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Master the freestyle and the butterfly

This is an excerpt from Swimming Anatomy by Ian McLeod.


As the hand enters into the water, the wrist and elbow follow and the arm is extended to the starting position of the propulsive phase. Upward rotation of the shoulder blade allows the swimmer to reach an elongated position in the water. From this elongated position, the first part of the propulsive phase begins with the catch. The initial movements are first generated by the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major. The latissimus dorsi quickly joins in to assist the pectoralis major. These two muscles generate a majority of the force during the underwater pull, mostly during the second half of the pull. The wrist flexors act to hold the wrist in a position of slight flexion for the entire duration of the propulsive phase. At the elbow, the elbow flexors (biceps brachii and brachialis) begin to contract at the start of the catch phase, gradually taking the elbow from full extension into approximately 30 degrees of flexion. During the final portion of the propulsive phase the triceps brachii acts to extend the elbow, which brings the hand backward and upward toward the surface of the water, thus ending the propulsive phase. The total amount of extension taking place depends on your specific stroke mechanics and the point at which you initiate your recovery. The deltoid and rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) are the primary muscles active during the recovery phase, functioning to bring the arm and hand out of the water near the hips and return them to an overhead position for reentry into the water. The arm movements during freestyle are reciprocal in nature, meaning that while one arm is engaged in propulsion, the other is in the recovery process.

Several muscle groups function as stabilizers during both the propulsive phase and the recovery phase. One of the key groups is the shoulder blade stabilizers (pectoralis minor, rhomboid, levator scapula, middle and lower trapezius, and the serratus anterior), which as the name implies serve to anchor or stabilize the shoulder blade. Proper functioning of this muscle group is important because all the propulsive forces generated by the arm and hand rely on the scapula's having a firm base of support. Additionally, the shoulder blade stabilizers work with the deltoid and rotator cuff to reposition the arm during the recovery phase. The core stabilizers (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, and erector spinae) are also integral to efficient stroke mechanics because they serve as a link between the movements of the upper and lower extremities. This link is central to coordination of the body roll that takes place during freestyle swimming.

Like the arm movements, the kicking movements can be categorized as a propulsive phase and a recovery phase; these are also referred to as the downbeat and the upbeat. The propulsive phase (downbeat) begins at the hips by activation of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris muscles. The rectus femoris also initiates extension of the knee, which follows shortly after hip flexion begins. The quadriceps (vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis) join the rectus femoris to help generate more forceful extension of the knee. Like the propulsive phase, the recovery phase starts at the hips with contraction of the gluteal muscles (primarily gluteus maximus and medius) and is quickly followed by contraction of the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). Both muscle groups function as hip extensors. Throughout the entire kicking motion the foot is maintained in a plantarflexed position secondary to activation of the gastrocnemius and soleus and pressure exerted by the water during the downbeat portion of the kick.


The primary difference between freestyle and butterfly is that the arms move in unison during butterfly whereas reciprocal movements take place with freestyle. Because butterfly and freestyle have the same underwater pull pattern, the muscle recruitment patterns are almost identical. As with freestyle, the swimmer's arms in butterfly are in an elongated position when they initiate the propulsive underwater portion of the stroke. Muscles active during the entire propulsive phase are the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi, which function as the primary movers, and the wrist flexors, which act to maintain the wrist in a neutral to slightly flexed position. The biceps brachii and brachialis are active as the elbow moves from being fully extended at the initiation of the catch to approximately 40 degrees of flexion during the midpart of the pull. Unlike in freestyle, a forceful extension of the elbow is emphasized during the final portion of the pull, resulting in greater demands being placed on the triceps brachii. As in the freestyle stroke, both the rotator cuff and deltoid are responsible for moving the arm during the recovery phase, but the mechanics are somewhat different. Butterfly lacks the body roll that aids the recovery process during freestyle; instead, an undulating movement of the torso occurs, which brings the entire upper torso out of the water to aid in the recovery process.

Again, the shoulder blade stabilizing muscles are extremely important, because they function to provide a firm anchor point for the propulsive forces generated by the arms and help reposition the arms during the recovery phase of the stroke. Although butterfly lacks the body roll present in freestyle, the core stabilizers are still important in linking the movements of the upper and lower extremities and have an important role in creating the undulating motion that allows the swimmer to get the upper torso and arms out of the water during the recovery process. The undulating movement is initiated with contraction of the paraspinal muscles that run in multiple groups from the lower portion of the back to the base of the skull. This contraction results in an arching of the back, at which time the arms are moving through the recovery process. Contraction of the abdominal muscles quickly follows, which prepares the upper body to follow the entry of the hands into the water to initiate the propulsive phase of the stroke.

As with the arms, the muscles used in generating the kicking movements during the butterfly kick are identical to those used during the freestyle kick; the only difference in kick mechanics is that the legs move in unison. The propulsive downbeat begins with contraction of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris, acting as hip flexors. The rectus femoris also initiates knee extension, and associated firing of the quadriceps muscle group further aids in extension of the knee. The gluteal muscle group drives the recovery phase of the kick. Concomitant contraction of the hamstring muscles also works to extend the hip. The foot is maintained in a plantarflexed position through a combination of the resistance from the water and activation of the gastrocnemius and soleus, acting as plantarflexors. The dolphin kick that is used at the start of the race and off each turn wall recruits a larger group of muscles than the smaller, more isolated kick tied into the arm movements. Besides the movements generated at the hips and knee, the dolphin kick ties in the undulating movements of the torso through activation of the core stabilizers and the paraspinal musculature.

This is an excerpt from Swimming Anatomy.

More Excerpts From Swimming Anatomy