Do you look like an Airplane?
There is no greater way to stir the pot in swimming than to start a discussion on stroke progression. If you look through the strokes of old, in the 70’s, and 80’s there was a propeller motion or what I’ll refer to as an “S” curve, or propeller. The propeller is identified due to a wide swing in your arm motion as it comes through its progression. The thought is that the more time, and motion that your stroke completes the greater the efficiency and pull of the stroke. This progression was actively taught in the 70’s and early 80's. With that said, very few people are able to maintain this stroke without injury, and many of those former competitive swimmers sustained injury. The pattern makes the swimmer venerable in the outward position to rotator cuff injury, and due to this few trained swimmers practice this stroke, and I won’t teach it. In most swimmers that I coach I’ll notice a swing, it’s natural if you are a bit core weak to lighten the load at the half way point of the pull, and swing your hand. If you are going to swing, swing in, not out. Swinging outside of your body line increase the risk of injury utilizing minor muscle groups. Swimming inside of your body line utilizes major muscle groups and core.
Today, the big swimming machine, (The national swim programs) are primarily teaching what I call the Speed Boat. It's a stroke that is currently being taught to sprinters (age group swimmers), and because it’s taught to sprinters it’s become the most taught stroke pattern, and often referenced as the correct stroke pattern. I often see non-sprinters trying to utilize this stroke pattern, and I would argue, for them it’s harmful and inefficient. We will cover this in a moment.
Do you look like a Speed Boat?
The arm stays slightly bent nearly at a 90 degree angle, and your stroke line is predominantly outside of your body line. Your underwater form hinges at the shoulder, nearly creating a 90 degree axis at the elbow. It’s a bit like a windmill (paddle wheel) using your hand as your primary mechanism of propulsion. Your hand rising through the stroke toward the hip, creating pull through a circular motion, and quick catch while your opposite hand is holding up frame. It finishes through pulling the tips of your fingers out of the water last. This paired with an extremely aggressive turnover rate allows you to swim on top of the water. It’s good for a sprinter, but if you can’t manage a sub 30 second 50 in meters, in my humble opinion, it’s not for you.
Do you look like a Rowboat?
Ultimately the same stroke as the Speed Boat, but not on top of the water. Here is what happens: Squared shoulders creating arm, shoulder, and chest resistance, little for kick with your quads dragging in the water like a flat bottom boat. If the feet are not active, they are working like an anchor. It’s a common site, and terribly inefficient, but you put an outboard motor on it with a crap ton of propulsion, you can propel it atop the water just fine. The biggest difference for those of us that are not an age group or collegiate sprinter is we can’t function in this stroke (for long unless trained to do so). We don’t have unlimited ATM stores like we did in our youth. Additionally because it’s predominantly outside of your shoulder line, you’re squared creating drag.
The worst part is you are extremely prone to injury in this stroke; outside your shoulder line, in hinging motion, if you hit a lane line or another swimmer there is an increased chance of a rotator cuff tear. As we age, this probability only increases. It’s fine for a young swimmer who wants to win a medal or two, but for the rest of us, it’s downright dangerous. I’ve grown extremely weary of most publications touting it as the correct swimming stroke. I believe this is because adult swimming programs take the direction of youth swimming programs without the consideration of the age, and or ability of their average consumer. Being a coach: Here are the questions I ask; which is faster a kayak, or rowboat? Which is more efficient, a kayak or a rowboat? Which one do you look like? If I ask the question, it’s rowboat.
Do you look like a Kayak?
This is the stroke I teach, and in all cases (so far) the swimmer increases stroke length, strength, efficiency, and speed. It’s a matter of pulling efficiently, and utilizing your paddle (elbow to finger tips) over the entire length of your stroke. Long reach working in side to side rotation from the core, slicing through the water like a knife. Feet, just active enough in a 6 beat kick to stay approximately level with the head, although the higher the feet, the more efficient the stroke. Kayak stroke forms a line straight down your body line with a top of head entry point, centerline reach, and tipped finger for maximum catch and propulsion. Fully extend so that your hand is just under the water surface, your shoulder may touch your chin, tip your fingers a bit to start catching the water at the top of your key. Begin to pull directly down your body line like you are throwing a fastball at your foot or opposite knee, while trying to engage your core to utilize your forearm to pull more water. When you get to your chest a good check is to see if your thumb is directly below your nipple. Then push low past your hip without turning your hand into an S curve. It sounds simple but is quite difficult, it requires loose shoulders, good lats, pecs, and delts, a strong core, and good hip rotation. Your breathing window should naturally open due to hip rotation without the need to pull your head, and drop your feet. This is a stroke that is good for long distance swimmers because it creates glide, (like a kayak) through efficiency when paired with a six beat kick and high feet.
Every stroke is different, and is as individual as the person performing it. Strength and stability will build your efficiency, then will come the speed. At that point you can choose your stroke pattern, until then you may not have much of a choice because your body is simply surviving what you are putting it through. Starting out, time with your face in the water and distance are the important things.
I’m a promoter of the kayak for one primary reason, it uses primary muscle groups and due to this it’s difficult to injure yourself. A lot of those people who were taught the S curve are no longer swimming because of damage cause to their rotator cuffs. I teach my swimmers the kayak as a form of injury prevention. As a side effect I’ve found that as their stabilizers strengthen they become more efficient and gain speed making them competitive swimmers through strength, regardless of age.
Safe Swimming, and remember when in a safe stroke; there is no injury that can be caused by swimming, that can not be fixed with more swimming.
The Swim Genius
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