Ask Stew: How to Improve Your Breathing Technique with Fins During the CSS

CSS fins
(Stew Smith)

To prepare for future military diving and swimming training, swimming with fins 2-3 times per week must be part of your weekly regimen. Long ocean swims and dives require you not only to get in shape to do those events but also to get your ankles, knees and hips ready to handle the mobility stresses that big rocket or jet fins will put on those joints.

Here is a technique and timing question from a future BUD/S student asking about regulating breathing during the combat swimmer stroke (CSS).

Stew, can you please do a video on the breathing technique for the Combat Swimmer Stroke (with or without fins)? Every time I take a breath, I get small amounts of water coming in. I think it is a timing issue, but it could be a rotation issue. Any advice? Heath

Heath -- Sure can. Check out this video walkthrough on the topic of breathing, as well as the timing and technique of a near perfect CSS with fins.

Here is the sequence that you must put together to make this work for you:

1. Top arm pull and turn your head

Finish the exhale with the top arm pull just as you turn your head so your face is out of the water in preparation to inhale.

2. Breathe and bottom arm pull

Your face should be out of the water during the bottom arm pull (think freestyle inhale position), and that's when you take a normal inhalation.

3. Kick

At this point, your top arm and your bottom arm will be down by your waist. There is nothing to do now but continue the constant flutter kicks and recover your arms tight to your body to the overhead glide position. Once you are in this glide position, you can start the exhale and prepare for the repeat of the stroke sequence, starting with the top arm pull and turn of the head.

Go back to the top of the sequence and repeat.

You will repeat this sequence 4-5 times every 25 meters, so you need to get good at it. A typical ocean swim at BUD/S will be two miles each week. By the third phase, you will accomplish a 5.5 nautical mile swim (11,000 yards). Mastering the technique, conditioning, timing and joint durability are all part of this military swimming journey.

It is recommended to build up to 4,000-5,000 yards per week with fins. That can be broken into two 2,000-2,500-yard swims.

Top off leg day with this workout to receive full knowledge of how your legs will feel when going through training. Your goal will be to achieve your 4,000-yard swim in under 75 minutes to graduate from SEAL training. However, 60- to 65-minute swims of the same distance will be common in the class as you reach the end of the 26-week program.

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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