Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
Part 1: Testing for your breaststroke tools
When it comes to anatomy, there are two sets of tools in the sport of swimming; the free/fly/backstroke tools and the breaststroke tools. While the tools required to swim free, fly and back well are similar, the tools required to swim a fast breaststroke are quite different. Most swimmers are born with one pretty good set of tools or the other. Rarely do we see swimmers that have been gifted both sets of tools. If you don’t have the right tools, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get them. You just need to know what the tools are and how you can develop them. The rest requires work and time.
Let’s start with the three breaststroke tools. Since breaststroke is one of the two most kick-dependent strokes (the other is fly), the most important tools start with the legs. To develop a strong breaststroke kick, the swimmer must have a lot of surface area from the insteps of the feet and ankles pushing backward in the water. That means that as the thighs are drawn forward quickly with the knees fairly close together (hip-width or less), the feet need to be pointed outward to the sides. For that to happen, the swimmer needs a lot of flexibility in the hip to internally rotate that joint (tool #1) and dorsiflexion (drawing the toes back toward the leg) and pronation (rotating the medial side of the foot downward) of the ankles (tool #2). Without those gifts, the swimmer cannot get enough surface area from the insteps to generate any meaningful propulsion from the kick, no matter how strong the legs are. It would be like trying to pull in freestyle with your fists closed.
The third important tool for breaststroke is having a lot of lumbar flexibility of the spine (extension). That tool enables the swimmers to elevate the upper body higher out of the water while keeping the legs pointed straight back. The higher the upper body elevates above the water, the more potential energy that can be transferred to the kicking propulsion through the process of coupling. The straighter the legs are directed backward, the less frontal drag is caused during the pulling motion. In effect, we want to bend the body at the lumbar spine along the short axis. The closer we can bend to 90 degrees, the better.
You can test yourself or your swimmers for the breaststroke tools in the following ways. These are NOT meant to be stretching exercises, but rather a means to determine how much flexibility you have in the three key breaststroke joints.
1. Internal rotation of the hip
Sit on a padded mat in what is called the W squat. This is essentially the same position you want to be in when initiating the breast kick propulsion phase. The knees should be kept close together and bent completely, feet pointed directly outward to the sides of you. Now try to get your bum all the way down to the mat. If you are unable to do that and feel pain in the knees, abandon the test and know that you have a lot of work cut out for you. If you get to the mat but with a lot of tightness in the upper thighs at the insertion of the Quadriceps muscles, you will need to stretch your quads regularly. If you get your bum to the mat and can read a book in that position (no pain), congratulations, you have the most important breaststroke tool, hip flexibility.
2. Dorsiflexion of the ankles
The best way to test for dorsiflexion of the ankles is in the Downward Dog position of Yoga. The palms are placed on the mat in front of you while your body forms the shape of an A, bum being as high as possible with straightened back. Now press your heels down hard toward the mat. If your heels come off the mat in this position back your hands up toward your feet until the heels touch the mat. If your heels are touching the mat in the initial Downward Dog position, then walk your hands away from your feet until the heels come off of the mat. The further you can get your hands away from your feet in this position, while still touching your heels to the mat, the more ankle dorsiflexion you have.
3. Lumbar flexibility of the spine
There are two methods we use for testing your lumbar flexibility. The first way is by doing a back bridge on your hands and feet. To do this requires quite a bit of strength and it MUST be done on a padded mat. Once you get into the back-bridge position, walk the hands and feet as close together as possible. The closer you can get them together, the more lumbar flexibility you have. If you are unable to do a back bridge, then lie on your stomach. Press your palms firmly on the mat, placed just outside and behind your shoulders. Press your pelvis into the mat as you push upward with your arms, raising your shoulders off the mat as high as possible. Essentially, you are trying to bend your body at right angles at the lumbar spine. The higher you can get your shoulders, while keeping your pelvis on the mat, the more lumbar flexibility you have.
At The Race Club, we score our athletes on all three areas of flexibility from 1-10, with 10 being the most. While these three tools are all important for developing a faster breaststroke, the important question is how do I improve them or develop them? In the next article, I will describe the most effective stretches I know to help you develop the three important breaststroke tools.
Yours in swimming,
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