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Combat Swimmer Stroke

Stew Smith

Whether you are a beginning swimmer or an aspiring Navy SEAL, this stroke can really help you efficiently move through the water.

Actually, the CSS is a mix of sidestroke, breaststroke, and a little freestyle. The Combat Swimmer stroke is similar to the sidestroke since it is done on your side, however the top arm pulls just like a freestyle stroke but recovers underwater like the breaststroke. If that confused you, maybe it is just best to observe, because a picture is worth 1000 words.

When you find yourself in deep water with a lot of distance to cover, the CSS will serve you well especially when you are wearing fins. You will tire less quickly if you learn to perform this stroke properly.

The object to the CSS and side stroke is efficiency - you should try to get across a 25m pool in as few strokes as possible. If you are doing more than 10 strokes per length you are working too hard. In fact, the fastest and best swimmers get across a 25m pool in 3-5 strokes.

THE START: In a big squat position against the wall - push off and stay as streamlined as possible as you glide at least 5-10 yards off the wall. Place your hands on top of each other, place your bicep on your ears, and lock out your arms - streamlined positioning like a rocket.

THE GLIDE: With a big double arm pull, add the other 3-5 yards to your glide by pulling with your back, biceps and pushing water with your arms using your triceps.

Kick using a breast stroke kick or scissor kick and recover your arms together.

THE ARM MOVEMENT: After the arm pull, it is time to breathe - twist and breath then start using the top arm pull as shown. Notice both arms recover together forward, but the top arm pulls from overhead all the way to your hips (similar to freestyle stroke). Then the bottom arm pulls a half stroke (similar to breast stroke) and both arms recover together. Breathe as the top arm completes its pull and the bottom arm begins its pull.

THE KICK: Use the scissor kick and time your kicks so your top leg always goes forward (no matter what side you are on). You should kick just after both arms have pulled and are recovering - adding more glide to each stroke.

If this did not help you:
A picture is worth 1,000 words.
A moving picture is worth 10,000 words!!

Here is a variety of Coaches Eye App videos I use to critique swimmers learning the Combat Swimmer Stroke. Click below videos to get the moving pictures worth 10000 words:

As a trainer for people who are seeking to succeed in a Special Ops career, many students need to not only know how to swim but they need be able to ace many different types of swimming. The first and most important of these skills is the Combat Swimmer Stroke. It is basically a modified side stroke that SEALs, RECON Marines, and other water born Special Operators use in their training as well as their missions that require a water insertion or extraction.

When people first try the combat swimmer stroke without fins and with fins, they can often look silly. Even competitive swimmers have issues with this stroke. Athletes and non-athletes both share a few weeks of difficulty getting the timing down of this common stroke used by Special Operations communities. The best way to learn the stroke is to be taught it in person or if you have some swimming skills you can pick it up through watching video instruction.

Here is a series of videos demonstrating the skills of students who did not know how to swim very well in the first place, yet alone the Combat Swimmer Stroke.

Video #1: First time swimming the CSS after a brief demonstration. As you can see from this video, the student is trying to get the sequence and timing of the stroke down: top arm pull, bottom arm pull and breathe, kick and glide. Kicks / arm pulls / breathing are not working for him in video #1.

Video #1 - Cannot Swim the CSS  - After discussing the timing of the stroke, we videoed round 2.

Video #2: Getting the stroke together - almost. The student is getting the timing down of the stroke but still needs work. I noticed he is naturally trying to do a breast stroke kick so we can change from scissor kick to breast stroke to propel this stroke better.

Video #2: Getting Better – After discussing the change of the kick, it looked a bit better and made it easier to get the glide and timing of the stroke.

Video #3: Not bad - Getting better. The student has moments of putting it all together and is just a few hours of swim practice of mastering the timing and sequence of the stroke. Now he has to work on his swimming endurance and speed as swimming a 500yd swim requires building up your cardiovascular stamina.

Video #3: Much Better using Breast Stroke Kick

Video #4: Swimming faster with breast stroke kick. Here is a different student who has a much better use of the breast stroke kick than the student above and has worked through all the same issues as above.

Video #4: A Better Use of the Breast Stroke Kick - CSS

Video #5: Swimming the CSS about as fast as you can. Here is how I recommend learning the combat swimmer stroke using the scissor kick vs the breast stroke kick. The reason I like the scissor kick is that you will swim 99% of your swims during Special Ops training programs with fins and you cannot swim the CSS with fins using a breast stroke kick. This version of the CSS is the same as you would use if you have a pair of fins on.

Video #5: Swimming the CSS using Scissor Kick - Very Fast Student

Video #6 - Swimming the CSS with fins. A big kick and little flutter-kicks will be your main propulsion method when wearing fins. Some people alter the method of how they swim their strong and weak sides. You need to find what works best for you and master both sides of your body when swimming miles with fins.

Video#6: Swimming with fins using the CSS (strong / weak sides)

The only way to get better at swimming any stroke is to practice. Practice not only your techniques and skills, but also build your endurance and stamina to last longer in the water.  As you can see there are a few different ways to learn the Combat Swimmer Stroke and getting to know which will work best for you is easily done after reviewing video of yourself swimming. 

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