently.
Just a reminder, don't forget the dolphin kick during the breaststroke underwater pullout phase.
2) Horizontal body line
This is another aspect of how swimming breaststroke can go all wrong.
If you look under water at the majority of people who swim breaststroke, I bet you'd see an up and down motion at the beginning of their stroke.
During the arm recovery, hands are shot out forward and downward which causes the entire body to follow down into the water only to later angle up to start the breaststroke pull closer to the surface again.
This wave at the beginning of the stroke causes a bit of resistance as opposed to just shooting arms forward and keeping them at the same water level without going down and up again.
Many coaches compare breaststroke to butterfly and teach it in a similar fashion, however, I am not convinced this is as good of an idea as it sounds, exactly for this reason.
When we tell a swimmer that the breaststroke motion is like the butterfly motion which in turn is very wavy (at least from the sternum down), it brings up the idea in the swimmer's head that he/she should move the body as in butterfly which is one cause of the initial arm dip after recovery.
A more accurate way to swim breaststroke would be to compare it to an inchworm movement, where the front legs and back legs are in the same horizontal plane and only get closer or further apart from each other as the worm inches forward.
There is no up and down motion of the front body anywhere. Only the butt being moved forward to the front part.
Johanna, the masters swimmer I mentioned at the beginning of this breaststroke streamlining post, has been working very hard to optimize her stroke in the last few months, so it will be very interesting to watch, what the little tiny improvements she has made to her stroke will do to her swims at the 2012 World Masters Championships in Riccione. Johanna is the 200-meter breaststroke World Champion from 2019 World Masters Swimming Championships in 200 breaststroke.
So far, it has been quite exciting as she has been breaking one record after another while being careful to cause less disturbance in her forward motion.
The above pointers are quite advanced when it comes to learning the correct breaststroke technique as they are tedious details, however, no matter what your breaststroke skill level is, you can take away the fact that swimming is not as simple sport as one might thing.
The truth is actually the opposite, since water is so much denser than air, to optimize a swimming movement, one must really pay attention to everything a body does, be it better streamline or less up and down motion etc.
So if you are frustrated with your swimming skill level, don't worry, even the top swimmers in the world are battling little tiny details. So, be patient, mindful, and go out there and optimize your breaststroke :).