A Hip New Twist to Swimming Technique

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

A Hip New Twist to Swimming Technique

The secret to the perfect workout, say Olympic coaches, is all in the midsection
By Laura Hilgers

To become a more powerful and efficient swimmer, practice this simple dry-land exercise: Find a lounge chair, flick on the TV, and settle in for a few hours of Major League Baseball. Often endowed with ample chins and guts, major leaguers aren't always paragons of sinewy fitness, but they know something a lot of hard-bodied swimmers don't--namely, that a strong swing (or stroke) comes from your hips. "If you have a powerful hip rotation," says Richard Quick, coach of both the Stanford University and U.S. Olympic women's swim teams, "you'll be a lot stronger than if you're swimming with your arms and legs. The power transfers through the upper body." Swimming has always been a great workout, but this relatively new concept--that hips are key--could make it an even better one, allowing you to swim faster, stronger, and more efficiently.

The technique of hip rotation is about as new as Johnny Weissmuller's five Olympic gold medals, won back in the twenties--at least among elite swimmers. "Probably most great swimmers have done it instinctively for a long, long time," says Quick. "We just didn't realize what they were doing." It's only in the last decade or so that an understanding of hip rotation started creeping into the consciousness of top American coaches.

Bill Boomer, the retired University of Rochester swim coach who is considered the guru of this new school, confirmed his longstanding suspicions after videotaping and studying every stroke of every U.S. Olympic Trials swimmer in 1984. He discovered that the fastest swimmers actually took the fewest strokes, which explained why some premier Olympic sprinters looked like they were lolling half-heartedly in the water. A swimmer's speed, Boomer says, is determined by length and efficiency of stroke, not number of strokes.

Now, looking back at videotapes of Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics despite a serious distaste for training, Quick says it's apparent that he had "terrific" hip rotation. More recently, coaches have recognized American powerhouse Matt Biondi and 100-meter freestyle world record holder Alexander Popov of Russia for their major league strokes.

Mastering the Obvious
It's not easy teaching people to swim like Biondi, but the theory is certainly filtering down to the average lap-lane swimmer. Terry Laughlin, a Boomer disciple who coaches Total Immersion Swimming camps throughout the country, says his task, in part, is to undo years of instruction and refocus his students' attention on their hips. The goal, he says, is to create less drag in the water by presenting a narrower profile as you begin each stroke. Laughlin's advice to his 1,000 students each year is to visualize freestyle as "a series of side strokes with a freestyle stroke in between."

If the technique were simple, lap swimmers everywhere would already be swivel-hipping their way to better fitness. But rotating your hips while swimming freestyle (or backstroke) feels about as natural as running with your shoes on backward. Generations of swimmers have been taught to pull themselves through the water flat, on the strength of their arms alone. In one old-fashioned drill, a coach would place a penny on a student's back and make him or her swim a length without dislodging it, which in the minds of the hip set is tantamount to swimming with your head above water. "You've got to reshape the vessel," says Boomer, who's become somewhat of a stroke savant, in part by reading books on naval architecture. "Think of yourself as a sleek yacht rather than a barge."

Like a baseball player, a swimmer initiates the stroke at the hip, following quickly with the shoulders and arms. In swimming, though, the rotation is more continuous. "Your rhythm is in the tempo of your midsection, not in your arm turnover," notes Laughlin.

To learn to rotate your hips, pivot your belly button toward one side of the pool with each stroke. When your right arm enters the water, your right hip should feel as though it's pointing toward the bottom, so that your pelvis is nearly perpendicular to the water's surface, though you'll actually be rolled over only about 60 degrees. Your hips rotate to the opposite side as you pull through the water with your arm. To maximize your efficiency on your side, Laughlin recommends concentrating on extending your arm fully at the beginning of each stroke. "Reach," he says, "just as you would for something on a high shelf--before starting your pull."

At first, your body's positioning will feel strange, and muscles you never knew may become painfully familiar, but it's just a matter of practice. "If you've conditioned yourself to swim flat," says Quick, "when you start swimming side-to-side, you'll feel out of shape."

Laughlin suggests counting strokes to judge your progress. The average fitness swimmer takes about 20 to 24 strokes per 25 yards; swimmers such as Popov and Biondi take half as many. Strive for 20 strokes or less in 25 yards, and then double the distance but maintain the same average stroke count. When learning a new technique, Laughlin advises, "It's better to do a series of short, efficient laps than an inefficient distance workout."

Precise Doesn't Mean Easy
But what's so great about efficiency--especially for the average fitness swimmer who wants to exert effort? More than you might think. First, efficiency makes you faster, which means you'll be able to swim longer; if you're now swimming a 1,500-yard workout, you might be able to notch 1,750 yards in the same amount of time. Second, using your hips works muscles that a "flat" stroke won't, including your lats, your pecs, and your hard-to-pinpoint oblique abdominals. And finally, when you place your arm into the water in a more biomechanically correct fashion, you place less stress on your shoulders, greatly reducing the risk of injury.

Therein lies swimming's greatest advantage: Because water is buoyant and places no stress on joints, it's a nearly injury free sport. Which means that swimmers can work out not just longer, but harder--and later in life. Consider Tom Lane of San Diego, the oldest masters swimmer in the country: He's been swimming since 1898. Sure, he's blind and he only swims the backstroke, but at age 102 he doesn't have any peers who are triathletes or marathoners. In fact, he doesn't have any competitors in the pool either, which is why he's finally decided to quit racing. "I already have all the medals and hold all the records, so why bother?" he points out. Just imagine the possibilities if he rotated his hips.

Laura Hilgers, a frequent contributor to Outside and an avid lap swimmer, trimmed seven strokes off her 50-yard freestyle while testing this theory.

See Also:
Extras: Lap-lane toys for the technologically savvy
Regimens: A no-drag pool session
Prescriptions: Keeping your cool under fire
Intake: Souped-up Smoothies

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