Legendary coach Jozsef Nagy is widely credited with inventing the modern “wave” breaststroke and has produced such elite-level swimmers as Mike Barrowman, Sergio Lopez-Miro and Annamay Pierse. He was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2013 and is currently coaching at the Vancouver High Performance National Swim Centre, where he was recently rejoined by 2013 World Championship medalist Martha McCabe. I had the opportunity to swim under Jozsef for two years in Vancouver and experience first-hand his unparalleled wealth of knowledge and innovation of breaststroke and the sport of swimming. I recommend swimmers and coaches alike read closely, ask questions and benefit from this detailed piece on The Breaststroke Turn.
The Breaststroke Turn
Swimming Coach at the Vancouver High Performance National Swim Centre
Dr. Janos Egressy
Associate Professor University of Physical Education, Budapest, Hungary
thanks to Roque Santos for the very valuable help and comments.
In the following, we will attempt to describe a good, accurate, and fast breaststroke turn. The goal of this article is not to describe the turn of a world class breaststroker. The goal is to illustrate a turn that is- according to the laws of physics and our knowledge of biomechanics – and that is, with talent and practice, quickly doable.
Now, let’s look at the breaststroke turn!
It is crucial that the swimmer does not alter his or her technique during the last few strokes before the wall, but only attempts to move quicker and more dramatically onto the wall.
The faster a swimmer arrives at the wall, the faster and easier the turn will be. This is because even though the energy of the movement of the entire body somewhat halts as the hands touch the wall, everything that is behind these hands on the wall is still greatly accelerating towards it. The swimmer only needs “position” the body parts, so that the least amount of resistance is created, and the least amount of deceleration occurs.
The body parts approaching the wall must approach at the fastest possible pace while causing the least amount of resistance. For this, the swimmer must be in perfect streamline. Since the point of “attack” on the wall is directly in front of the swimmer, at the level of the surface. At this point the fingers are directly in front of the swimmer, at the level of the surface of the water, and with the last stroke the swimmer practically throws himself onto the wall. So that the fingers-at the same time and same level- arrive at the wall, about 10cm apart. The arms must be straight, and the head must be looking downward to the bottom of the pool so that the head is between the shoulders, at the same level, and the entire body must be in an streamline. (See the 3 step by step pictures.)If the swimmer approaches with bent arms, he will fully stop at the wall, because instead of a continuous motion, he will have to wait for his legs to be pulled up underneath him. This would break the continuum of the motions of the turn.
In the proceeding movement, after the hands have touched the wall, the swimmer “pulls down” one of the arms with a bent elbow under and beside the upper body; and pulls backwards. It is not accurate to say that he pulls, because the body is moving toward the wall at a very fast pace. The pulled down arm helps the entire body to reach the wall faster, and then helps for the body to turn onto its side. Finally-while going deeper than any other part of the body, working energy from down up- for the upper body to go under water in the easiest, fastest possible way.
During the “pulling down” of one arm, the other hand rests on the wall and bends. Due to this, the head approaches the wall (with the head still facing down). The entire upper body must not lose elevation. The hip, the head, and back level of the shoulders, move forward at the surface of the water, as the arm that is left on the wall bends.
During this, the longest movement (in length) is done by the legs. The feet, with toes pointing backwards, soles facing upwards, directly under the surface of the water move toward the wall. The legs must be pulled up in such a way, so that the hips and the legs do not sink. The feet that are moving forward directly under the surface of the water can only get deeper when the bent legs and knees have gotten under the stomach. The legs under the body must be as close to the swimmer’s core as possible.
The swimmer turns around his longitudinal axis as the knee and feet have gotten close enough to the core of the body. Simultaneously the swimmer turns around the central point of gravity with the sinking of the hip.
The swimmers most often make mistakes when they slow down before the wall and drop their hip before fully pulling up their leg.
During this part of the turn, four different body-movement sequences take place at once:
While the arm on the wall bends (1), the other hand begins to move backwards and goes deeper under the body, in front of it (2); during, the swimmer “pulls in” his legs (3), and the upper body turns by the end of the pulling up of the legs (4) and from that point the swimmer is doing the turn being on his side.
The body must turn onto its side so that:
- the pull-down arm that is now in front of the body,
- the bottom, more front shoulder,
- the head,
- the hand that is left on the wall,
- the shoulder that is closer to the wall,
must all be aligned. So there we be a straight line from hand to hand.
These aligned body parts must create a right angle with the wall. While underneath, the legs move toward the wall. The head elevates and leaves the wall. This is the point when the swimmer takes a breath. This short period of time is only enough to take a breath if the swimmer exhales all of his air while bending the arm that is left on the wall.
The hand that is left on the wall remains there until the swimmer’s body reaches a vertical point (with the shoulders up and the legs bent underneath). Let us look at the turn from the side when the swimmer’s head, facing upwards, is taking a breath. The legs must be moving toward the wall, and the hand that is in the front must move from down up to the turned body move under the water as fast as possible. At this point is when the hand that is left on the wall leaves the wall with straight arms. Yet right after leaving the wall, it bends, and (the same way as the other arm) reaches in front of and beside the head.
- the hands,
- the head,
- the hips,
- and the legs,
become parallel and aligned with the surface of the water, about 50-60cm below the surface. The turning of the body must last until this parallel state occurs. With this, the breaststroke turn occurs, the body has changed direction. There will be a moment when no body part will be touching the wall. The hand that was previously on the wall will have left it and the legs will have yet to touch it. At this point, the legs kick into the wall and the push off begins. It is very important that the swimmer does not turn too far because then his legs would come up too high and he would only be able to push himself downwards at that point. If this happens (in 99% of the cases), then the dynamic push will be facing downwards and backwards rather than straight forward. During the push off (first stretching of the legs out and push and twist the body) the swimmer steadily turns onto his stomach. The arms reach forward and the entire body takes a position that causes the least resistance, and glides the most.
So, the swimmer has turned and left the wall, now comes the underwater pull. (…Which could be the topic of a whole other article.)
Many swimmers make mistakes when their legs leave the wall, as they do not point their toes to be elongated in one level with their calves. This way, they do not initiate for their entire body to be in one long straight line. The top of the feet (which are now facing toward the bottom of the pool) should serve as a steer wheel for a boat. Compared to the size of a boat, even a small oar can successfully change the boat’s direction. In the same way, if the feet are not level with teh calves, they will bring the legs and entire lower body upward, and create more resistance. Thus, controlling the body’s direction.
It is very crucial when to begin the underwater pull.
It is obvious that the swimmer is fastest right after he has pushed off the wall. Therefore, the underwater pull must be started when the swimmer has slowed down enough that the underwater pull is needed to maintain the pace that the swimmer will be swimming and when he begins his first stroke at the surface of the water. The underwater pull should be like the underwater component of the butterfly stroke.
In the underwater pull, the swimmer must a position himself so that by the end of the underwater pull he will have reached the surface of the water. If this is not successful, they will either reach the surface too quickly or they will have to use their first actual stroke to elevate themselves to the surface. While doing the underwater pull, the swimmer should slightly arch his back by the end of the pull out.
During the underwater pull, we can aid the upcoming first stroke. With the dolphin kick. Since the rules allow for only one dolphin kick, it is very crucial how we teach the timing of that one dolphin kick to our swimmers. It is not recommended to do it before starting the underwater pull because at that point the swimmer is already gliding much faster than he will during his strokes. Therefore, due to the momentum of the push off, the dolphin kick is not needed as much right after the wall as after the underwater pull. And that is why the dolphin kick is preferred at the push phase of the underwater pull out.
The hands must finish the push directly under or touching the side of the thighs. The head must be facing downwards and at the level of the body be leading it forward and slightly upward. So, the swimmer does the underwater component of a butterfly pull, while attempting to create a favorable angle that will lead him to the surface of the water by the end of the pull. Most swimmers practically stop after having brought their arms forward and pulled their legs up at the end of the underwater pull! This is the most critical point in breaststroke. This is where it is easiest to make a mistake. And this is also where it is easiest to create advantage over the other competitors who may be making this mistake. If we do the underwater stroke exactly at the pace of the swimming strokes, then with the putting forward of our arms we will lose about 50% of our speed and with the pulling up of our legs we will lose the other 50%.
When the underwater pull is finished, logic would dictate that we should wait and glide, but this is not the most efficient method. The best is if we, carefully, but right away, slowly, causing the least resistance, start the stroke. This motion begins with pulling up the shoulders beside our ears, and with this making our bodies much thinner (by about 5 cm in width at the widest part).
The hands move forward with the elbows being still and the hands (forearms) – being very close to the body – cross over each other at the stomach and go beyond the chest. The hands and elbows are moving forward together only from that point. Here, the most common mistake is that swimmers (over 90% of them) don’t bring their hands in close to their body during this movement, and don’t cross them over. Because of this, (since at this point there is no other way) they lift their elbows up on the side wide, creating a great amount of resistance. When the hands are n front of the face, the hands should be with their palms facing up, moving forward parallel to each other. Leaving the head, they should be moving forward along the central axis of the head (and entire body), until in completely straight elongated position. It is a mistake if the hands or the arms finish the underwater pull under or above the level of the rest of the body.
In a “normal” breaststroke stroke, at this point, the legs should have already started pushing backwards. But here, in the underwater stroke, it is much more efficient to do the kick later and to only start bringing up the legs after fully finishing the complete bringing forward of the arms. Therefore, the pace, the rhythm, is not the same as with other breaststroke strokes. Here, you must definitely delay the kick. The reason for this being, that if we take the worst case scenario, (it cant be any worse than losing 50+50%), and we have lost half of our speed while bringing up the arms, then we still have the other 50% remaining. The next step is the pulling up of the legs, and we would lose the other 50%. But in this case, we still have remaining 25% of the original speed! Therefore, this is why these motions must be done one after the other, rather than all at the same time. After this comes the pulling up of the legs and the kick. And with this, the breaststroke turn finishes. If we did everything perfectly, then the swimmer starts his pull close to the surface of the water. Here, the mistake that most often occurs is that the arms are not completely straight at the beginning of the first pull. The other mistake is that the swimmer either glides too much after the finishing of the kick, or the exact opposite, that he begins the next pull too soon. But the most common mistake is when the swimmer does not reach the surface of the water by the end of the under water stroke, and therefore must use his first real stroke to elevate himself out of the water, rather than to pull himself forward.
The turn itself (from the touching of the wall to the legs pushing off the wall) should take less than a second. Because of this, the motions described here in detail should all individually take about one tenth of a second to conduct. It is therefore recommended to first practice the turn vey slowly and to teach it with patience.