Swim Training: Rethink Rotation in Backstroke and Freestyle

  31 SwimSwam | December 14th, 2016 | International, Opinion, Training, Training Intel

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Propulsive Forces & Frontal Drag Forces

Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion are as applicable today to a swimmer as they were centuries ago when he formulated them. However, for me it is easier to conceptualize the application of the three laws by separately considering the forces that move us through the water (propulsive forces), the forces that slow us down (frontal drag forces) and the law of inertia, which tells us it is most efficient to maintain a constant speed by keeping the forces of propulsion and drag equal.

Axial Rotation

The propulsion of a swimmer is derived primarily from two sources, the hands and the feet. However, there is another motion involved in the freestyle and backstroke of a fast swimmer, other than kicking and pulling, that is vitally important to generate more propulsion; the axial rotation of the body from side to side.

Freestyle & Backstroke

Although coaches and swimmers commonly believe that one of the reasons fast freestlyers and backstrokers rotate their bodies along the axis of their motion is to reduce drag, I don’t agree. If that were true, we would see a substantially faster kicking speed on our sides than we do on our stomachs or backs, and that is simply not the case.

Another common theory for why we rotate our bodies in freestyle and backstroke is so we can reach out further on each stroke. While that may be true at the finish of a race (particularly freestyle), I don’t believe the extension of the arms on the recovery of a rotating swimmer is any further than on a non-rotating swimmer.

Mechanical & Biomechanical

There are two reasons for rotating the body during freestyle and backstroke. One is mechanical and the other is biomechanical. The biomechanical reason is that by rotating our body to initiate the underwater pull, we put ourselves into a more favorable position to use our back muscles, particularly the large latissimus dorsi muscle. That will make our pull stronger.

The mechanical reason is that by counter-rotating our bodies during the underwater pull we can create a significant force to pull against. In other words, we are no longer pulling against just water molecules that are relatively motionless. We now have the water, plus whatever force we can generate with the counter-rotation of our body. The amount of that force that we get to pull against is related to our mass (weight) and to the angular velocity of our body’s rotation (how fast we rotate).

The rotation of the body doesn’t just happen. A swimmer has to make it happen and that requires a lot of core strength and work. When the rotation is fast and timed well, it is worth the effort, creating a substantial force that enable the swimmer to cover more distance with each stroke.

No one said swimming fast was easy. Here are some of our favorite drills:

http://www.theraceclub.com/videos/secret-tip-how-to-pull-underwater-drills/ 

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Yours in Swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

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31 Comments on "Swim Training: Rethink Rotation in Backstroke and Freestyle"

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sprintdude9000

“The mechanical reason is that by counter-rotating our bodies during the underwater pull we can create a significant force to pull against. In other words, we are no longer pulling against just water molecules that are relatively motionless. We now have the water, plus whatever force we can generate with the counter-rotation of our body. The amount of that force that we get to pull against is related to our mass (weight) and to the angular velocity of our body’s rotation (how fast we rotate).”

I don’t understand what this means, can someone please explain?

I’ll give you my interpretation, but I can’t promise it’s 100% right. Hell, I could be totally wrong. Basically, as your left arm is pulling back and your left shoulder is digging down and back, your right arm is swinging up and your right shoulder is coming up and forward. That opposition gives the right side of your body some forward momentum, taking some of the weight of your body off of the water held by your left arm. If all of your weight is being applied only to the water, your hand will slip back through the water more instead of anchoring and pushing the body forward from that anchor. By giving the body more forward momentum at the… Read more »
SprintDude9000

Hi Sven – I understand what you are saying but don’t think it’s what Gary Sr. is talking about. Thanks anyway though!

It’s the following two sentances in particular that are causing me confusion:

“we are no longer pulling against just water molecules that are relatively motionless. We now have the water plus whatever force we can generate with the counter-rotation of our body.”

Barb Samuel

What I got from it is that we will be in a body position to create momentum by the use of how the water will flow, and body position. Like an aerodynamically designed car uses air flow to improve performance and speed.

I’m a physics teacher and swim coach and this is my best interpretation so far: Where Hall is most expressive about what he is talking about and at the same time most enigmatic is the sentence: “The amount of that FORCE THAT WE GET TO PULL AGAINST is related to our mass (weight) and to the angular velocity of our body’s rotation (how fast we rotate).” This suggests that he is talking about our body’s rotational momentum, which comes from those two factors. The only way I can figure that rotational momentum and the force of the hand pulling through the water can interact is through the torque done by the pull which actually lifts the upper body up out… Read more »
Barb Samuel

Thank You for this fantastic article that confirms for me the efforts I have been making to improve and develop my rotation. I am saving this, to watch the accompanying videos and look forward to much improvement in my movement and speed through the water.

Some thoughts:

* We swim these strokes side to side but we do not get to or ever swim on our side. the actual rotation is modest although it is helpful and vital.

* The top side arm recovers in a curvalinear fashion and acts as a throw weight

* The bottom side hip rotates longtitudinally enough to “get out of the way” of the recovering arm to allow for a quick, rhythmic exit coupled with a quick, rhtyhmic entry of the forward entering that drives INTO the water.

Power and sustainable stroke rate come from rhythm and flow. Have a safe day.

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