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Sink or Swim: The Essentials for Acing the CSS, Military Swim Tests and Improving Water Confidence

Stew smith

Sink or Swim: It is Up to How You Prepare NOW...

Hey there, aspiring special operations candidates, it is time to sink or swim! Are you ready to conquer the military swim test and gain more water confidence? We know that being comfortable in the water can be a daunting task, especially for non-swimmers, but you can do this – even if your first time ever swimming the length of a pool was today! We're here to guide you on the right path to success with swimming, finning, treading, and other aquatic skills needed to ace any military swimming and/or diving program.

Combat Side Stroke is one of the most effective swimming techniques for the military swim test (CSS) Why do we use this one? This stroke is designed for efficiency, speed, and stealth in the water, making it the perfect choice for special operations candidates. And the great news is that mastering it doesn't require strong swimming skills! Countless non-swimming athletes and many others learned to swim using this stroke.

First things first, let's talk about the basics of the Combat Side Stroke. This stroke combines elements of the traditional sidestroke and the freestyle arm pull, as well as a breaststroke recovery.  That may sound foreign to non-swimming athletes, but technically, that is what it is. The CSS allows you to maintain a low profile in the water while minimizing drag. The technique involves a scissor kick, arm pull, and glide to propel you through the water with minimal effort. You will also later learn how to use this stroke with fins using the same process and a few modifications.

See Swim the CSS without Fins Stroke Sequence *first timer

See Swim the CSS with Fins Stroke Sequence

See hundreds of CSS critique videos at my TIKTOK and INSTAGRAM REELs

Now, let's dive into learning how to master the Combat Side Stroke and acing the military swim test:

1. Embrace the learning process and be patient: Everyone starts somewhere, and this alone may take months in your spec ops journey to master. Don't be discouraged if you're not a natural swimmer. You can improve your swimming skills and conquer the water with dedication and practice. First, just get in the water and work on crossing the pool using ANY stroke. Try a few freestyle sets, as you can use the top arm pull/turn to breathe of the freestyle stroke as your first lesson of the CSS immediately. Then, mix in a few breaststroke sets to learn how to kick and recover from the breaststroke. THOUGH – you can use the scissor kick or the breaststroke (frog) kick with the CSS.

Do not pop up to breathe...Turn as if doing freestyle..

NOTE – most non-swimming athletes have not developed a stroke breaststroke kick, so typically, the scissor kick is more useful for the running athlete for the CSS.

2. Seek professional instruction: If you're new to swimming or need to refine your technique, consider enrolling in swimming lessons or working with a certified swim instructor. They can provide personalized guidance and feedback to help you improve your stroke technique. Though they may not know the CSS, they can teach you the “freestyle catch” of the freestyle stroke, turning your head to breathe, the “breaststroke scull” for the bottom arm pull, streamlining, and body position.

Then, once you start playing around with the CSS, send in a 50m video to me at or on my Instagram DMs

3. Break it down: Break the Combat Side Stroke into its components. The sequence goes: Top arm Pull/turn your head, bottom arm pull/inhale, kick and arm recover, and glide/exhale during glide - REPEAT. See Pull – Breathe – Kick – Glide article.

See how I do the CSS in this video

4. Focus on efficiency: The Combat Side Stroke is all about conserving energy and maintaining a low profile in the water. Avoid too many kicks, popping up to breathe, and not gliding long enough to maximize your efficiency. Pay attention to your body position and ensure your movements are streamlined and efficient. Count how many strokes it takes to get across the pool (note distance). Typically, we try to get our folks down to 4-5 strokes per 25yd pool. See if you need help with any of the following steps of the CSS in the CSS HELP article series:

CSS Help: Fix Your Kick

CSS Help: Fix Your Arm Pulls (top & bottom)

CSS Help: Fix Your Glide

CSS Help: Fix Your CSS Sequence of the Stroke - Pull - Breathe - Kick - Glide

CSS Debate: To Pullout or Not Pullout (Breaststroke Pullout Issues)

Once you master the stroke, you have to get into swimming shape. This is THE workout to do that quickly, and it is FREE. Do this 4-5 times a week for a month and let me know how your swim time improves (but you have to have your technique down first).

5. Build water confidence and get into swimming shape: Spend time in the water, swimming, jumping in, and treading. The more comfortable you are in the water, the more confident you'll feel when executing the Combat Side Stroke during the military swim test. Remember, swimming proficiency takes time, watching videos, practicing, and getting feedback to correct incorrect techniques. THEN you have to get in swimming shape. This will add to your training time, but you can do it quickly if you put in the time 4-5 times a week.

The 50-50 Workout is a workout you need to master in order to get into swimming shape quickly.  Here is a set of the 50-50 workout.


Dude - You are not in Swimming Shape and practice with the 50-50 Swim workout below 4-6 times a week:

Keep pushing forward; before you know it, you'll be gliding through the water easily and confidently. You've got this!

Are you ready to take your swimming skills to the next level, conquer the military swim test, and more? Head to CSS help: One Stop Shop for All Things Military Swimming for the ultimate guide to mastering the Combat Side Stroke. Strengthen your water confidence and prepare for success in special ops swimming and diving training!

Where You Can Find More About the CSS (FREE)

The One Stop Shop Article - Links to all of my CSS articles and CSS videos can be found on this page. (CLICK)

YOUTUBE: You can find over 150 CSS videos on my Youtube Channel (@stew50smith) along with 200+ Tactical Fitness Report podcasts, Live Q and A sessions, and more. 

INSTAGRAM: You can find hundreds on my Instagram page (@stewsmith50) as well but you just need to scroll through to see the videos or check out the hashtag #crushthepst. 

TIKTOK - Now you can see my TikTok Channel (@stewsmith50) where there is nothing but CSS Critique videos. 

There is More To than You May Know

(In fact, there are more than 40 books, 1000+ articles, online coaching - and more) 

Who is Stew Smith CSCS? Coach, Trainer, Writer, PodcasterI'm the former Navy SEAL that tactical candidates go to for books, ebooks and online coaching to prepare themselves to get to and through intense tactical assessment and selection programs and qualify for service in their chosen tactical profession.  See More at

Where to Find More Information About Optimal Performance Training Programs

When you start training again, consider the seasonal tactical fitness model.  I call it A WAY to train and obviously not the only way to train. But it offers the opportunity to never neglect your weaknesses, helps with flexibility and mobility, but will also put you at a level of physical abilities where you are happy with your overall ability to do just about anything. We have a system where the seasons dictate our training. When it is nicer outside, we tend to run and do more calisthenics. When it is colder and not so nice, we lift more, run less, and still maintain our outdoor activities with shorter runs and rucks. Check it out: Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization System.  

These Seasonal Tactical Fitness BLOCK Periodization programs will walk you through 4 x 4 weeks cycles with 16 weeks of each season in two programs. (32 total weeks) 

Increase Strength & Crush the PST / PAST
3 Weeks Strength - 1 Week PT / Cardio Focus 
(16 weeks)

These programs will walk you through 4 cycles with 12 weeks of each season in two programs. 

The Specific Military / Special Ops Physical Fitness Workouts 

Navy SEAL Workout Phase 1
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 2 - 3
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 4  Grinder PT
Navy SWCC Workout

Army / Air Force Advanced Fitness / Special Ops 

Army PFT Workout (Prep For Rucking, OPAT, ACFT)
Army Special Forces / Ranger Workout
Army Air Assault School Workout
Army Airborne Workout
Air Force Special Warfare IFT / OFT / Selection Prep


Advanced Running Program - Special Ops Supplement Plan
USMC OCS / TBS Workout


The Combat Conditioning Workout
Air Force PJ / CCT Workout  Battlefield Airman Prep Course
The UBRR Upper Body Round Robin Workout / Spec Ops version


The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer / Navy SAR Workout
The Service Academy Workout (West Point, Navy, Air Force Academy)
The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp Boot Camp Workout


The Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Workouts

The FBI Academy Workout  |   FBI Workout Vol 2  
The DEA Workout
The FLETC Workout - Ace the PEB
The PFT Bible: Pushups, Sit-ups, 1.5 Mile Run
The Fire Fighter Workout - Ace the CPAT


Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced Fitness Guides 

The Beginner / Intermediate Guide to Fitness
Reclaim Your Life  Erin O'Neill Story (beginner / intermediate)

Veterans Fitness  Baby Boomer and a Flat Stomach 
Circuit Training 101  Beginner / Intermediate Guide to the Gym


The Busy Executive Workout Routine
The Obstacle Course Workout  Prep for Races or Mil, LE, FF
TRX / Military Style Workouts  Adding TRX to Military Prep Workouts


Tactical Fitness Over 40 Series

Tactical Fitness (40+) Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4


Online Coaching Options

Online PT CLUB - Weekly Workouts created personally for you.

New Member's Only Content / Services Program!

If you want access to years worth of workouts, many of the top eBOOKs, favorite workouts of the week, free fitness APP, closed Facebook Group, video / picture library of exercises, and more access to LIVE Q/A sessions check out the Stew Smith Fitness Members Section

The dashboard below has the links to all the information, archives, videos, and links to workouts, podcasts, live Q and A lessons. 

Consider this! - A Membership Program and Gain Access to Exclusive Content
(click for Fitness Club Dashboard - members only)

Best of all, if you have questions, email Stew Smith himself (  Join the tactical fitness group discussions, latest articles, videos, podcasts at the Stew Smith Tactical Fitness Training Closed Group on Facebook.


Questions?  Just email -

At - List of Products and Services

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  2. Podcasts and Swimming Videos (Youtube, TikTok, Instagram)
  3. eBooks
  4. Books and eBooks in PRINT
  5. Stew Smith Fitness Club membership site
  6. Online Coaching  

Stew Smith Fitness 

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness store if you're looking to start a workout program to get you TO and THROUGH any tactical fitness training program OR create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to


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