What went wrong with the wave style breaststroke?


To answer the question – the coaches hijacked the stroke. Coaches often look at what is successful and copy what they think the successful swimmers are doing. What we often don’t do is look at the reasons why something works. We leave that for the sports scientists.


I have long thought about one race, Mike Barrowmen’s’ 200 meter breaststroke in the 1992 Olympics. Most of the finalists used the “wave” style, and several were coached by the same coach, Joseph Nagy. But what always stands out was the tremendous difference between Barrowmen’s style and all the other wave style breaststrokers.


Looking at Barrowmen’s race, the amplitude or height of his wave was so much less than the other swimmers. I know he was an excellent athlete, but I doubt he was significantly better conditioned than the other swimmers for conditioning alone to account for his last 100 meters time. I believe his technique was responsible and the height difference was the reason for his remarkable last 100 meters. His world record of 2:10.16 lasted for ten years and was only broken by a swimmer who has over a three second advantage faster speed in the 100 meter breaststroke.


Why did the wave style come about? For centuries, breaststroke was a pull and a kick. Between each part of the stroke was a near total stopping of forward motion. As racing breaststroke got faster and the rules required the head to always be above the waters surface, the magnitude of drop off between kick and pull became greater. Racing breaststroke was never “pull – kick and glide”. Coaches taught the overlap racing breaststroke where the timing had the pull starting while the kick was finishing. This helped but did not eliminate the loss of speed.


The wave style evolved quickly once the rules were changed to allow the head to go below the waters surface. The wave style kept the forward velocity between the pull and the kick much higher than the conventional flat style of breaststroke. The big question was and still is what part of the wave style contributes the most to the improvement in forward velocity and the least amount of drop off between pull and kick? Is it the upper most, above water component of the wave, or the bottom under water component? This is what this paper is all about.


The problem I see is many swimmers were coming very high out of the water during the in-sweep of the pull, emphasizing the above water component of the wave style. It got so bad that coaches using the “windshield wiper” style of pull did not even consider it propulsive. Swimmers and coaches were confusing drills from actual breaststroke style; this was made worse by Olympic swimmers demonstrating such drills as the “Cobra” drill. So instead of thousands of swimmers emulating the style of Mike Barrowman, swimmers did the opposite and came very high out of the water. Basically the swimmers were emulating the style of the losers.



Sports Science comes to the rescue

Sports scientists like Dr. Brent Rushall evaluate every variation in the strokes by using many tools, such as the under water camera. Sports scientists check the time off the blocks to 15 meters, to 25 meters, stroke rate, distance per stroke, time into and out of turns, and the last 5 meters. Photos taken every tenth of a second allow coaches to evaluate the progression of all strokes. Dr. Rushall evaluation of breaststroke champions is remarkable for the insight provided.

His help in determining the basis for many of the ideas presented are gratefully acknowledged.


When I look at the great breaststrokers of the last dozen years, a common thread is the amount of time streamlined. I consider a streamline as when the hands and feet are within the body core width, inside the shoulder and hip width. There are several trends developing in the wave style breaststroke.

  • More and more time is spent in a streamline position.
  • More and more time is spent underwater in a streamline position
  • The head and the wave amplitude are even lower than Barrowman’s 1992 style.
  • The windshield wiper pull is disappearing.
  • A more pronounced butterfly pull is evolving.
  • The pull is much quicker.
  • There is actually a true glide happening!

This quick scull and butterfly pull are both designed to give more forwards propulsion instead of upward amplification. By having less upwards amplification, the head can be brought underwater faster, allowing more time to be spent in a true glide.


Time with head underwater

Taking a theoretical 200 breaststroke style whose stroke is 1.8 seconds, with 0.5 for pull, 0.5 for kick, and a total of 0.8 seconds in streamline. By shortening the pull to 0.4 seconds, and by not coming high out of the water this can shorten the transition to 0.1, the streamline can be lengthened to 0.9 to 1.0 seconds. Because the head is closer to the waters surface, the time with the head underwater can be increased from 0.2 to as much as 0.4 seconds per stroke.


Drag components

Wave drag or surface drag is velocity multiplied by area cubed, while underwater drag is velocity multiplied by area squared. It is much better to spend more time underwater than on the surface. All four strokes are spending more time off the start and turns to take advantage of this difference in drag force. What can be seen by underwater cameras during breaststroke races is the reflection of the waters surface when the body and head are underwater. Looking at Domenico Fioravanti 200 meters breaststroke during the 2000 Olympics, he came real high out of the water looking forwards. Do we want to emulate this? Looking at his stroke every tenth of a second, he only spent 0.1 to 0.2 seconds in this high position. Where he excelled was the excellent amount of time spent with his head completely underwater, and the total amount of time spent in the streamline position. He could have been even faster if he kept the head lower and looked down instead of forwards.

One great example of how swimmers are changing is Megan Quann. Her 2000 Olympic gold medal swim incorporated very high amplitude, eyes looking forwards. Her new coach should be commended in changing her stroke, reducing the amplitude and having her eyes looking down. I tell my women breaststrokers it is “swimming like a man”. Of the USA male breaststrokers Ed Moses and Dave Denniston are great examples of low amplitude, head down swimming. But of all the swimmers I have seen, I like the breaststroke of Eric Vendt and now Michael Phelps. I truly think Eric Vendt could do a 2:08+ if he specialized one summer in just the 200 breaststroke instead of the 200, 400 IMs and the 400 free.


Conservation of energy

One thing I believe in is the conservation of energy in breaststroke. Most breaststrokers are so aware of the pain involved and the power output required to go fast, that they save too much for the finish. The perfect example was the 1992 Olympic champion in the 100 meters, Seth Van Neerden. His sprint in the last 8-10 meters was awesome, but what if he had swum that fast the whole race?


The second Hunch, using the lats!

One of the reasons I believe in the “new” wave style is arm power is conserved more, with more emphasis on getting the most out of the kick, and the glide underwater. The forearms and biceps are not good for long term power production like the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles. This is why I stress the second hunch method of swimming breaststroke. By outward medial rotation of the arms through the shoulders and placing the shoulders in the exact position as the beginnings of the butterfly pull, breaststrokers can utilize more of the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles and less of the forearm and biceps. The thumbs and pointed down and palms outwards, elbows are high pointing to the waters surface. From this position of strength, either an outward scull or a butterfly pull can be made. My preference is the straight back butterfly pull.

By using a stretch to a butterfly catch and pull at shoulders width, the time consumed going to the out-scull catch and starting the in-sweep is eliminated. A butterfly type pull in breaststroke is faster and provides more forwards propulsion. Domenico Fioravanti, Kosuke Kitakima and Agnes Kovacs all use variations of a butterfly pull. This quicker pull allows more time in streamline and underwater. This allows for a true glide, and energy is conserved to be used for the rest of the stroke.



Using sports science to evaluate changes to the wave style breaststroke, the above water portion of the stroke has become less stylish in favor of spending more time per stroke in the streamlined position. Very small changes to head position and pull patterns are increasing the time in this streamlined position. In the 200 stroke distance per stroke is increased by decreasing drag in this streamlined position by being underwater. This decrease in drag and increase in distance per stroke make continued lower times breaststroke easier to obtain. By the 2004 Olympics men’s times may be 58+ in the 100 and 2:08 in the 200. Women’s times could be as low at 1:04+ and 2:20.


Wayne McCauley

ASCA Level 5 Masters

Masters All-American

Masters National Champion