THE FOLLOWING ARE PARTS OF CHAPTER II IN THE UPCOMING BOOK: Foundations of Strength Training for Swimmers.
“Your streamline is awful,” coach used to tell my 16-year-old self. “Just keep stretching your shoulders.”
His name was Henning Degerman, and for years he reiterated how I needed to improve my streamline if I wanted to win medals. This pointer became a constant throughout my career, even as I swapped one coach for another. My last coach, Scott Goodrich, who later helped Cesar Cielo claim two World Championship medals in 2013, kept making jokes about my inability to keep a proper streamline off the walls. That’s despite my having done everything I was told for over a decade. I had been a Pac-12 Conference finalist and won a silver medal at the Swedish National Championship, and frequented the podium at Youth- and Junior Nationals. But my streamline was, and still is, mostly crap.
To be a really fast swimmer, that cannot be the case, because the streamline coupled with underwater kicking is the fastest position in swimming. The two also set up each lap, carrying over speed from turns to strokes. That makes superior underwaters a distinct differentiator between good and great swimmers and often tips the scale of a race. Remember the 200 freestyle final at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where Pieter van den Hoogenband decidedly outswam Michael Phelps but got smoked off every wall and lost the race by a full body length — showcasing to the entire world of swimming the importance of underwaters.
Some swimmers come with bodies that seem to have been shaped solely to form a perfect streamline and fire away butterfly kicks. But not everyone — myself included — is so lucky. Some swimmers have insufficient joint function and others have limited range of motion. Swimmers with tighter joints will always struggle far more to form a proper streamline than those with loose joints (more on this in Chapter 5). Being in that position will put a lot of stress on their shoulder blades and arms. And swimmers who easily can put on muscle may see their joint function — and streamline quality — decline unless they balance this out with proper counter movements.
In both cases, swimmers may end up facing scorn from coaches who don’t know how to accurately identify their adepts’ anatomical differences and prescribe different exercises to balance out those shortcomings. The inevitable result is frustration and increased risk of injuries. What’s more, many swimmers simply don’t have enough core strength to control the force in their underwaters, especially the postural muscles that hold the core together. That deficiency should be addressed before underwaters are emphasized.
Developing Body Alignment
The key body parts that impact a person’s ability to form a good streamline include the spine, shoulder blades, pelvis, knees and ankles. Trying to change or even slightly tweak the functions of those can be a lifelong battle. Asking the body to change shape to swim faster is no cakewalk. But there are ways to slowly and deliberately begin to chip away at deficiencies or disadvantages in a safe and sound manner.
It begins with careful selection of movements that fit the individual swimmer. Below are major body parts to manipulate for swimmers. When doing exercises to develop these areas, always remember to maintain tension in the areas you are working. Tension equals muscle engagement. As long as the positions are in the desired patterns, finding ways to contract muscles to maintain tension will further improve range of motion. Remember, too loose is equivalent to less stability and becomes more stressful on the joints.
Every single postural muscle — involving those in a person’s abdomen, pelvis and back — are engaged when a person performs underwaters. Additionally, the upper part of the spine must be able to extend back beyond its natural range in order to initiate the upward motion of the hands to initiate the upbeat kick. This is called “thoracic hyperextension.” To improve joint and muscle function, which collectively are known as mobility, the postural muscles must guide the spine through the extension and actively attempt to go further. For this to be effective, the pelvis must stay locked and the arms should be overhead, preferably in a streamline position.
In order for the arms and hands to get perfectly in line with the rest of the body, the shoulder blades must be able to move freely. Specifically, the shoulder blades must rotate upward and tilt backward, to place the arms in an optimal position. This, in combination with the thoracic extension, will rhythmically initiate the underwater upbeat kick. For this to be effective, the middle back muscle right underneath the shoulder blades, called the lower trapezius muscle, must be engaged.
The movement of the pelvis is responsible for flattening the lower back. The deeper abdominal muscles and glutes are responsible to tilt the pelvis backward in order to create a flat lower back. When the lower back is flat, the body naturally reduces resistance. For instance, Caeleb Dressel has been described to have “no butt,” by his National teammate Ryan Murphy in an interview with FloSwimming. “It’s just a flat line from his back to his legs,” Murphy says. And looking at Caeleb’s anatomy, that statement is very true. That naturally minimizes drag for him. Whereas, I have a naturally curved lower back. This is called lordosis and not good for fast swimming or quality strength training. However, we can develop and create more stability, strength, and mobility to promote the structure to change in our favor. That essentially means for the abs and glutes to be more engaged to actively flatten the lower back.
The knees fill the important role of transferring the force that’s created in the upbeat kick to the downbeat kick. To effectively do so, the knees must be able to fully extend, or preferably extend beyond their natural range of motion, to finish the kick. My own knees are naturally looking slightly bent even when I stand up straight — yet another reason my underwaters weren’t great. Hypermobile knees are ideal for developing speed underwater, but it’s very challenging to develop hypermobility if you weren’t blessed with it at birth. Rather, the knee can develop strength and stability while seeking to gain as much extra extension as possible.
The ankles release all the energy that has been built up by the entire body during the full cycle of the dolphin kick. A flexible ankle will help the swimmer keep the body in a straight line and generate power far more efficiently than a stiff ankle. Ankle flexibility, as a result, is an important part of fast underwaters. But it’s important to proceed with caution. Static stretching of ankles in positions that angle the toes away from the leg is highly unnatural for the foot and makes the ankle less stable. Depending on individual ankles and feet, the feet may carry so much tension that they may cramp during these movements. If that happens, quickly stop and give yourself some self-massage and put pressure on your feet with your hands. Like, really dig in there, and then also points your toes up and down to release more tension.
Generating More Power
The upbeat and downbeat kick terminology is commonly used to describe the two major phases of the dolphin kick. The primary objective of the upbeat kick is to minimize the drag on hands and arms, which are in a streamline, while the downbeat kick generates the bulk of the speed. Several muscles are involved and can be trained in numerous ways to develop underwater swimming.
[Foundations of Strength Training for Swimmers will have exercises and workout examples for the reader.]
There Are Many Ways To Get Where You Want to Get
These workouts above are as tailored to swimming as I make them. Some movements come from gymnastics, but the majority are general strength and power exercises to develop the body as a cohesive athletic unit. In the most general sense, the workouts above can be modified to fit everyone from a 13-year-old novice to an Olympic-level athlete. The sets and rep schemes are also very general and can certainly be scaled up as the swimmer progresses.
Many coaches tell their swimmers to rely on medicine ball movements or purely mimic swim-specific movements to improve their underwaters. The truth of the matter is that research on dryland movements and underwater performance is near non-existent. Coaches will always go off of pure gut instincts. The more that is mixed with scientific reasoning, the more likelihood of a training program to produce consistent progress in the pool. In the end, the best way to truly develop underwater swimming is to do it well in the water during practice hours..