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Swimming Posture & the Phases of Freestyle

This is an excerpt from Triathletes in Motion by Marc Evans & Jane Cappaert.

How we walk, sit, stand, and carry our posture during daily activities affects how we move in our sport. It is especially important to learn how to move from the inside to outside of the body. Primarily, this means presenting a posture that permits the most efficient use of the muscles of the hips, legs, and torso (the core). Learning to engage these muscles during flexion, extension, and rotation is central to performing better movements in all sports and begins with proper posture.

Standing with anatomically correct posture begins the process for establishing and enhancing all body lines in swimming. Learning to take this position into the water and maintaining the centerlines of movement will take you further toward improved swimming than just about any technique. In assessing flexibility, mobility, and stability, movement tendencies become evident - you can tell to what extent you use your core muscles in your basic movements. For coaches, assessment can provide teaching moments in which to educate your triathletes how to be more aware of using the core muscles. Practicing functional movements teaches the body to use core muscles deep inside the body to affect movement of the limbs and achieve more efficient technique.

The muscles in the hip region are frequently unstable in triathletes. Notably, the gluteus medius (a muscle that prevents tilting or sagging of the pelvis) is an important pelvic primary stabilizer. When the gluteus medius is weak, other muscles or movements must compensate for the weakness in everyday activities, such as standing up from a chair. This compensation results in less efficient, less functional movements. Over time, the muscular, nervous, and skeletal systems become affected by these repeated less functional movements and sustained faulty postures.

Swimmers who move functionally on land transfer their skills remarkably well into the water, improving in symmetry of swimming motions and performance and reducing the risk of overuse injury. Balanced and symmetrical swimming movement begins in the proximal muscles at the body's core (below the chest to above the knees), which support the outward, or distal, muscles near the head, arms, hands, legs, and feet. An excellent technique to engage the deep core muscles is to draw in when exhaling to activate these muscles and help stabilize the pelvis, which result in better streamlining and better movements.
Proximal and distal - swimming from inside to out.

Thus optimal posture on land transfers directly to swimming and eases motor learning in the water. By learning to control your body during flexion (sitting) and extension (standing) through the use of your core muscles, you begin the process of establishing more functional movements. Movements controlled by active engagement and stability from the proximal muscles affect the functionality of the distal muscles during swimming (figure 6.4).

Phases of the Freestyle Swimming Stroke

There are variations in mechanics unique to each individual, but the phases of the freestyle stroke can always be recognized. In this section we progress through these phases, presenting principles for you to build on. First we'll explain the phases and primary terms related to the freestyle swimming stroke. Then we'll describe how to develop better movement through lower-intensity training that enhances motor learning by breaking down complex movements into what we call body lines.

Front Quadrant

The front quadrant is defined as the front half of the freestyle stroke underwater (figure 6.5).
Front quadrant.

In front-quadrant swimming, at least one hand is in the front quadrant during the entire stroke cycle. This requires a shift in stroke timing. Traditional teaching dictates finishing hard with one arm past the hips and entering the water with the other arm. In front-quadrant swimming, the right arm's entry into the water occurs during the insweep phase of the left arm (along with an exit at midtorso). When done correctly, there should be no gliding - that is, no point at which propulsion is not being applied.

One advantage of front-quadrant swimming is that it keeps the body long, with one arm always out in front or above the head. Having one arm above the head raises the body's center of mass and helps reduce torque from the buoyancy force that causes the legs to sink. Also, as is well known in ship building, a longer hull is more streamlined than a shorter hull. In front-quadrant swimming, you lengthen the hull of your body. Another advantage of front-quadrant swimming is that it changes the timing of your breathing. In traditional stroke timing, as one hand enters the water and stretches out in front, the other arm is finishing the stroke. This has been taught as the best opportunity to breathe, using momentum of the finishing arm to help rotate hips out of the water. Unfortunately, this timing of the breath leaves the hips vulnerable to sinking as the head turns and lifts to breathe (figure 6.6).
Posture is affected when the head is lifted or extended when breathing.

Using front-quadrant swimming forces the breath to begin earlier in the stroke, when one arm is more underneath the body (figure 6.7; breathing occurs between the two images). The position of the arm in the water out in front serves as an anchor, creating forces that support the hips and keep them from sinking.
Breathe early when the front arm is beginning the catch posture.

Read more from Triathletes in Motion by Marc Evans and Jane Cappaert.

More Excerpts From Triathletes in Motion