Muscles Used in Swimming Breaststroke: A Guide

Swimming is a fantastic full-body workout, and the breaststroke is an excellent technique to learn. The breaststroke can be broken down into different phases, each requiring the use of specific muscle groups.

muscles used in swimming breaststroke

The primary muscles used in swimming breaststroke are the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, hamstrings, calf muscles, abdominals, and erector spinae. These muscles are crucial as they respectively handle arm movements, leg kicks, and core stabilization, which collectively propel the swimmer forward and maintain an efficient body position in the water when swimming breaststroke.

In this article, we’ll delve into the major muscles you use while swimming breaststroke, their functions, and how they work together to create a smooth, efficient stroke.

Muscles Used Swimming Breaststroke

Upper Body Muscles

In breaststroke, your upper body muscles are responsible for the arm movements and play an essential role in propelling you forward. The primary muscles involved are:

  • Latissimus Dorsi: These large muscles in your back help you pull your arms inwards towards your chest during the initial phase of the stroke.
  • Pectoralis Major: Your chest muscles assist in the sweeping motion of your arms underwater, contributing to your forward momentum.
  • Biceps and Triceps: These arm muscles work together to bend and straighten your arms during the recovery phase of the stroke, keeping your movements efficient.
  • Deltoids: These shoulder muscles are involved in the initial outward sweep of the arms and also help in bringing the arms back in towards the chest.
  • Brachialis and Brachioradialis: These muscles, located in the forearm, are involved in flexing the elbow during the recovery phase.
  • Rhomboids: Located in the upper back, these muscles help retract the scapulae (shoulder blades) during the in-sweep phase, aiding in the efficient use of the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major.
  • Trapezius: This muscle, which extends down the back of the neck and upper spine, helps elevate and retract the scapulae, which is important during the recovery phase of the stroke.
  • Serratus Anterior: This muscle is located on the side of the chest and is involved in the protraction of the scapula, assisting in the initial phase of the stroke where the arms reach forward.

Lower Body Muscles

The majority of propulsion in breaststroke comes from your lower body. The key muscles used are:

  • Quadriceps: Located at the front of your thighs, they help you flex your knees during the initial phase of the kick.
  • Hamstrings: As your thigh’s back muscles, hamstrings contribute primarily to the recovery phase of the kick, driving your heels towards your buttocks.
  • Calf Muscles: Your calf muscles play a crucial role by maintaining a pointed (plantar flexion) position at your feet, which maximizes efficiency and power during the kick.
  • Gluteus Maximus: This is the main extensor muscle of the hip. It helps in the whip kick phase of the stroke, where the legs are brought together to provide propulsion.
  • Hip Adductors: These inner thigh muscles help to bring your legs together in the final phase of the kick, increasing propulsion.
  • Hip Flexors: These muscles, including the iliopsoas, rectus femoris, and tensor fasciae latae, are used in bringing the knees up towards the body in the recovery phase of the kick.
  • Tibialis Anterior: This muscle helps flex the ankle (dorsiflexion) and is used in the recovery phase of the kick when the foot is brought back towards the shin to minimize water resistance.
  • Foot Muscles: The muscles in your feet, particularly the extensor digitorum longus and extensor hallucis longus, help maintain the pointed position of the foot for efficient and powerful kicks.

Core Muscles

A strong core is essential for maintaining proper body position and balance during breaststroke. Some of the main muscles used in your core are:

  • Abdominals: These muscles help stabilize your body and maintain a streamlined position through the water.
  • Erector Spinae: Found in your lower back, these muscles provide support and help you maintain a horizontal position in the water.
  • Obliques: Both the internal and external oblique muscles aid in the rotation and lateral flexion of the spine, which is necessary for the undulating movement of breaststroke.
  • Transverse Abdominis: This is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and it plays a crucial role in stabilizing the trunk, allowing for more efficient movement and power transfer.
  • Multifidus: This muscle spans multiple vertebrae in the back and assists in the stabilization and slight rotation of the spine during swimming.

Comparing Breaststroke to Other Strokes

Breaststroke, freestyle, back crawl, and butterfly strokes all use a range of muscles but in different ways and with different emphases.

While all four strokes engage a wide range of muscles, they each emphasize different muscle groups and mechanics.

As you read the descriptions of the muscles used in each swim stroke, you’ll notice that the breaststroke stands out for its greater reliance on leg and foot muscle output.

Muscle Engagement in Breaststroke

Breaststroke requires significant work from the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus maximus for the kick. The foot muscles, such as the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis posterior, also play a crucial role in producing the sweeping motion of the legs.

The arm muscles involved include the biceps brachii, triceps brachii, biceps femoris, brachialis, brachioradialis, and deltoids.

The back muscles used are the latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae, rhomboides minor, and rhomboides major. Compared to other strokes, breaststroke requires greater output from the legs​.

Muscle Engagement in Freestyle

Freestyle, or front crawl, is a stroke driven mainly by upper body muscles. The pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi are particularly important in generating forward propulsion. The arm and shoulder muscles perform circular movements, pulling the swimmer forward through the water.

The deltoids, triceps, and back and neck muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi and trapezius, are responsible for power and maintaining good body position and alignment.

While freestyle is primarily upper-body driven, lower body muscles also play a role: the core connects the upper and lower body muscles, and the hip muscles control body position and prevent sinking.

The foot muscles, hips, hamstrings, and quadriceps generate force through kicking and pushing off the walls​.

Muscle Engagement in Back Crawl

Back crawl, or backstroke, shares similarities with freestyle in that it is driven by deltoid and shoulder muscles. However, it relies more heavily on core strength to rotate the body and keep the swimmer high in the water.

The primary propulsive force comes from the latissimus dorsi during the pulling phase. The pecs, deltoids, biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles assist in this pulling phase. The hamstrings, quadriceps, and foot muscles generate propulsive force by kicking​.

Muscle Engagement in Butterfly

Butterfly stroke uses similar muscles to freestyle and backstroke, but its mechanics make it one of the hardest strokes.

The primary muscles used are the pectoralis major and minor, which are responsible for pulling the arms together in front of the body. The latissimus dorsi, or “lats,” extend the arms and drive them back towards the hips.

The biceps, triceps, and forearms push the water behind the swimmer and provide stability during the recovery phase of the stroke. The hips, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles drive the legs up and down in a whip-like motion, providing propulsion and power to the stroke​.

Swimming Breaststroke for Muscle Toning

Swimming breaststroke is a fantastic way to tone your muscles while enjoying a full-body workout. As you glide through the water, you’ll be engaging various muscle groups that contribute to both your cardiovascular fitness and overall muscle development.

When swimming breaststroke, your arms, shoulders, and chest work in tandem to propel you forward. Your pectoral muscles play a significant role in this stroke, and as you push your arms out and then bring them back in, you’re effectively toning your chest muscles. Similarly, your deltoids and biceps assist with the arm movements, enabling a well-rounded upper body workout.

Focusing on your lower body, the breaststroke engages your glutes, quads, and hamstrings during the distinctive frog-like kicking motion. As you kick out and bring your legs together, you strengthen and tone these muscle groups, providing a solid foundation for your overall body strength. Additionally, your calves and feet work to maintain proper positioning, adding to the muscle toning in your lower extremities.

Meanwhile, your core muscles, including your abs, obliques, and lower back, are constantly engaged to maintain a streamlined position in the water. This continuous engagement helps improve your core stability and strength, which can provide numerous benefits to your overall fitness level.

To make the most of your breaststroke workouts, try incorporating interval training. For example, swim 4-6 lengths of the breaststroke at a moderate pace, followed by a rest period of 30-60 seconds. Repeat this cycle for an effective muscle toning workout.

Swimming Breaststroke for Rehabilitation

When it comes to recovering from certain muscle injuries, incorporating breaststroke into your rehabilitation routine can be beneficial. This swimming style is known for being gentle on your body, making it suitable for rehabilitating various muscle groups and reducing the risk of exacerbating the injury.

Swimming breaststroke can help improve the strength and flexibility of your muscles, particularly those in your arms, legs, and core.

By engaging your pectoralis major, deltoids, and triceps in your upper body, you can strengthen these areas and gently restore functionality after an injury.

Similarly, your quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles are used extensively in breaststroke, helping to rebuild strength in your lower body.

The breaststroke’s low-impact nature also helps to alleviate joint pressure which can be especially helpful if you’re rehabilitating from a muscle or joint injury. Since the water provides buoyancy and supports your body weight, swimming reduces the strain on your joints, making it an ideal exercise for recovery.

Potential Injury Risks Swimming Breaststroke

Swimming breaststroke uses a variety of major muscle groups, including your chest, shoulders, arms, and legs. While it is an excellent exercise, there are potential risks and injuries to be aware of, and preventative measures to keep you safe in the water.

Swimmer’s Knee

One common injury risk in breaststroke swimming is swimmer’s knee, which mainly affects the inner ligaments of the knee, caused by the forceful kicks in the whip kick motion. To prevent this injury, focus on maintaining proper technique and consider talking to a coach or trainer for guidance.

Shoulder Impingement

Another risk is developing shoulder injuries, such as rotator cuff tendonitis or shoulder impingement syndrome. These injuries are often a result of overuse or poor technique in the strokes. To prevent these issues, make sure you’re warming up properly and paying attention to your shoulder movements. Also, don’t forget to incorporate dryland and strength training exercises to improve your overall stability and flexibility.

Neck Pain

Neck pain can be another issue some breaststroke swimmers may face, originating from improper head positioning or swimming with one’s head lifted for extended periods. To avoid this, practice keeping your head in a more neutral position and ensure you’re looking toward the bottom of the pool during the majority of your strokes.

Overall, a combination of upper body, lower body, and core muscles work in harmony to execute an efficient and effective breaststroke. You must be aware of the common pitfalls that can lead to injury so that you can avoid them and continue reaping the benefits of muscle toning and cardiovascular health that swimming breaststroke can provide.