Breaststroke Pull- The "Knuckle Ball" of Swimming

Baseball fans will be familiar with the term “knuckleball”. If its new to you, here is a primer from

knuckleball (aka knucklerflutter pitchbutterfly pitch) is a pitch that is thrown very slowly (55-70 mph) with very little spin. A pitcher that throws a knuckleball is called a knuckleballer. Unlike other pitches, whose trajectories can be predicted from their speed and spin, the knuckleball is completely unpredictable. It can actually break in one direction and then turn around and break the other way. This makes it very difficult to hit.

Knuckleball grip:

Knuckleball grip:

The knuckleball may not be traditional, but it can still get strikeouts. Much like the knuckleball, breaststroke pull has some non-traditional variations.

I would number breaststroke pull in the small group of swimming’s most difficult to understand, learn and teach skills.

The key to learning (and eventually mastering) breaststroke pull is to break it into its parts… than to execute these parts in seamless succession with an appropriate amount of acceleration. Easy, right? Let’s review - to master breaststroke pull, all you have to do is, 1) learn 3 fairly complicated movements, 2) do said movements as a smooth series, as if they were not three, but a single movement, and 3) complete that whole while accelerating your arms from slow to fast.

As stated, breaststroke pull is not simple and it’s complicated further by the fact that there are a number of legitimate variations. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there are more variations in breaststroke pull (at all levels) than any other skill in the sport. In the following section, I am going to try to nail down some of the consistencies and then we will tackle the variance near the end of the post.

The Three Parts of Breaststroke Pull

Straight arm Out-sweep:

Straight arm Out-sweep:

1) Out Sweep: From the near streamline position, sweep straight arms outward to about 45 degrees. Pinkies angled up, engaging water with the palms and forearms. Sweep fingertips out or down until the palms are positions backwards (not down). While there is significant variance in the pull path of the out-sweep, the end goal is to place your hands, fore-arms and elbows in a position where they will be ready for the catch. Breaststroke catch, just like your catch in all strokes, must be an anchored position, where you can move your body over that point. However, the key is to not stop at the catch point, but to smoothly begin the…

2) In Sweep: Once your hands reach the catch point, anchor your elbow high on the water. From the side view, the elbows should be roughly on a plain with your forehead. Press back and inward towards your chin, upper-chest or neck. The key here is to keep your elbows anchored high and forward for as much of the in-sweep as you can. Typically this is longer than feels natural for most novice swimmers. Eventually, your elbows will have to move towards your lats as you prepare for the…

3) Recovery: now for the easy(ish) part. Collapse the elbows together under your forehead, driving your hands forward. The moment your hands are set back on the line is the time to hammer your kick and explode forward. From the front view the profile of the swimmer should be as narrow as possible.

Now for a few of the many variations we see consistently:

High Elbow/ Finger tips down variation to set catch:

High Elbow/ Finger tips down variation to set catch:

During the out-sweep it is incredibly important that you anchor your palms facing back with the elbows high. Now, some swimmers do this by out-sweeping wide enough to get their fingertips facing the outside walls- see photo above… or… (check Peaty here for a super wide out-sweep and power leverage) - other accomplish this position by crocking at the elbows and pointing the fingertips down- much like a butterfly catch (see image on right).

In the next phase, typical variation in the in-sweep is how far to bring the hands together before recovery. Some swimmers bring the hands nearly together before beginning the recovery and others begin the recovery as the hands pass the shoulder line- bringing the hands together DURING the recovery (check Rebecca Soni here on youtube: watch closely - she begins her recovery before her hands have “finished” the traditional in-sweep; hands finally meet at the end of the recovery).

In the recovery, some swimming place the thumps together, others recovery with their palms facing up. The key is that the recovery is forward, not down, and ideally on top of the water, where there is less form drag.

Finished recovery in a great body line: this is the instant (no later) to hammer the legs:

Finished recovery in a great body line: this is the instant (no later) to hammer the legs:

Much like its often maligned second cousin in baseball, the breaststroke pull proves there are many ways to get the job done… some less traditional than others.

Thanks for reading and sharing,




Chapter 3: Training to Improve Lactate Threshold

If you missed the first two chapters in our lactate series check them here:

Chapter 1: The Confusion Over “Lactic Acid”

Chapter 2: Lactate Production Sample Set

We are getting into the nitty gritty here and I feel it necessary to provide a disclaimer - here goes - I am not a physiologist, I am not a PHD. Rather, I am simply an experienced swim coach with a appetitive for reading and research. My humble aim is to distill often convoluted topics into something digestible and applicable for every day use.

Felt good to get that off my chest

For our discussion today, a bit of term clarification might be helpful. In today’s chapter we are completing our woefully incomplete series on lactate by discussing ways to improve an endurance athlete’s Lactate Threshold. Lactate Threshold, simple put, is the maximum effort that can be sustained without accumulating more lactate.

for today’s purpose we are going to stay away from physiological context and focus on training application

Though carefully balanced training we have the ability to buffer the impact of increased lactate or even “teach” the body how to clear increased lactate levels more efficiently. It’s unlikely that any single training stimulus will create the impact needed to accomplish our performance goals. Rather a combination of training stimuli are necessary. Generally, research lands on the following types:

  • High Volume Training @ varied aerobic heart rates

  • Lactate Steady State Training

  • Active Rest or Interval Training

Lets have a look at each one:

  • High Volume: to clarify, what is intended here is NOT to define what is “high volume” for each athlete, but rather to surmise that increasing training volume progressively, will have a positive impact on Lactate Threshold.

    • In Periodization, Tudor Bumpo suggests raising the volume 10-20% per week. Efforts on these sets should be relatively light (say, 3-4 on a scale of 10).

  • Lactate Steady State Training: At the beginning of longer training at submaximal speeds (minimum of 20 mins), lactate will raise and fall, but will eventually settle into a steady level. It is a misconception that lactate steady state training will be at a steady heart rate (what!?!?). This type of training might be commonly known as mixed aerobic training; basically, we are expecting efforts at varied aerobic heart rates over a time, no less than 20 mins.

    • An example of a mixed aerobic set with the aim of steady state might look something like this.

      • 3 Rounds: 100 @HR 175 + 200 @HR 165 + 300 @HR 155 (Rest interval: 20 seconds)

  • Active Rest or Interval Training: this type of training set will bounce between hard efforts (7-8 on a scale of 10) and easy efforts (2-3 on the same scale).

    • A simple, albeit classic example would be something like: 10 x 100, Odd efforts: hard or very hard, Even efforts: easy

Disclaimer #2 for the day: Training composition needs to be carefully arranged. Some types of training can have negative impact of other types of training. All i’m saying is… not all training is appropriate for all goals and it’s important not to implement these, or any training, without careful organization of stimuli.

That wraps up our three part introduction into the wonderful world of Lactate- it’s been a wild ride.


Thanks for reading and sharing,

Jeff Gross

Founder, Techniq Group