Learn the Combat Sidestroke and Swim Like a SEAL

Navy Seal Swimming

There are four major strokes used for racing: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle (crawl)—but depending on your level of strength and experience in the water as well as what you’re trying to achieve, there are more strokes you can use

One stroke you can learn is the combat sidestroke. It is a variation on the normal sidestroke that is meant to be relaxing and efficient while traveling long distances in open water or surf zones. It was created to allow Navy SEALs to swim while carrying heavy equipment. This video of the combat sidestroke is an excellent resource.

The stroke itself is a combination of the major strokes. It incorporates arm movements that are similar to breaststroke, flutter kicks and body rotation like freestyle and backstroke, and the option to include a dolphin kick from the butterfly stroke. If you have a history with the competitive race strokes it might be difficult for you to learn the combat sidestroke, as you have to allow yourself to break some of the cardinal rules of each of the established strokes. 

Body Positioning

The combat sidestroke was designed to help with speed and ease of use, and so the profile of the body should be flat under the water. Rather than letting your feet drop, you should try to engage your core to make sure you are straight and swimming parallel in the water. 

Throughout the stroke, you switch from floating on your side for a breath, like in sidestroke, to being face down in the water. This rotation allows you to use more than one style of kick and pull as part of the stroke, which gives you the ability to utilize multiple muscle groups. 

To help with this rotation, start with finding out which side you are going to have as your dominant side when you are swimming. Typically, right-handed swimmers prefer to drop their left shoulder and side into the water, while left-handed swimmers prefer to drop their right. It is possible to learn how to swim with both sides, but when starting, pick one to focus on. Practice floating on your side, rotating to floating prone with your face in the water, and then rotating back to your side. While you are floating prone, make sure to also practice air control by exhaling while your face is underwater. 

When you are working on your body positioning, remember to stay near the surface of the water. You should never be deep under the water when swimming combat sidestroke. 


The kick of the combat sidestroke is the main force to push you forward. While your arms can help you with speed, for long endurance distances or while carrying weight, your legs are going to do most of the work. 

To start the kick, float on your side and do a scissors kick. Your top leg closest to the surface of the water will pull out in front and your bottom leg will stretch behind you. Pull your legs quickly together to create a push forward in the water. 

When you practice this, notice how after you kick you have enough momentum to glide in the water. This glide is much like the breaststroke, and you should allow yourself to glide in the water without coming to a full stop or losing posture. Practice the kick and glide until you are comfortable.

Once you are comfortable with the kick, during the glide portion you will rotate your body position from the side to prone. While prone you will kick to help extend your glide longer than it normally would go. You can do this by either doing an underwater flutter kick or a few dolphin kicks.


Your arm movement should stay under the water throughout the stroke. At the very most, one shoulder should barely break the surface of the water. 

Your arm movement starts stretched out together above your head in a streamlined position as you glide on your stomach. As you drop your shoulder to rotate your body back to your side, your upper arm (whichever side is closer to the surface of the water) does a full pull from above your head, down to your leg, resting by your hip much like a freestyle pull. This will help pull and rotate your body to your side. Your lower arm should still be above your head. Do not let it drop and break your position in the water. 

If you want, you can take an additional stroke with your lower arm, but this isn’t necessary if you are not comfortable with it. If you choose to use your lower arm, you will take a pull after your top arm has come to rest by your leg. Once both arms are resting by your legs pull them up your center line and stretch them back to streamline while being prone. 


Breathing during the combat side stroke happens any time you rotate your body and take your main stroke. Much like freestyle, as your body rotates and your shoulder starts to lift out of the water, tilt your head to the side for a breath. This should be a small movement just enough to get your mouth out of the water and should follow the rotation of your body.

Learning the combat side stroke can be tricky, but once you do, it can be a rewarding rest stroke. To master advanced swimming techniques like the combat side stroke, you need a great instructor. Contact Swim Jim to get started and advance your swimming skills today.