Swim Sci

Swim Sci


Pros and Cons of New Omega Backstroke Starting Platform

Take Home Points:
  1. The new Omega backstroke starting platforms will likely benefit swimmers by at least 0.2 s.
  2. The new Omega backstroke starting platforms may provide more safety than the traditional start
  3. Omega backstroke starting platforms are positively received by Olympic swimmers.
Not too long ago, FINA approved a new Omega backstroke starting platform. This device has not undergone vigorous testing, but has received backing from most countries including USA Swimming, despite a lack of information about the costs and dimensions of this device. 

Jeff Cummings of Swimming World Magazine, wrote a short piece on this device in June (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: TESTING NEW BACKSTROKE PLATFORM AT USA SWIMMING NATIONALS) and notes he doesn't "want to go back to doing a backstroke start without it again (Cummings 2013)". Now, before praise is given, an investigation and consideration of the ramifications of these platforms is necessary to prevent potential flip-flopping and contradiction like the Fastskin suits. This article can not provide all the pros and cons with this equipment, as repeated testing and trials are necessary for that, which have not been done. This is what occurred with the Fastskin suits, a new product was brought to market, approved by the governing bodies, and eventually banned due to poor foresight. Once again, this foresight is impossible without proper testing. 

For example, the omega track starts (OSB 11) were approved by FINA and now we know the OSB11 improves starts by ~0.2 seconds (a 4% improvement) (Biel 2010; Honda 2010). This significant improvement is massive in a 50 - m freestyle race, potentially skewing the record books, yet few discuss this advantage like the Fastskin suits. Now, it is obvious the Fastskin suit is far different than either of these new starting platforms. However, it is clear these technological advancements will increase swimmers times. These time improvements must be taken into consideration, as many swimmers will go best times and the sport will undergo further progression. 

Now, there are benefits which must also be considered, the first being safety. Personally, I've never heard of anyone getting hurt during a backstroke start, but many swimmers do slip. This slippage has the potential of causing hyperextended knees and/or hip subluxations, both likely rare occurrences. Another benefit is the comfort of the swimmers. Mike Unger of USA Swimming noted Olympians such as Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers "loved the blocks", allowing them to fully concentrate on the start (Unger 2013). 

Further testing should be performed on new swimming technologies should be performed before implementation. This testing can help prevent "flip-flopping" of rules, regulations, and records. At this time, these starting platforms appear to benefit the sport, but expect faster times and a few more unknowns to unravel at major competitions.

  1. Biel K, Fischer S, Kibele A. Kinematic analysis of take-off performance in elite swimmers: New OSB11 versus traditional starting block. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming. 2010 Jun; 16–19, 2010.
  2. Honda KE, Sinclair PJ, Mason, BR, Pease, DL. A biomechanical comparison of elite swimmers' start performance using the traditional track start and the new kick start. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming. 2010 Jun; 16–19, 2010.
  3. Unger, M. Personal Communication. August 2013. 

By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, Strength Coach Consultant, Creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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Should Coaches Change Asymmetries in Swimmers? Part II

Earlier this year we discussed whether coaches should change asymmetries in swimmers. Everyone has a naturally favored side and no one is perfectly symmetrical. But, at what point might asymmetry become detrimental? We addressed those issues in the first post and now revisit the topic with some additional research.

Despite attempts to impose ideal symmetry, a perfectly symmetrical stroke and body are both unrealistic. We all have favored brain hemispheres, eye, ear and limb preferences along with structural differences in how our organs sit within our bodies. Asymmetry may also follow us into the water. But there is still good reason to make swimmers “less asymmetrical” even perfect symmetry is a fiction.

In a sample of 32 national level junior swimmers, Evershed (2013) observed 85% with clinical strength asymmetries. The authors defined asymmetry as greater than a 10 percent difference left to right in clinical strength measures, kinematic movements, or bilateral hand force. Among the swimmers demonstrating clinical asymmetries, approximately half were “able to compensate, due to summated muscle symmetry and/or an altered kinematic movement pattern, and generate symmetrical hand force.”

As for those athletes testing symmetrically in clinical strength measures, all displayed symmetrical bilateral hand force production, which suggests that dry-land movement symmetry does relate to how strength is translated during the stroke. These results don't directly reveal whether taking someone from asymmetrical to symmetrical will yield improvements, but they does suggest there is value in improving symmetry in and out of the water.

Dos Santos also examined asymmetries in swimmers. In an 18 swimmer sample using a tether authors tested relationships between force parameters, symmetry, and breathing preference. Authors noted the following significant findings:

"[t]he propulsive forces decreased during the test but asymmetries did not change under testing conditions. Although breathing preference did not influence asymmetry, swimmers with best performance were less asymmetric than their counterparts. "

Also consider the kick, as the upper and lower bodies don’t function in isolation. As we cited to Coach Gambetta in The Serape Effect in Swimming, "There is a definite interaction between the pelvic girdle on the left and the throwing limb on the right by way of concentric contraction of the left internal oblique, right external oblique, and serratus anterior on the right at the initiation of the throw. The pelvic girdle is rotating to the left and the rib cage is rotating to the right."

Jaszczak 2011 examined symmetry in breastroke, even though we often don’t question symmetry in short axis. If the kick can affect upper body stroke symmetry in breast, we can be assured there’s an effect in freestyle. In this study, twenty boys participated in the research, where seven boys were found to perform incorrect lower-limb movements when swimming. Of those found to have faulty kicks, “incorrect lower extremity movements when performing the breaststroke resulted in increased upper-limb dynamical asymmetry.”

Good swimmers may compensate through injuries to achieve a workable result, but questions remain…do these compensations lower their achievement ceiling (long term progress sacrificed for short term gain?)? Do the underlying asymmetries and resulting compensations increase injury risk? Based on the most recent study, we can’t conclude anything about injury risk, but it is clear that dry-land symmetry does relate to stroke symmetry. This connection is yet another reason why it's critical to perform movement screening for your swimmers to understand individual needs.

  1. Marcin Jaszczak1, Krystyna Zatoń. Dynamical Asymmetry of Upper Limb Movements in Swimming. Human Movement. Volume 12, Issue 4, Pages 337–341, ISSN (Online) 1899-1955, ISSN (Print) 1732-3991, DOI: 10.2478/v10038-011-0038-2, December 2011
  2.  Dos Santos KB, Pereira G, Papoti M, Bento PC, Rodacki A. Propulsive Force Asymmetry during Tethered-Swimming. Int J Sports Med. 2013 Jan 16. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Evershed J, Burkett B, Mellifont R. Musculoskeletal screening to detect asymmetry in swimming. Phys Ther Sport. 2013 May 20. pii: S1466-853X(13)00008-4. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2013.02.002. [Epub ahead of print]
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

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Force Potential of the Early Vertical Forearm

Force potential is the ideal combination of mass and acceleration in the pool. In swimming, the amount of force directly correlates with power, as power also considers time. Power is essential for success, since power influences swimming speed (D'Acquisto 2003). Specifically, the arms play a significant role, as arm strength seems to directly influence sprint swimming (Hsu 2000), while the legs potentially do not provide propulsion (Deschodt 1999). This should not suggest the legs are not important, but potentially play a role in drag, the largest inhibitor of swimming speed, and force transfer through the body.

This article only discusses the force potential of the upper extremity, specifically, the force potential of the early vertical forearms, as this area has the larger ceiling for improvement. If you have a large force potential, then you greater ability to swim fast. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean you will swim fast. Also, power is governed by force production, therefore a higher force potential also increases power potential.

Force potential is a continuum, and maximizing force while minimizing drag is essential for swimming. If these potentials come at the cost of biomechanics (not taking advantage of the Serape effect) or posture (distorting body line increases frontal drag) then speed will decrease! This article will only focus on the arms, specifically the early vertical forearm (EVF) as they contribute most to force potential (Keys 2010).

First, it is important to differentiate between the different styles of a freestyle catch, because numerous styles are successful. Each swimmer has an individualized catch which is most appropriate for their body. Finding an individual catch depends on factors including individual anatomy, past experiences (ingrained motor patterns), and the race distance they’re training for. Determining which catch style is ideal for each athlete is the job of the coach and athlete working in unison.

The early a swimmer positions their forearm/arm perpendicular to their line of movement, the higher their force potential (Keys 2010).

The different types of a catch include:
  1. Straight arm catch utilizing the entire arm as a producer of force (high force potential). This difficult movement causes large shoulder stress to stabilize the long lever arm. Moreover, a stable core is ideal for maintaining the position of least drag, making energy transfer vitally important. Fred Bousquet successfully utilized this style.
  2. Low elbow early vertical forearm catch uses the hand, forearm, and part of the upper arm. This style has moderate force potential and shoulder stress. Matt Biondi and Popov used this technique.
  3. High elbow early vertical forearm only uses the hand and force (low force potential) providing the lowest amount of shoulder stress. This is commonly performed by distance swimmers, most recently Sun Yang.

These main options are not built for everyone or for every race. Therefore, individualization is important. For example, if one has poor in water strength, it is unlikely they will succeed with a high force potential stroke. Moreover, if they are unable to move the arm through the water fast, then it is not practical to use the high force potential since it results in more drag.

Next installment will discuss factors inhibiting force potential of the early vertical forearm.


  1. D'Acquisto, L. J., & Berry, J. E. (2003). Relationship between estimated propelling efficiency, peak aerobic power, and swimming performance in trained male swimmers. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(5), Supplement abstract 193.
  2. Hsu, K. M., & Tsu, T. G. (2000). The relationships among shoulder isokinetic strength, swimming speed, and propulsive power in front crawl swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(5), Supplement abstract 1766.
  3. Keys, M., Lyttle, A., Cheng, L., & Blanksby, B. A. (2010). Wave formation as a possible mechanism of propulsion in the freestyle stroke. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16-19, 2010.
  4. Deschodt, V. J. (1999). Relative contribution of arms and legs in humans to propulsion in 25-m sprint front-crawl swimming. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 80, 192-199.
By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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Knee Hyperextension and Kicking: Is it Trainable?

This series of posts will address attributes found in elite swimmers. Remember there is a thin line between injury/dysfunction and elite level athletes, so be cautious!
A common trait of many elite freestyle and backstroke kickers is the ability to hyperextend the knee while kicking.  Knee hyperextension creates a more powerful lever arm to generate force.  Extreme laxity at the knee also allows the leg to transfer energy like the crack of a whip. 

At the other extreme are poor kickers (novice swimmers and triathletes) who maintain knee flexion throughout an entire kick cycle and transfer very little energy into propulsion.  In trying to emulate the traits of the best swimmers in the world, we reach our main question: Is knee hyperextension trainable?  

Clinically, a hyperextended knee in passive standing posture is referred to as genu recurvatum.  Because ligamentous structures are at high risk via hyperextension (as compared with muscles or tendons, which are more malleable), this certainly is an area to tread with caution.  On land, knee hyperextension is frequently linked to injuries such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.  However, because land-based ACL tears typically occur via a closed chain movement with the foot anchored on the ground, this risk is not as great in the water.  Passive hyperextension has also been shown to cause both ACL and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tears (Meyer 2011), but since the study was done with cadavers, the subjects could not provide the deceleration needed to prevent a rupture.  

One thing is clear from the research: if you are going to train knee hyperextension, the largest window of opportunity exists in youth.  Overall joint laxity and knee extension decreases as kids get older.  If we look at other sports requiring extreme ranges of motion (pitching in baseball, splits in gymnastics and dance), a common thread is exposure to the activity at a young age.  Knee hyperextension may still be trainable at older ages, but is definitely easier when young.  Gender differences are present as well: joint laxity decreases sooner in males than in females. (Hinton 2009; Shultz 2008)

Other factors
Limb dominance also affects laxity (Lin 2009):  It is easier to create knee extension in the dominant leg than the non-dominant leg.  Note that the dominant leg is often different than the dominant arm.  

Posture characteristics: Shultz (2009) found that genu recurvatum, less anterior pelvic tilt, and navicular drop (lower arch in the foot) were predictive of anterior knee laxity in both genders.  A reduced tibiofemoral angle in women and greater hip anteversion in men were also predictive of anterior knee laxity.  

Tibial translation after a swimming workout was not statistically significant: After a swimming workout, tibial translation did not change significantly in a group of elite swimmers (Kvist 2006).  This result would suggest that increasing knee extension in adults requires dryland interventions in addition to kick training in the water.

Training implications
To maximize the window of opportunity for kids, young swimmers should be exposed to fast kicking in short bursts.  Save the gentle two beat distance kick for adolescence and beyond.  One analogy is to baseball players and golfers who are encouraged to swing as hard as they can and then learn control later.  The best chance to safely explore extreme mobility is with kids.  It is much easier to make a powerful kick more efficient than the other way around.

However, one thing to consider from the research is that studies have not definitively concluded that knee laxity is independent of overall joint laxity.  In other words, improving overall flexibility may yield improvements at the knee joint even without local interventions.  Before trying to improve knee extension, coaches must ensure the athlete can passively and dynamically add range of motion.  If added range of motion is possible, in-water and dryland training must develop passive and dynamic stability to control the added range.  
Hinton, R., Rivera, V, Pautz, M., Sponseller P.  Ligamentous laxity of the knee during childhood and adolescence.  Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics.  2008 Mar 28(2): 184-7.

Kvist, J., Cunningham, D., Tigerstrand-Weklemark, H.  Gender Differences in post-exercise saggital knee translation in comparison between elite volleyball players and swimmers.  Knee. 2006 Mar 13(2): 132-6.

Lin, HC, Lai, WH, Shih, YF, Chang, CM, Lo, CY, Hsu, HC. Physiological anterior laxity in healthy young females: the effect of knee hyperextension and dominance.  Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, and Arthroscopy. 2009 Sep 17 (9): 1083-8.

Meyer, E., Baumer. T., Haut, R.  Pure passive hyperextension of the human cadaver knee generates simultaneous bicruciate ligament rupture. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering. 2011 Jan 133(1): 011012.

Shultz, J., Nguyen, A., Schmitz, R. Differences in lower extremity anatomical and postural characteristics in males and females between maturation groups.  Journal of Orthopedic Sports Physical Therapy.  2008 Mar 38(3): 137-49

Shultz, J., Nguyen, A., Levine, B. The Relationship Between Lower Extremity Alignment Characteristics and Anterior Knee Joint Laxity.  Sports Health.  2009 Jan; 1(1): 56-60

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

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Stay High Chariot

Butterfly breathing and body position are like two peas in a pod. If you have improper breathing your body position will suffer dramatically.  This is why many flyers become vertical as their velocity decreases.   

Some elite butterfly swimmers are able to breathe more frequently, but this is due to their ability to keep their hips high and dissociate their head, hips and thoracic spine.  For example, many vertical flyers lift their chest since they are unable to lift their head without the chain reaction of hip lowering occurring simulataneously. Imagine a seesaw, as one side goes up, the other end will lower, this analogy can be used for the vertical flyer. As their head rises, their hips lower and increase drag. This can be due to range of motion deficits in the thoracic spine, impaired strength in the cervical or lumbar spine to not be influenced by the rest of the body.

Many swimmers have difficulties keeping their hips high, while extending their thoracic spine, pressing their chest down and forward while extending their neck. Opposing, when a swimmer does not breathe their hips need to remain hip with the thoracic spine extended with their neck held in neutral.  Improving thoracic spine motion is mandatory to improve this motion. Next time at practice have your elite flyers lean back with their arms overhead. See if they have more range of motion than your poor flyers. Most elite flyers will have more range of motion, therefore why not include mobility exercises to improve this range of motion? What exercises do you use to improve this range and what stability exercises do you use control this new range of motion?
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration and head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club.

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Backstroke Initial Catch

A common flaw between good and elite backstrokers is the initial catch. This stage occurs directly after the entry, but before maximal elbow flexion. A few common terms used to describe this flaw is slipping or slicing at the top of their stroke.

Many of these swimmers have sub optimal shoulder rotation potentially which can cause:
  1. Over Reaching: Inadequate shoulder rotation, may trick the swimmer into over reaching.  If a swimmer does not have the motor skills or strength to rotate their shoulders and hips in unison, they may over reach to compensate. Over reaching can lead to a poor initial catch since the swimmer will have to catch water at the surface, where the water is not calm causing them to catch air. Therefore, the swimmer slices the water grabbing air or disturbed water.
  2. Inadequate Catch Depth: Inadequate catch depth causing the athlete to miss grabbing the top of the water.  Once again, the swimmer would slice water or disturbed water this proximal to the surface. This can be also be noted if the swimmer has proper shoulder rotation but does not obtain adequate elbow flexion.
  3. Improper body position: Sinking, if the athlete is not rotating they may be too low in the water, which may cause them to, once again, miss water due to the proximity of the surface. Backstrokers who are low in the water may not rotate since their body will have to plow through water, potentially impeding their velocity.  Therefore, cuing the athlete to sit higher in the water (getting their chest and hips up) can eliminate this David Blaine mind trick. This flaw could be a cause of chicken or egg,  is the athlete sinking because they are not rotating or are they not rotating because their sinking.  Whatever the case, teaching the athlete to sit higher in the water can do wonders. 
Solutions: A few methods to improve this flaw could be utilizing dryland exercises to teach the athlete how to rotate their shoulders and hips together.  This can be initiated with exercises while lying, progressed to squats, and jumps. Another method could be using wiffle balls or hesitation drills with the swimmer pausing at the top of their stroke.  Swimmers could also perform catch-repeat drills at the top of their stroke, helping them grab water at the top.


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Rear Weighted Track Start

Roland Shoeman, George Bovell, and various other elite sprinters utilize the rear-weighted track start.  I have discussed swimming starts in elite sprinters before and stressed the importance of using the starting style which works best for your swimmer.  From my experience, every elite swimmer uses a front weighted or back weighted track start.  The main difference between these styles is the angle of the shin (which is more horizontal in the rear-weighted start) and the use of the arms, with these athletes pulling with their lats backwards to propel themselves forwards. I have found more athletic swimmers with a preference for fast movements and using the stretch shortening cycle are best opt for rear-weighted track starts.  Next time you are having your athletes lift, take note of the athletes who use momentum and speed to lift heavier weights.  These athlete's will propel with a rear-weighted track start. What arthropometrics and characteristics have you found to be optimal for various starting styles?

By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator theSwimmer's Shoulder System.

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Butterfly Flaw: Frankenstein Flyer

Frankenstein - The Legacy Collection (Frankenstein / The Bride of / Son of / The Ghost of / House of)

Boom-Boom-Boom the Frankenstein flyer is headed down the pool.  They have an inability to control their upper extremities causing them to pound on the water like Buster Douglas.  The Frankenstein flyer often has tight mid and upper back in combination of weak lower trapezius, mid trapezius and serratus anterior. Lastly muscle timing of the anterior and posterior shoulder musculature must be improved.

There are numerous methods to improve lower, middle trapezius and serratus anterior strength. However, very few specifically target the desired muscles.  One way to isolate the trapezius muscles is to tighten the abdominal muscles and round your back over a swiss ball.  While holding this abdominal position, raise your arms overhead in a "Y" position.  This should induce a muscle activation in between the shoulder blades.

"Y" Part I
"Y" Part II

Here is one method to improve thoracic spine. Tape a pair of tennis balls together and roll them up and down the back with the gap in between the balls where the spine lies.  This can be started against a wall and progressed to lying on your back.
Thoracic Spine Mobility

Methods to improve upper body coordination are plentiful.  Here is a great post on upper body plyometrics by Kelly Baggett.  Unfortunately, not many of these are swimming specific.  Stay tuned for my Swimming World piece on upper body plyometrics.

Dr. GJohn

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Butterfly Flaw: Sway Back

Methods to test of core strength can be variable, I prefer a marching test to determine if the anterior sagittal plane is weak, but a plank is a more universal test:
Poor Core position

Methods to improve core strength Tad Sayce did an excellent piece of functional core training for swimmers, watch here and Joe Bonyai discusses some medicine ball drill here.

Tight muscles can also cause the sway back butterflyer.  This is typically from tight hip flexors and hamstrings. This can be improved with relaxed stretching, dyanamic mobility or self soft tissue mobilizations.  To assess this, you can have the swimmer perform a back bend to see if they have the strength and/or range of the hip flexors or you can perform a thomas test.

Lastly, muscle timing must be improved between the pelvis, hips and low back. Some may need to start as simple as pelvic clocks:

Then progress to cat cow and eventually pelvic dissociation in standing.
(I couldn't find a better video....trust me others are worse than this....)

How do you help your swimmers with the sway back?

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Freestyle Flaw: Wrap up


Freestyle Flaw: The Bobble Head

I love bobble heads, as I write I'm staring at a burnt St. Louis Cardinals (least favorite team, go Reds) bobble head, I mean who couldn't like the Reds, first major league team, young pitching staff, small market....I digress.

In swimming, bobble heads are not desired. Unfortunately, this flaw is one of the many common freestyle flaws noted from age groupers to National level swimmers. This flaw is likely due to poor muscle length, strength and timing.

  1. Muscle Length: This muscle length can be short secondary to habit, whether in or out of the pool.  Many swimmers have poor breathing biomechanics (stay tuned) which can cause shortened musculature.  Moreover, our society of long duration slouched sitting feeds into these shortened muscle.  Is poor posture slowing you down? Also, many coaches don't individualize resistance training programs and prescribe bench press and sit-ups which feed into this cycle...            As the Is poor posture slowing you down? post stated, the overactive and short muscles are typically the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, pec minor and major. Watch below for some ways to improve these shortened muscles with relaxed stretching and self soft tissue mobilizations.
  2. Muscle strength: Once again, refer  Is poor posture slowing you down? to note which muscles are lengthened and weak.  This includes the deep neck flexors (longus capitus and colli) and scapular stabilizers (lower trapezius and middle trapezius, refer to freestyle flaw: disco dancer). Simple chin tucking and nodding in various positions can ensure proper muscle activation, make sure the sternocleidomastoid and scalenes don't become overactive during these movements. 
  3. Muscle Timing: Timing is essential in swimming since one must hold a chin tuck as they breathe in combination of performing overhead movements utilizing the lower trapezius during the recovery phase,then the pectorals groups during the catch. Therefore, exercises encompassing activation of the deep neck flexors with the lower trapezius and other muscles is essential.

How do you fix your bobble head swimmers?

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Freestyle Flaw: Disco Swimmer

The year is 1977 and every has their bell bottoms and dancing shoes, time to disco!  Well, maybe the year and clothing aren't right, but many swimmers perform the disco in the pool.  The motion I'm referring to is excessive shoulder horizontal abduction or "crossing-over" during the pull phase of their stroke. General reasons for common freestyle flaws were discussed, but this flaw can perpetuate for years with certain swimmers and needs to be stopped immediately!

Whether you were taught to perform an "S" curve during the pull phase and now you are going overboard with the motion here are some reasons for the deficiency. The main reasons for this flaw are weak scapular stabilizers (lower trapezius, middle trapezius, serratus anterior) inadequate muscle length of the pectoralis (specifically pec minor), levator scapulae, subscapularis, rhomboids and deep thoracic rotators in combination of poor muscle timing between the scapular upward rotators (lower trapezius, middle trapezius, upper trapezius, serratus anterior) and shoulder downward rotators (rhomboid, levator scapulae). 

Assessing scapular strength can be performed with various manual muscle test or looking for scapular dyskinesias (abnormal movement during overhead movements). 

(start watching at 6 minutes and 30 minutes for middle trapezius and lower trapezius, two essential scapular stabilizers)

There are many methods to improve the strength of the scapular stabilizers (many are incorrect), but one to improve the serratus anterior is with upper cuts

Other methods to improve the disco swimmer is to improve the muscle length of the surrounding shoulder musculature.  I recommend using tennis balls as a cheap, effective way to perform self soft tissue mobilizations since many static stretches put high stress on the shoulder joint and capsule.  

(correct method to perform cross arm stretch, but if you need to block your shoulder blade, is your tricep truly tight?)

Lastly improving muscle timing is key with these muscle, therefore adding resistance training with pertubations challenging their balance systems.

What exercises do you do for the cross over?


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Freestyle Flaw: Back Archers

As the common freestyle flaws continue, the next stop is the swimmer who arches their back like Beyonce to make up for inadequate hip extension. This flaw can be hard to spot as everyone is a great cheater and can find a way to "extend" the hip by other means.

The most common compensation is with back arching.  This flaw is typically seen with Master's swimmers, but with the progressive sitting in society it can be noted in age group swimmers as well.  To assess hip extension, you can watch your athlete flutter kick and if they arch their back, you can assume they lack adequate hip extension.  If you want a more formal test or can't see if they are arching their back in the water.  Have your athlete lie on their stomach and have them lift their leg.  If they arch their back or aren't able to attain 20 degrees of hip extension, it is likely they are lacking hip extension.

Not to be a broken record, but this inadequacy can be due to the 3 major players: poor muscle length, strength or timing. To assess muscle length of the hip flexors.  When these muscles are tight they cause arching of the back, you can do the Thomas test, watch below:

This can be improve with relaxed, isometric, self mobilizations or dynamic stretching.  Here are a few examples:  (don't arch your back this much, keep your abdominals tight)

Static stretching, typically held for approximately 30 seconds.
Iliopsoas strech, tighten abdominals and butt cheek

psoas stretch, don't arch back tighten abs
Weak muscles can feed into the poor hip extension.  Our society is becoming assless and many swimmers suffer from flat butt syndrome.  The glutes are the largest muscle in the body and are the main hip extensors. When they become doormat, they are unable to perform optimally, read this post by Bret Contreas for ideas to wake the glutes up.

Lastly muscle timing is essential, performing dynamic movements on unstable surfaces and differentiating quadriceps, hamstrings, back extensors and glutes is important to translate to swimming.

What drills in the pool do you use to improve the back arching, assless swimmer?


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Freestyle Flaw: The Hula Hooper

Every coach has seen the swimmer who does the "hula hoop" down the pool.  This is likely due to compensations secondary to weak core strength. Core strength is a complicated subject and various techniques can be utilized. Tad Sayce posted a great article on methods to improve stability, if you haven't seen it, watch now!  These methods will improve functional strength and muscle timing.

The last puzzle to the hula hoop dancer is their poor muscle length. These athletes will likely present with tight hip flexors (psoas, qudriceps) and hamstrings.  Improving this muscle length is essential to hinder their dancing, but improve their swimming.

What drills and techniques do you use to improve the "hula hooper"?


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Freestyle Flaw: Butt Kickers

This is a continuation of the common freestyle flaws series. The first flaw discussed with poor ankle plantar flexion (toe pointing). Excessive knee flexion during the upkick highly impairs freestyle velocity. The main inhibitors of excessive knee flexion is 1) shortened hamstrings and calves, 2) weak quadriceps, 3) inadequate timing between the quadriceps and hamstrings.

Assessment of the calf and hamstring length can be done passively. Hamstring length can be assessed with the swimmer on their back. The measurement can be done at the knee extension angle. Calf length can be done in standing and having the athlete attempt to reach their knee as far forward as possible. Then the distance from the athlete's foot to the knee can be assessed.
Measure the knee extension angle
Techniques to improve muscle length of the caves and hamstrings should include relaxed, isometric (contract-relax), self soft tissue, and dynamic mobility drills (see leg swings below).

Relaxed hamstring stretch
Relaxed gastrocnemius stretch

Exercises to strengthen the quadriceps should encompass hip flexion and extension (similar to freestyle), read this for some suggestions..

Lastly, it is essential to improve timing of the contraction of the hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps. This can be done by adding pertubations to the legs during some of the aforementioned exercises or utilizing exercises on Swiss ball or Bosu balls.

How do you help the butt kicker swimmers?

Dr. GJohn

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Freestyle Flaw: Poor toe pointing

The inability to plantarflex (point toes) hinders swimming velocity.  When a swimmer is unable to properly point their toes, they decrease their hydrodynamics imparting speed. Therefore, improving one's ability to point their toes is essential for swimming (specifically free, back and fly).  All elite swimmers have excessive plantar flexion range of motions, but this improves their hydrodynamics.  To assess if you have adequate plantar flexion, sit with your legs straight attempting to touch your toes to the floor. Every elite swimmer can accomplish this task, unlike many triathletes and Master's swimmers.
Master's swimmer with poor flexibility

To improve this range of motion, passive, isometric, self soft tissue and dynamic mobility (view here) can be performed to the anterior tibialis. However, the excessive use of plantarflexion is performed by the calf muscles.  Therefore, proper length and strength of this muscle is mandatory.  Similar techniques to improve muscle length can be utilized, but strengthening must be stressed. To strengthen the calf, many activities can be performed. The most simplistic and effective is a single leg calf raise (see my calves below......).  

Relaxed calf stretch, put towel under arch and hold for 30 seconds
Perform with back leg straight and bent, to target both calf muscles
Ease into this procedure

Lastly, improving the calf and anterior tibialis muscle timing is important, this can be accomplished with doing exercises on an unstable surface with a band around your ankle with a partner providing perturbations (random movements) during  your exercises, be creative!

How do you work on toe pointing?
Dr. GJohn

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Common Freestyle Flaws

From age group to Master's swimmers there are common freestyle flaws.  These flaws are often due to inadequate muscle length, strength and/or timing.  I'm starting a series of ways to assess these flaws and how to improve each realm.

What are the common flaws you seen?


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Tips to Improve Breaststroke

What is impeding your breaststroke velocity?  Watch below for some tips.

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Freestyle Technique: Hip Drive

Freestyle hip drive is essential for optimal swimming.  Eamon Sullivan is a great example and you can see he initiates his hips before he sets his catch:

To improve your rotation, try these freestyle hip rotation drills.


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3 Ways to Improve Freestyle Kick--with Stretching

Freestyle kicking is a simplistic complex issue. Many people can perform the task, but are unable to articulate the task. On the other hand, many people can articulate the movement, but can not perform the task. This simplistic complexity can be frustrating for many beginners, especially in Master's programs who have maladaptive bodies and muscles.

Freestyle kick should predominantly come from the hip, with minimal force production from the knee. Knee kicking causes high drag coefficients in the water. For this reason, freestyle kicking should only encompass 15 degrees of knee range of motion, but nearly 60 degrees of hip range of motion.

There are three muscles that require adequate mobility to perform freestyle kick.
  1. Hip Flexors:To improve hip kicking, proper muscle length needs to be achieved. Short hip flexors (quadriceps, psoas) will prevent hip extension and cause an athlete to arch their back. Therefore, proper length of the hip flexors is mandatory.
  2. Hamstrings: Tight hamstrings can cause flexing at the knee, therefore stretching this musculature is needed. Improper stabilization of the lumbar spine and pelvis can cause decreased hip mobility (mobility and stability go hand in hand, if one is inadequate the other will suffer). Therefore, strong abdominals and lumbar stabilizers (multifidus) is mandatory to perform proper kicking.
  3. Calves: The calf is composed of the soleus and gastrocneumius. The gastrocnumius crosses the knee joint and if tight can cause flexion of the knee. Tightness of the calf can increase knee flexion during the up kick.

To improve muscle length, active mobility drills, passive stretching and manual soft tissue mobility can be utilized. The idea is to change the length prior to swimming, use this new length while swimming, then improve muscle length after swimming or on off days. There is conflicting evidence on the time best suited for stretching, but anecdotal evidence various experts stress these ideas.

Enjoy, have fun


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