This topic is probably the most heated topic I have discussed in public. It is so hot I have seen people turn red, steam shoot out of their ears and their hair fall out. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a sensitive topic. One time I presented the idea before a large group and this guy stood up and started arguing I was all wrong. When you read this you might agree, but like I told the guy "we disagree, I'm at peace with that." If anything comes from this maybe it will be a discussion and together we can find the ultimate solution.
There was a time when the swim gurus were observing and writing a lot about the S-Pattern of the freestyle stroke. When they filmed swimmers with lights attached to their finger tips and turning out the room lights they were able to see clearly the S-Pattern. Back then and even today there was an enormous amount of discussion hypothesizing what the propulsive force was a result of. Were the hands creating lift drag forces like an air foil or propeller or were they like paddles pushing the water back? What everyone agreed on was the hands of elite swimmers were moving in the S-Pattern. So coaches were teaching swimmers the S-Pattern. Hmm, 25 years latter you don't see that much. I think most everyone agrees the S-Patterns are still observed in world class swimmers, but if we turn the lights in the room on and look at the hands relative to the body, the patterns are not as distinct.
I have talked a lot about the rotation of the shoulders and hips. Because of rotation, the hand is not moving through the water by only the power of the arm. The hand moves and presses the water with power generated from a dynamic rotation of the trunk. If the shoulders are rotating back and forth you can imagine the relative effect of the hand pattern as it moves through the water. The hand at entry with the same shoulder vertically down creates a farther reach. As the hand moves down, the shoulder rotates to a flat level position in the water forcing the hand to sweep out. The hand moves farther towards the finish of the stroke while the shoulder continues to rotate moving vertically out of the water. The hand sweeps out again. There you have the S-pattern.
The mistake made was to teach the hand to make the S-Pattern when we should have been teaching shoulder rotation and let the hand go its course. The real question should have been is the S-Pattern what makes world class swimmers fast or is it only the result of something else they are doing that makes them fast? I believe there is a debate today regarding the path of the hand. I am a little leery of major changes in systems that work, so I will likely wait a few years before I integrate in my coaching major changes in the hand pattern of stroke. That is not to say you won't see me try something new. If a change works and I see the results on the clock that is another story.
I'll talk about change in another essay, but the danger of making change and not seeing results is not taking into consideration a time period of adaptation. We have to remember change can take time for the body to assimilate and adapt for it to be noticeably effective.
All of that said brings me to my point and the hot topic. You see I have been thinking about this stuff for a long time and have had some personal experiences with what somebody might call a "new method" that is changing the way people swim. You can imagine when somebody comes to me with a new way of swimming I am definitely going to listen. I want nothing more than to swim faster. About ten years back swimmers were attending certain swim schools and coming back with some interesting ideas. In fact you could say they had been indoctrinated into a methodology converting them into a school of thought with religious-like convictions. Wow, I was really impressed with the impact these schools were having on the pool deck. Athletes' cups that once were half empty were filled to the brim. I almost felt I was being replaced by a methodology that said my then 20 years of swimming were out of date.
With consistencies on the pool deck using methods that I could prove worked, it helped me win back the lost sheep. I am also very open to looking at ideas and considering their validity. I enjoy working with athletes and exploring conflicting ideas. I don't want to be the one that misses the boat.
So here it is. I have rambled on and on about rotation I have talked about the power rotation generates. I am really into rotation, but the conflict I have is when argued that rotation comes from the hip. I disagree and believe the majority of movement occurs higher up the torso. This is the part where I pause for silence and listen to the gasps for air in the room. Then I say "now I know this may conflict with what you have been taught and I am at peace with that."
There has been so much focus on hip rotation I decided I needed to do what people have been doing for years when they needed answers. I consulted the films of world class swimmers. What I was hearing and reading was the body should rotate back and forth and each time it rotated the belly button should face the side wall. The swimmer was taught to rotate from one side to the other and to the point the belly button faced the wall. Face one wall then rotate and face the other. It wasn't sitting right with me, so I went to film, books and coaches. I started watching really good swimmers. With the click of a mouse you can pause at every frame of a film and see honestly what people think they see. I also bought contraptions people were selling to teach you to rotate. One had a marble in it and you would hear it drop when you got the full rotation. Each time you rotate with your hips you hear that drop. I have to admit it made you aware if you weren't getting the rotation on one side you wouldn't hear that marble click and you had instant feedback.
The other conflict I had was swimmers were being taught to do what I call a catch up drill. They were doing a complete rotation of the body and were holding their hand at entry until the other hand caught up. I discussed this in earlier essays, minus the major hip rotation, Ian Thorpe successfully uses a similar technique. However he is an amazing kicker with incredibly large feet. Not to flow too far from the rotation subject, but as I explained earlier the hand timing in relation to the other hand is determined by the individual's personal abilities. The effect of the kick, buoyancy and momentum all determine when the hand should go from entry to press.
I know some people are reading this and their heads are imploding over the hips statement so I better get back to it. I challenge anyone to look at an underwater film of a swimmer like Ian Thorpe or better yet, Alexander Popov. Popov as of the last time I checked, still holds the world record for the 50m freestyle. He is considered one the best stroke technicians of all time. He is a beautiful example of a great swimmer. You look at his hips and tell me they are generating a great amount of rotation. I am not saying his hips are not rotating, what I am saying is the hips are not rotating too much. What is amazing about Popov is his shoulder rotation. Same with Ian Thorpe, their shoulders rotate to a near vertical up and down position each rotation. This allows them to get the shoulder out and over the water. It is also important to note especially with Popov how high he maintains this position throughout the stroke. You don't see the shoulders drop and then rise, they stay high. That is the key point to know when to begin the press of the stroke. You can pause all day but if your shoulder drops you are going to plow the water. I have to say it at least once, maybe a few more times. When the hand initiates the stroke with a press relative to where the other hand is by starting to move and press is dependent on momentum. If you go slower waiting for the hand then increase your tempo. If you body position drops, increase your tempo.
I have seen some world class swimmers with major hip rotation, but not a great number of them. I believe too much of a good thing can be wrong. Like one day you see somebody use a method effectively and from that point on decide it is what everyone should do. Results have to be quantified and the clock, after a period of adaptation, is the most honest approach to determine effect on a stroke. Each of us is an individual and we adapt to movement in different ways. One way is not always the best for another.
My current methodology is a general approach and I believe can be applied effectively for the majority of swimmers. All swimmers should use a coach to determine the most effective way to swim.
Watching swimmers, reading, talking, teaching, and thinking, I have come to the conclusion to agree with a visual concept my wife said one day - 3 to 1. It means the shoulders should rotate 3 degrees to the hips 1 degree. This is not to be taken literally, but used as a teaching method, an image for the mind to see the idea. The amount of rotation in the hips depends on the effect it has on the kick and the effect it has on the timing of the stroke. You see timing of rotation is really important. The major reason we want to rotate is to generate power for the hand and arm to press against the water. If the rotation is going to be useful it has to happen in sync with the hand so it can be the cause of force.
The hips are the eye of the storm for freestyle. From the hips, movement for the kick is initiated and followed down the femur to the knee and to the ankle. Quoting a term I have used before "freestyle is a symphony of muscles performing dynamic stability and power producing propulsion." The body is not a loose noodle moving through the water. It is a stable vessel moving with fluid motion. The hips are the starting point of a chain of movement up the trunk and into the shoulders. If you look where the latissimus dorsi (the big power muscle for freestyle) originates it is at the base of the spine on the sacrum where the hips are also connected. It goes from the back around to the sides and attaches to the upper arm, the humorous. To apply a force that pulls on the arm we have to have a stable base of support. Our hand and arm establishes stability when it presses force against the water but our trunk has to also have stability. We can initiate momentum with a rotation of the hip, but at the same time the hip is the center for stability of the kick and stability of the lats as they pull on the arms.
The beauty of organic movement is the nervous system at work. There is what I call an intelligence that goes beyond the capsule of the brain and extends into the body. The genius of movement is when a trained body coordinates muscle response to its environment with results of perfection. From the hips, muscles are recruited and work together like the links of a chain that connect to the fingertips. The spine with its hinges, twists with increasing degree as the movement nears the shoulders. What feels like an intuitive movement to a swimmer is the trained effect of what is done to make the swimmer go fast.
Watch fast swimmers underwater and see before you take my word. We all want the latest trick to make us faster, just make sure before you start changing your technique it really works. Feel free to drop me an email to discuss if you have some other thoughts on the subject.