Many athletes looking to improve mobility go directly to stretching, which is often ineffective when used as the lone intervention. Improving tissue quality helps us stretch the right muscles when we stretch. If tissue quality is poor in a hip rotator and that muscle is unable to move properly, stretching the hip into rotation will add unintended stress to surrounding joint systems and the muscles of the hip not designed for rotation. For information on hip pain in swimmers, see Dr. Mullen’s recent video:
Tools of the trade for self-massage include foam rollers, PVC pipes, lacrosse balls, softballs, and tennis balls. Foam rollers or PVC pipes work best for the groin, quadriceps, and ilotibial band. The various balls are effective for the glute medius, posas, tensor fascia lata, piriformis, and quadratus lumborum. Be sure to avoid pressure on the bony structures of the pelvis and hips.
Some question the need for the youngest athletes to perform tasks like foam rolling or using lacrosse balls for self-massage, since many of them are too young to have developed poor tissue quality. In my opinion, being responsible for bringing a lacrosse ball and/or softball to practice (in addition to their other swim gear) builds accountability at a young age. Further, exposing kids to this warmup and/or cooldown ritual establishes sound habits for the rest of their careers.
A joint out of position can disturb optimal muscle firing patterns. Hip rotators won’t be available for rotation if the body relies on these muscles to hold the joint in place. If the body has a choice between performance and preservation, it will usually choose preservation!
Self-massage before exercise can help calm down overactive muscles and make it easier to re-train the “ball” of the femur to sit more comfortably in the “socket” of the pelvis. A common hip dysfunction is for the femoral head (the “ball”) to sit too anteriorly in the joint. Below is one exercise to coax the femoral head into the posterior capsule.
Once we prep the muscles for movement and establish joint centration, we are then ready to add mobility. Below is one exercise to train hip internal rotation. There are many exercises to do the job, but this one is easily coachable, user-friendly for a large group setting, and easily repeatable as homework while watching TV.
For external rotation, please see Dr. Mullen’s recent video on at Swimming World:
Many athletes are familiar with mini-band lateral walks to train the lateral hip muscles. Here is one variation from Tim Vagen more specific to breaststroke with the knees narrower than the feet.
Another option is to place an additional mini-band near the ankles to cue tibial external rotation, which is also advantageous to the breaststroke kick.
There’s no doubt that some athletes are born to swim breaststroke. Children with the right pelvic anatomy and early exposure to the stroke have a clearer path to greatness. However, due to suboptimal control of the hip joints and use of the hip muscles, most swimmers don’t achieve their potential in the stroke. A system of improving tissue quality and joint centration before stretching and strengthening can improve return-on-investment during breaststroke training in the water.
Guest Post by Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community and more about them can be found at pikeathletics.com