Why Does the Navy Use the Combat Side Stroke?

(Stew Smith)

Depending on the job, you can use a variety of strokes on military swimming tests. Rescue swimmers use the freestyle for testing, but the SEAL, SWCC, EOD and diver programs require an underwater recovery stroke versus the freestyle, backstroke or butterfly (above-water arm recovery) strokes.

This means breaststroke and side stroke are required for these programs. Here is a question about why the Navy uses a special stroke for these jobs.

Hey Stew, just wondering. Why is it that the military uses the combat side stroke and not a traditional swimming stroke for the fitness test to get into these jobs? Bob

Over the years, the side stroke has been modified and given a nickname, "the combat side stroke." Some refer to it as the combat swimmer stroke, but the acronym CSS has been used to describe a primary underwater recovery stroke. You can use the very common breaststroke, since that one is classified as an underwater recovery stroke.

There is an elementary side stroke and a combat side stroke. The CSS is just a modified side stroke that utilizes the top arm pull like that of a freestyle catch and pull. The kick is independent of the top arm pull with the CSS.

The elementary side stroke does a half top arm pull and kick at the same time. It is a matter of times. Both work well as an underwater recovery stroke, but many will agree that the CSS is more efficient because of the fewer strokes per length.

See videos of both the elementary side stroke and the CSS to see the difference for yourself:

Video -- Elementary Side Stroke

Video - Three Part Break down of the CSS

If you've ever taken a lifeguard course, you may have been taught the elementary side stroke as a lifesaving technique. The stroke enables you to breathe as you practice side-kick propulsion with your head out of the water as you drag a swimming victim through the water.

The CSS is a modified version that takes the arm pull from the freestyle catch and pull (top arm) and uses the bottom arm as more of a breaststroke scull. You can use either a scissor kick or a breaststroke kick. Do the CSS glide phase with both hands over your head and slightly canted so that your stomach is facing the bottom of the pool or at a 45-degree angle, based on your preference.

The reason why the Navy prefers the CSS side stroke over the breaststroke is that it transfers nicely to swimming with fins. Nearly 100% of your swims in these Navy selection programs will be with fins.

If you are great at the breaststroke, take the Navy PST using the breaststroke. You will still have to learn and practice the CSS with fins in order to prepare yourself for the longer ocean swims that will come later in your training.

Many special-ops candidates do not have much of a background in swimming. The breaststroke may be as foreign to a land athlete as the CSS. Many candidates move straight to the CSS and practice with and without fins, and they do not spend their preparation time learning the breaststroke. That is why many candidates do not use the breaststroke in these fitness tests.

Finally, here are the tactical applications of the CSS versus normal swimming strokes:

1. The CSS has to be done with fins. Surface swimming is done with fins in open water and at night. The CSS and sidestroke are perfect options for that transition from the pool with no fins to the ocean with fins, fighting currents and tides.

2. The sidestroke and the CSS are very efficient and typically utilize less energy than the other strokes.

3. The CSS and the sidestroke are both lower-profile underwater recovery strokes with no arms flailing on the surface, so the swimmer is not making splashes or noise. At night, the CSS looks very similar to an animal swimming in the water if you even see it.

Those are some reasons why the CSS is used over traditional strokes and has surpassed the elementary sidestroke for efficiency purposes. Finding the underwater recovery stroke that works best is up to you and your abilities, but always remember there is more to becoming a Navy operator than just passing the fitness test that gets you into the training. You still must get through the selection and long training programs, and that will require many other aquatic skills like longer swims with fins, treading water, SCUBA diving, drownproofing and lifesaving events. There is so much more to worry about than which stroke to use on the PST is best.

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 eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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