Technical Foundations Part V
In part IV, we started to get practical with several approaches to help swimmers learn to minimize drag throughout their swimming. Many of those approaches, and how they’re used, may have been a little unfamiliar as the topic in general is novel, as are attempts to make meaningful change. In this article, we’ll explore several ways to enhance force application, an arena most coaches are much more familiar and comfortable with.
As described in part II, force application and force production are both dictated by inherent physical characteristics, trainable physical characteristics, and the skill to optimize these traits. While there are basic biomechanical principles that need to be respected, there are also multiple ways for create propulsion effectively, especially considering physical differences between individuals.
Traditionally, we tend to focus on joint position, hand angles, and sweeping patterns. While these characteristics are important, they reflect outcomes as opposed to causes. It is a focus on modeling idealized solutions, whereas attention should be on effectively solving the problems at hand.
The approaches are much more oriented toward providing problems and challenges for swimmers, as opposed to giving them solutions. This approach allows swimmers to find the best way to swim for them, with less guidance as to what the specific solution should be. However, this is not a subjective process; it is an objective one. The solutions swimmers employ are judged against objective standards, and the ability to meet and exceed these standards is how solutions are determined to be effective or not.
Applying force is simple in principle and complicated in application. Swimmers need to create a large propelling surface area and move it backwards for as long as possible. Simple in concept. However, due to the nature of water, it can be challenging for many to discover effective strategies for applying force. What FEELS effective is not always what IS effective, especially as force application in the water is much different than force application on land.
Swimmers often search force positions that feel strong, where they feel a lot of resistance on the hand and forearm. This can be misleading. There is a difference between feeling pressure on the forearm and creating effective force. Pushing down and out with a straight arm feels ‘strong’, but it’s simply moving water in the wrong way.
In addition, while a very straight arm pull feels strong as there is a lot of resistance on the hand, it actually feels strong because it is a weak position. You are pressing hard with a very long lever arm. No one would try to do pull-ups with straight arms; a bent elbow is much more effective. This is obvious if you try to do it. However, the water does not provide this same feedback, leaving swimmers to feel that a very straight arm is an effective strategy. This is especially true in the front of the stroke where pushing down is going to do nothing for forward propulsion.
To create change, we need to provide new input into the system to create new output. While verbal instruction can be a source of input, it’s just not that effective, particularly when swimmers require a total paradigm shift about how to put force into the water. They need to FEEL the change, and they need very clear feedback as to whether the change they are making is an effective one.
Below are simple strategies that any coach can use to improve their swimmers’ ability to apply force. Once swimmers are in the midst of these tasks, THEN our words can be much more useful to help guide swimmers through change, as they can FEEL what we’re trying to describe.
Have performance standards. Efficiently swimming is great as long as it is a tool to create effective swimming. Effective swimming is what matters. It is about going fast. It is important that swimmers are aware of their performance, even during technical tasks. Time the tasks so they know what works. While there is certainly a place for timing and not timing tasks, it is important for swimmers to have a standard against which to judge performance. Any change has to be effective, and we need to know if that change is actually effective. What might be efficient might not be fast.
Use variation. Change paddles, change resistance, change stroke counts. The more situations swimmers can learn to apply force, the more effective their global skillset will be. This is particularly true when swimmers can measure their success against objective markers of efficiency and effectiveness. They will find the common solutions that allow for fast swimming.
The more the same task is repeated over and over, the less there is to learn from it. However, when slight variations DIFFERENT LINK are introduced, learning continues. Learning happens through contrast as contrast creates new input leading to new output. Same, but different.
Take away the hands. By swimming with tennis balls, closing the fists, or other manipulations of finger positions, we can remove the use of the hand as an effective pulling surface. Swimmers tend to over rely on the hand to create propulsion, often neglecting the use of the forearm. By removing the hand, swimmers are forced to use the forearm to create apply force to the water.
Beyond taking away gross surface area, manipulating the hand also disrupts the flow of the water up the forearm, which interferes with ‘feeling the water’. However, once the hand is re-engaged with the water, awareness of these sensations is greatly heightened.
Use stroke counts. Many swimmers are simply not unaware of their efficiency in the water. Stroke counts give swimmers consistent feedback about how efficiently they are moving through the water. Requiring swimmers to take fewer strokes typically forces swimmers to apply force more effectively. At a minimum, it will force them to explore different methods of force application.
Most importantly, this feedback is objective. Swimmers must confront reality. The number is what it is. Where technical change can often be ambiguous, stroke counts are not. There is no fooling one’s self. When paired with performance times, swimmers now have feedback about their effectiveness as well, a powerful combination. This is particularly true when the legs are taken away in pulling situations. Swimmers will have to learn to apply force differently if they want to swim efficiently and effectively.
Apply resistance. Another way to enhance feedback to the swimmer is to swim against resistance of some type. It doesn’t matter what kind it is. Applying resistance magnifies the physical sensations swimmers receive and the feedback that water gives them. If swimmers are not applying force effectively, they’ll move forward slowly, or not at all! Swimmers can better feel gaps and losses of propulsion, inappropriately directed forces, or shortened range of force application. Using resistance makes flaws more obvious to swimmers, this particularly true when performance is measured. Shortcomings in force application become readily apparent, all without coaches needing to provide any specific feedback.
In general, I try to minimize an instruction about force application, as individual differences can be significant due to differences in strength, mobility, and anatomy. However, there are some simple guidelines that I like to look for, that also provide a lot of flexibility for swimmers to find an effective pattern.
If I see any of these ‘rules’ being violated, and the above strategies haven’t made much change, I’ll make vague, open ended suggestion that will hopefully point the swimmer in the right direction. If they’re in the ball park, I usually let the training tasks coach effective force application.
Hands deeper than elbow. You can’t apply force with the forearm if the elbow is deeper than the hand. You don’t see this with swimmers that possess any degree of skill, but it can be common with novice swimmers. If someone is struggling here, I’ll usually suggest they reach for the bottom of the pool with each stroke, which should get them in the right position.
Hands inside elbow. This is more common. Especially in the front of the stroke, swimmers can slide out and to the side and then stay there. This tends to close off the armpit prematurely, preventing swimmers from utilizing the strong muscles of the torso for as long as possible. It also tends to disrupt rotational rhythm in freestyle and creates excessive body life in breaststroke and fly. If I see this, I’ll usually suggest that swimmers crossover under their body. It usually does NOT cause them to crossover. Instead they end up where they need to be. You communicate that they need to feel to make a change happen, NOT what actually needs to happen.
Elbow deeper than shoulder. If someone’s pull is too shallow, there will be a lot of lateral motion, and there simply won’t be as much water being moved backwards. It also can disrupt rotational rhythm. I’ll usually suggest swimmers either crossover or reach to the bottom of the pool. One of the two usually gets them in the right position.
Minimal sculling. Sculling is NOT the same as lateral hand paths. The forearm is going to move in and out during the stroke cycle. The difference is whether hands are moving in conjunction with the elbow. If they are moving as a unit, no problem. That is simply pulling backward and the arm is moving due to rotational and anatomical dynamics. However, if the hand is moving in and out independent of the elbow, we’ve got a sculler. I usually suggest that they individuals focus on constant pressure, pulling straight back into the water, or focus on pulling rigid. This tends to clean it up.
It’s important to remember that ALL of the above instructions are provided very casually, and prove to be MUCH more effective when suggested in the context of the effective training tasks that provide a lot of feedback about effective force application.
To improve the magnitude of force that is applied to the water, there are two tasks that need to be accomplished. The first is to build the engine, or the general force production potential. This is characterized by the general strength and size of the muscles. Bigger, stronger muscles have the potential to create more force in the water. In the second case, we need to learn how to realize that force potential in the pool. This takes three different, yet complimentary strategies.
Let’s use the analogy of the process of developing a car to win a race. In the first place, the car needs to be engineered to have a big engine with lots of horse power. It needs to have the potential to be driven really fast. For swimmers, this represents strength training on land. It is creating the foundation for force production. From a propulsion standpoint, the car will not go fast without it. My Honda Civic is never going to beat a Ferrari in any sort of race. It doesn’t have the engine.
In the first place, swimmers need the raw horsepower to create force. This requires some degree of strength and muscle mass. The best place to build this horsepower? Outside the pool. ANY type of strength training can prove to be effective. You can use bodyweight, dumbbells, medicine balls, barbells, kettlebells, stretch cords, or weight machines. For the most part, it doesn’t matter.
You simply need to overload the muscles and create a strength stimulus that is beyond what is possible in the pool. Are there certain advantages and disadvantages of each type of strength? Sure. However, they’re not insurmountable and it doesn’t really matter because most coaches don’t have a choice. They have the equipment they have.
The key is to have a consistent program that allows for measurable progress over time. Strength, however you develop or monitor it, needs to improve. If you are accomplishing that goal, you are on track. Beyond ensuring progress, it’s important to keep track of the ‘cost’ of the land training.
The goal should be to do as little as possible, creating as little fatigue as possible, to accomplish the goal of getting stronger. This is the key. ANY and ALL strength development programs will work, particularly in youth swimmers. However, some programs exact a much greater cost and negatively affect training in the pool to a much greater extent. This is what needs to be controlled, and this is the difference between effective strength development programs.
What needs to get strong? Everything, but for different reasons. The torso needs to get strong so it can hold effective body positions. ‘Anti-specific’ movements and muscles need to be strengthened to help the body stay in balance and preserve movement options.
Prime movers, the lats and pecs as well as the legs, need to be developed to create the force needed for propulsion. However, an overreliance on developing these muscles and patterns will be problematic if the torso and anti-specific muscles are not developed as well. I’ve covered a lot of this in a series about dryland which can be read here. Just focusing on the propulsive movements will create short-term progress at the expense of long-term performance.
Next, the wheels, the steering system, the chassis, etc… need to be designed so that this force potential can actually be applied to the road. Concurrent to strength development outside of the pool, there also needs to be work done in the pool to ensure that the raw force potential that’s been created with strength training is being used in swimming. This requires strength training in the pool in the form of resisted training.
The goal here is to teach newly muscles how to create more force while swimming. Fortunately, many of the same strategies used in learning to apply force are effective at developing higher levels of force. The only difference is in the intention, and potentially the loading. The key is to create a overload where the swimmer must overcome resistance to make forward progress.
Coaches are only limited in their creativity here. You do NOT need expensive equipment and lots of gear. Cords, towers, racks, sponges, chutes, drag suits, wearing shorts, it doesn’t matter. The key is resistance. While there are certain advantages and disadvantages of any one type of resistance, they are all a significant advantage compared to NO resistance training.
In terms of how to load the specific work in the water, it makes sense to start with some general guidelines. Be conservative with intensity, volume, and resistance, then go from there. In ALL cases, ensure that swimming is performed WELL. Sprinters are going to benefit from shorter efforts with more resistance. They need to be able to produce a lot of force in a small amount of time.
Distance swimmers are going to benefit equally from slightly longer distances and lighter loads AND shorter distances with heavier loads. They need to be able to sustain their force and they need to get faster. With elite milers swimming 100m at or under 50 seconds, the distance events are still a speed game. Resistance training is an excellent tool for these swimmers to accomplish this goal.
Learning to Drive
Now that we’ve built the engine, we’ve implemented the force delivery systems to actually apply the force, we need to put in a driver to learn how to drive the car effectively. It is the final step. If you’re addressing strength training on land and strength training in the pool, there is one final component that needs to be addressed, practice fast swimming.
This will ensure that the strength work being performed is actually going to improve force production when it matters, during races. Again, there is nothing magical or critical during this type of work. Simply swim fast during race relevant sets. Swimmers will learn how to use their improved force potential within the constraints of racing.
Where you spend your time between the three components will depend on the swimmers you are working with. Physically developed and mature swimmers are going to benefit less and less from an aggressive land-based program. The opposite is true of physically weak swimmers who lack the basic strength and structure to be successful.
If swimmers are really struggling to transfer land strength into the pool, more specific strength work in the water is going to be beneficial. Eventually, as swimmers maximize their strength in and out of the pool, they’ll need to really focus on swimming fast, although very few swimmers reach this point.
Improving force potential is not complicated. Swimmers need to get stronger in a general sense and in a specific sense while concurrently and consistently practicing fast swimming. The hardest part is committing to the process and investing the time in and out of the pool. While it can be tempting to overlook any one component, they are all required to varying degrees, depending on the situation. If coaches do, they will see the reward.
Creating large amounts of effective force is a common focus in teaching skills. However, we tend to prescribe solutions that may or may not be effective for individual solutions. Further, these solutions are often presented in incremental chunks that are difficult for swimmers to interpret, and even harder to link together.
Rather than providing swimmers with pre-made solutions, allowing them to search for effective solutions will enhance the learning process. This process can be guided, constrained, and accelerated through effective task selection, using tasks that required effective skills to accomplish specific goals while magnifying feedback about performance.
In conjunction with learning effective force application, swimming fast also requires increased levels of force production. While many swimmers are performing some form of resistance, it’s seldom integrated in a comprehensive fashion that allows strength developed on land to influence race speed. By working on land strength in a general sense outside of the pool, specific strength through resisted swimming in the water, and race speed in the pool, swimmers can develop the physical resources and skill to apply more force more effectively in the water.
Stay tuned for part VI, we’ll take a look at how rhythm and timing can be enhanced in the water.