Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
In 2007, Mike Bottom, then Head Coach of The Race Club and men’s sprint coach at Cal Berkeley, delivered a talk at the American Swim Coaches Association annual meeting on the Three Styles of Freestyle. In that talk, Mike described three different freestyle techniques, hip-driven, shoulder-driven and what he called body-driven technique. We had never heard anyone differentiate freestyle techniques before like that and it was a brilliant talk. There was a question from the audience then about the loping or galloping freestyle technique that was being used by Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and others, but Mike didn’t really consider that a different technique.
After years of observing and analyzing freestyles techniques, using all of our technologies at The Race Club, we would still agree with Mike that there are basically three different freestyle techniques. We classify them a little differently than Mike did, however. We call them hip-driven, shoulder-driven and hybrid techniques. The hybrid technique is another name for loping or galloping freestyle technique. Within each of those three freestyle techniques, there are also other important differences, such as the recovering motion and pulling motion of the arms. Those different techniques will be discussed later.
There are several parameters that differentiate hip-driven from shoulder-driven and hybrid freestyle techniques, but the most important one is stroke rate. Hip-driven freestyle has the slowest stroke rate. Shoulder-driven technique has the fastest stroke rate. Hybrid freestyle, which borrows some of the technique from both hip-driven and shoulder-driven freestyle, has a stroke rate in between those two.
Hip Driven Freestyle
The stroke rates for hip-driven freestyle range from less than 50 per minute (25 right arm and 25 left arm strokes) to around 75 strokes per minutes (using a Finis Tempo Trainer). The arm cycle time (hand entry to hand entry) for a hip-driven freestyler with a stroke rate of 60 is two seconds.
Hip-driven freestyle is the most energy-efficient freestyle technique. It offers the best fuel efficiency. It is not the fastest freestyle technique, however. Therefore, hip-driven freestyle is a technique that is primarily used in warm-up and warm-down swimming and distance racing (400 meters or longer). It should never be used for sprinting nor even the 100-meter event. It is simply not a technique that will serve swimmers well in those shorter events.
Besides the slower stroke rate, the other key differentiating techniques of hip-driven freestyle occur at the front end and back end of the underwater pull. At the front end of hip-driven freestyle the hand pushes forward not downward, delaying the downward lift phase of the pull. With hip-driven freestyle, the pulling hand should be in the early propulsive phase of the pull (in the front quadrant) by the time the recovering hand strikes the water. In other words, one cannot delay the pulling motion too long using this technique. The hip-driven freestyle is not a catch-up freestyle technique, where one hand remains out in front until the other hand strikes the water. Other than perhaps in doing drills, there is no place for a catch-up freestyle technique in freestyle races.
At the back end of the hip-driven pull, the swimmer pushes harder and longer, then rotates the hip aggressively as the hand releases forward to the recovery. Thus, it is called hip-driven freestyle. The lead hand pushes forward. The pulling hand pushes rearward, and the swimmer rotates and rides out on top of the hip. Since the swimmer is taking fewer strokes, the objective is to get as much distance per stroke as possible out of each one.
Other common techniques that we see being used in hip-driven freestyle racing are a bent arm (lower energy) recovery and a strong kick. The bent arm recovery is used because it is easier and conserves energy for the many strokes to be taken in the longer races. We refer to the bent arm recovery as a low-octane recovery . The strong kick in hip-driven freestyle is advantageous because with the slow stroke rate, there is a lot of down time on the pull where neither hand is generating propulsion. Having a strong kick will help sustain the swimmer’s speed during the pulling down time.
The other swimmers that may benefit from using hip-driven freestyle technique are triathletes that are trying to conserve energy for the bike and run to follow, or swimmers that don’t have enough aerobic conditioning or capacity to hold a faster stroke rate.
Curiously, very few elite women swimmers use hip driven freestyle technique. Notable exceptions are Allison Schmidt (gold medalist in the Olympic 200 m freestyle in 2012) and Camille Muffat (gold medalist in the Olympic 400 m freestyle in 2012). Both women had extraordinarily strong kicking propulsion. We see many elite men using hip-driven freestyle in the 800 meters, 1500 meters or longer Open Water events.
On our website, you will find an entire video series on the three styles of freestyle. The many videos released in Lanes 2, 3 and 4 explain the differences in each technique and the key drills we use to improve each one. Next week, we will discuss shoulder-driven freestyle technique.
Yours in swimming,
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