How to Swim the Combat Swimmer Stroke

A student testing to be qualified as a second-class swimmer utilizes her breaststroke.
A student testing to be qualified as a second-class swimmer utilizes her breaststroke at Naval Station Great Lakes Moral, Welfare and Recreation swim pool June 20, 2017. (Brian Walsh/U.S. Navy photo)

When people first try the combat swimmer stroke, a fancy nickname for what is really a modified side stroke, they often can look silly. Even swimmers have issues with this stroke. Athletes and non-​​athletes share a few weeks of difficulty getting the timing down of this common stroke used by Special Operations communities. The first video is a three-part breakdown so you can learn how to do the stroke correctly.

Three-Part Breakdown of the CSS: This young man swims the CSS in seven minutes flat. Watch and learn.

Here is a series of students who did not know how to swim very well in the first place, yet alone the combat swimmer stroke. See what they are doing incorrectly and try to avoid some of these common errors.

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. The kicks, arm pulls and breathing are not working for him in video #1.

Video #1: Cannot Swim the CSS

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

Video #2: Getting Better

Video #3: Not bad -- getting better. The student has moments of putting it all together and is just a few hours of swim practice from mastering the timing and sequence of the stroke. Now he has to work on his swimming endurance and speed.

Video #3: Much Better Using Breaststroke Kick

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

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

Video #5: Swim the CSS about as fast as you can. Here is how I recommend learning the combat swimmer stroke, using the scissor kick vs. the breaststroke kick. The reason I like the scissor kick is that you will swim 99% of your swims at BUD/​S and other Special Ops training programs with fins, and you cannot swim the CSS with fins using a breaststroke 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 up your endurance and stamina to last longer and move fast in the water. So keep it up and good luck practicing the CSS.

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

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