A Hip New Twist to Swimming Technique
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Precise Doesn’t Mean Easy
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,
Laura Hilgers, a frequent contributor to Outside and an avid lap swimmer, trimmed seven strokes off her 50-yard freestyle while testing this theory.