What is it that makes a swimmer look so smooth in the water? A great swimmer looks like he/she is gliding over the top of the water, while their arms and legs do all the work. As the summer month descend upon us, and the competition season is here, swimmers look to spend more time in the water and improve their times in swimming events. Here are some simple strength training tips that are easy to incorporate into a weekly routine. Over the next 2-3 editions of endurance magazine, we will present a multi-part article with exercises for the 3 components of the swimmers stroke. The focus of these articles will emphasize the freestyle stroke.
First, lets consider what it is that makes a swimmer look like they are gliding on top of the water. The term is efficiency. An efficient stroke requires a stable core with a “long spine” position. The long spine position is accomplished by utilizing the gluteal muscles, abdominals, spinal extensors, and cervical (neck) retractors. All of these muscle groups work to maintain the spine in a neutral, long, position with very little to no wasted movement in the frontal or sagittal planes.
In understanding the actions of these muscle groups on the spine, it is helpful to work from the center outward. At the front center of your body, lies the abdominal muscle group, consisting of the: rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominus muscles. They function to maintain the pelvis, ribs, and lumbar vertebrae in a neutral position. A neutral, erect spine allows the larger muscle groups connecting to the spine to be at their optimal length to work efficiently. This neutral position of the spine is the place that makes one feel like the swimmer’s body is lengthened. The spinal extensors work together and in conjunction with the abdominals to resist motion in the sagittal (forward and backward bending) plane to keep the spine straight. An inefficient swimmer will use other muscles in a dysfunctional pattern, to keep the head and legs in a position to move forward in the water. In this scenario, the gluteals and cervical/thoracic spine extensors are over stressed and will have difficulty holding the spine in a “long spine’ position. If the gluteals have to work to help maintain a neutral pelvic position, it will interfere with the gluteals primary function of extending the hip and lower extremity into and out of extension. This in turn keeps the swimmer from using the full strength of the hip extensors to create a powerful kick in the water.
Now that we know what the potential problems are and the theory behind wanting to change dysfunctional patterns for swimmer, what do we do to prevent it? A simple starting point is to add these four basic exercises to your in-season program. As you perform the exercises, let your primary goal be to pay attention to what muscles you are using to accomplish a “long spine”. Then you can begin to explore how those same muscles are being used when you are in the water.
1) The Human Arrow. Here the swimmer will place their forearms on the ground with their hands clasped and elbows spread to create an ‘arrowhead’ position. Then place your toes on the floor with your knees and hips in a neutral/extended position. Hold the torso and pelvis off the floor using the abdominal, lumbar and pelvic muscles. You should be able to maintain this muscle contraction while still breathing. The head and neck are stretched so that spine is attempting to get as long as possible and the top of the head moves away from the pelvis and in line with the rest of the spine. Maintain this position for isometric sets of 1 minute in length, and repeat 3-4 times.
2) Opposite Arm and Leg Reach in the Arrow Position. Assume the arrow position as described above. Shift your weight to one leg and extend the other leg moving from the hip. It is important to understand that the extended position is not just a lift to the ceiling. The position in the lower extremity is accomplished by tightening the gluts, quads, and calf. To progress to a more challenging exercise, add extension of the arm opposite the lifted leg. In the upper extremity, the triceps are contracted to maintain a straight arm, while the shoulder blade and arm are simultaneously lifted and reaching to elongate the upper extremity.
3) Back Extension on the Ball. The swimmer lies on an exercise ball with their hips over the top of the ball. The abdominals are contracted and the lower extremities are extended at the knees and ankles. The swimmer tightens the gluts and lifts the upper body off the ball into a long spine position as they rise.
4) Alternating Hip and Lower Extremity Extension. The swimmer lays on the ball in the same position. This time the swimmer places both hands on the ground and will extend the lower extremities in an alternating fashion, while maintain as little motion as possible on the ball. Again, the raising of the lower extremities should be hip, knee, and ankle extension, not just a rise to the ceiling.
These four exercises are the start of an exercise program to improve strength, power, and efficiency in the swimmers stroke. Stay tuned for further information and exercises as we explore the function of the upper extremity and rotation about the ‘long spine’ in future articles.