A platform for fast swimming
Through observation, questions and positive debate, we as coaches can improve our own skills and help swimmers perform better than they ever have before. One way this can happen is by examining how and why we train when it comes to the biomechanics of the crawl stroke.
Over the past few years, there have been many quality presentations, discussions and articles on each of the following areas: body balance (T-press), hip drive in long axis strokes, the importance of the catch phase in the crawl arm stroke and various topics regarding the flutter kick. Historically, each of these topics has been addressed individually or, at times, been paired together.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize the reader with these four areas, then to take the next step by using observation to draw all of them together into one cohesive picture.
Anyone who has given any thought to the idea that the hips provide power and drive in the crawl stroke has probably made one of three choices:
You can choose to agree that the hips provide a means for power and, therefore, propulsion.
You can choose to dismiss the hips as a source of power and propulsion. You may choose to remain undecided until more compelling evidence comes along.
Until recently, I was a member of the third group. As far as I was concerned, the jury was still out. In fact, I thought that there was a limitless number of things I could improve on as a coach to make my swimmers better without becoming fixated on the issue of hip drive. I still believe this.
However, I think it would be negligent to ignore some key issues which may support the notion of using one’s hips as a source of generating power. Knowing how we move through the water enables us to train our athletes more efficiently.
First, a little background on the problem.
For several years now, biomechanists have pointed to activities like swinging a bat or pitching a ball as proof that the power in athletic, twisting movement passes through the hips before the power is transferred to the arms. True. When you look at slow motion film footage, movement does pass through the hips and from there into the arms.
Supporters of hip propulsion were quick to observe the same hip twisting motion in most world-class freestylers that they saw in Nolan Ryan’s amazing fastball. The assumption was that the generation of power was the same for swimming as it was for throwing, swinging, punching, etc.
It made a lot of sense at first. The problem was that swimming technicians were overlooking a major factor in land-based athletic motion: the land. It is not true that the power to throw a 90-mile-per-hour fastball is generated from the hips. It is true that the power passes through the hips to the arm and is eventually transferred to the ball.
The origination of the power comes from the pitcher’s feet leveraging against the pitching mound. Without this leverage, there is little to no power to be passed on through the hips and into the arms. There is no opposing force for the hips to drive off of.
In swimming, there is no land base from which to generate leverage. The only points at which our athletes are in contact with a solid surface are during the turns and starts.
How, then, do we compare the two?
If you are having trouble visualizing this problem, think back to Nolan Ryan. Try to imagine him throwing that same fastball while floating in space. His feet would have nothing to push off of, and right before release, his legs would kick out into space, and little energy would go to the ball.
Without land and the leverage it provides, how can a swimmer generate force from the hips? Several observations have convinced me that a swimmer can, indeed, generate a considerable amount of force from the hips which can be directly applied to usable forward motion.
The Kick and Catch
I am going to bring the focus of this article down to the swimmers who compete in the shorter crawl events. Although I believe hip drive can help swimmers at all distances to varying degrees, the shorter events make for a clearer picture.
Three skills that we as coaches teach or exercise daily led me to change my thinking on hip drive. We have all talked about the importance of proper mechanics to our swimmers and to each other. Specifically, we have emphasized the importance of the catch. Also, as coaches, we talk about the importance of a good, strong flutter kick for the shorter crawl events. Lastly, we instruct and lecture on proper long-axis leveling or body balance.
These three skills are well explored and, individually, well taught. The roadblock to understanding how the hips can be used in long-axis swimming comes from not putting these three skills together. When combined and looked at as a whole, these skills make hip drive an exciting reality.
As I have had the opportunity to watch freestyle sprinters over the past few years, I have noticed that, generally, the best ones seem to have a good, clean, fast catch. They also seem to have a strong kick. Notice I said strong, not fast.
Sure, some great sprinters have tremendously fast kicks. On the other hand, some great sprinters do not. All have strong kicks, though, in some cases, they may not be moving forward in the water as fast as their teammates. These observations led me to make further observations.
The kick alone does not seem to contribute a large percentage to the overall top speed of the swimmer. Some, yes. A lot, no. A well-made catch can set the swimmer up for an efficient stroke, but the catch alone provides minimal propulsion as well. I found it curious that the best swimmers seem to excel at the last propulsive phases of the stroke. Is it possible that there is more going on here than meets the eye? I think there is.
Remember our picture of Nolan Ryan pitching while suspended in space? There was no solid platform for our pitcher to drive from. This illustrated the problem of initiating hip drive from in the water with no land to gain leverage from.
The answer to this problem may come from the kick and the catch. Why is it so important for world-class crawl sprinters to maintain a strong, six-beat kick in a race even if they are slow kickers? The answer is that it creates a platform from which to derive leverage for hip drive.
Whether you are gifted enough to have a fast kick or not, if you move your feet rapidly in a proper six-beat fashion, the force has no choice but to go out into the water and do something. The something that it does…is create stability.
No, it isn’t as stable as the land, but it serves a similar purpose. Even this platform may not provide enough stability for powerful hip drive. The larger torso muscles involved in hip drive could very well overpower the leverage-like action of the legs. This is where the catch plays a major role.
During the catch, the swimmer’s body is rotated on its side from the hips to the shoulders. The catch in the crawl stroke is made out in front of the head and somewhere within the width of the shoulder. Most of the time, it is made at a depth of 45 degrees below the water line. The hand is open, it slides forward and begins to press down and back while the elbow remains slightly above it. This is a very simplified version of something that is common knowledge.
At this point, the propulsive value of the catch alone is small. However, the leverage gained as the hand presses against the water, when combined with the platform created by the strong kick, provides two points of momentary stability. What is even more important is the position of these two points of leverage. They are at opposite ends of the swimming vessel. At this instant, it is the combined stability of these two points that allows the hips to rotate with power.
Putting It Together
Let’s paint another picture. In most toy stores, you can find balsa-wood airplane gliders. You know the type… flimsy, not pre-assembled. When my brother and sister and I were young, our father would occasionally buy some of these 50-cent wonders for us to play with. They were great fun (still are), but they were never as good as the ones that had the rubber band-driven propeller.
What you did was anchor one end of the rubber band to the propeller and the other to a small hook at the tail of the plane. When you wound the propeller up, you were actually storing up potential energy in the rubber band that would be unleashed when the prop was let loose. However, without these hooks, or points of stability, there can be no winding and storing of energy.
The successful result? The energy from the wound-up rubber band acted against the anchors, was transferred to the propeller, which in turn gained mastery over the surrounding air and you had flight.
Let’s turn this example to swimming. The body of the swimmer is much like the rubber band on the airplane. When it is rotated to one side and has leverage, or anchors, at opposite ends of its length (the catch and the kick act as anchors), it has a tremendous amount of potential energy that can be released while rotating back the opposite direction.
The successful result? The potential energy from the rotated hips acts against the stability of the catch and the kick, while the hips and torso are forcefully rotating to the other side. The energy is transferred through the body, to the arms, to the hands, which in turn gained mastery over the surrounding water, and you have fast swimming supported by hip drive.
There is one other aforementioned factor that plays a key role in using the hips effectively. Body balance, T-press, leveling-however you prefer to label it-is crucial.
Apart from its role in hip drive, body balance brings to the party many wonderful hydrodynamic principles. Its role in hip drive is simple. The energy stored in the rotated body of a swimmer is best released along a straight line from the catch to the kick.
Perfection is hard to come by, but a relatively tight, straight body transfers power to the arms more effectively than a bowed, sagging body. To learn more about body balance, just pick up any good article addressing the superior hydrodynamics of well-balanced swimmers.
Putting the catch, kick, balance and hip drive together into one large, three-dimensional picture accomplishes nothing if there is no practical application to teaching. Elite level swimmers already do so many things right, it is safe to assume that a large number of national- and world-class swimmers are already using the basics of these principles.
Our goal with these athletes should be to refine and strengthen. To refine these areas, I believe there should be more attention paid to drills that include a kick. There are times for drills that break down the stroke into its individual components, but the opportunity to learn smooth performance while perfecting the timing of the entire body is paramount.
As a sidenote, there are some exercise physiologists without any knowledge of swimming who question the hours and hours of training we prescribe at times. It could be that, in part, it is spent perfecting timing issues rather than physiology only.
The time devoted to teaching technique to young age group swimmers gives them an early start in learning to manage themselves in an aquatic environment, i.e., balance and ease of movement. It is the continuation of this learning that is as much responsible for some of the time requirements of the sport as are physiological adaptations.
Rather than list the drills I prefer to use, I leave that to your own exploration. There are many talented, experienced coaches out there. Use the drills they use. I only suggest that we lean more toward the drills that require a combination of kicking, rotating, catching and body position.
Regarding strength, some of the oldest ideas occasionally seem to be the best. It is my feeling that performing exercises which strengthen the core are the most beneficial. If power comes from the hips and torso area, it makes sense that this area of the athlete’s anatomy should be strengthened first, then work outwardly to the extremities.
However, there are some considerations. In my opinion, there is a difference between the ability to isolate certain muscles to strengthen, and the ability to connect the strength from one area of the body to another. Because of the total-body nature of hip drive, it seems logical to strengthen in a total-body nature.
I believe firmly in resistance training. In fact, I believe there are times for very high resistance training. Finding exercises that connect strength throughout the body is the challenge.
Lastly, based on the subject matter of this article, there is good reason for encouraging a strong, fit flutter kick in our swimmers. This holds true regardless of the propulsive power of the individual athlete’s kick. My suggestion is founded on strengthening the platform, or anchor.
I am currently rethinking my position on using boards at all. Also, it would seem to make some sense to design kick sets that involve repeated long axis rotations throughout. As far as distance swimming is concerned, I believe that the main purpose of the two-beat kick is to provide leverage. When comparing leverage vs. propulsive value, the real benefit seems to be purely one of leverage.
This article was written based on observation, not clinical research. There is an obvious place for both in our sport. Please feel free to exercise your own skills of observation and share them with me at Morganbail@aol.com. I would like to thank the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to this article: David Marsh and the entire Auburn University swimming staff and team members; Jim Reitz, University of Nevada-Las Vegas; Eddie Reese, University of Texas; Ed Spencer, Dynamo Swim Club; and Pat Hogan, Mecklenburg Aquatic Club.
Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Jul-Sep 1999
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