Going Dry Part II- Postural Alignment and Stability
As referenced in the introductory article, maintaining postural alignment and stability is the fundamental skill that supports fast swimming. The ability to maintain a streamlined posture reduces drag, a stable posture frees the limbs to create large forces through large ranges of motion, and stability creates a platform for establishing rhythm in the water.
As addressed elsewhere, swimming fast is all about minimizing resistance and maximizing propulsion while creating effective rhythm.
While maintaining posture in the pool is undoubtedly a skill, it is a skill that requires physical resources to achieve and maintain these positions. Through the use of gravity as an overload, these prerequisite abilities are best developed on land.
When looking at the majority of elite swimmers, most possess a relatively straight and flat spine. Relative to the general population, there is less kyphosis and less lordosis. Likewise, the hull of most boats, as well as the shape of most aquatic animals, are also essentially straight with any curves being very smooth.
While spinal alignment is ultimately limited by the shape of each spinal segment, most individuals can improve their alignment in the water through active muscular control. By using the muscles of the torso, swimmers can work to reduce the arch in their back by tilting their pelvis posteriorly and keeping their rib cage down. This arch is particularly problematic as it creates a vessel that moves through the water with unnecessary resistance.
When working on land, swimmers can strengthen achieve and strengthen these positions, increasing their ability to maintain a better position in the pool. First, swimmers must learn to maintain a flat lower back, keep the ribs down, and then MOVE effectively from that position. With an appreciation that any improvement in body line can significantly impact performance, this is a worthwhile pursuit.
Please note that the goal is not necessarily to change spinal alignment, but to create to the opportunity for swimmers to selectively achieve postures that are conducive to success in the pool. These same postures are not necessarily optimal for other movements.
To develop the ability to achieve effective positions in the water, as well as retain stability in all planes of movement, an effective dryland program will address torso strength and stability through all planes of movement. While some movements may be more ‘specific’ to swimmers, it is important to stress the torso in as many different ways as possible to create wholistic conditioning. As a result, multiple types of movement will comprise a comprehensive program. The different movement types will be explained below.
*The options for loading each pattern are described in the following later in the article*.
For all exercise variations, it’s incredibly valuable to build an exercise library over time. Whenever you read about, discover, or create new exercise variations, record them in a database so you can draw upon them in the future. Over time, you will be better able to create seamless transitions between exercises. Further, this process can make program design more effective, as we’ll explore in the future.
Strengthen Posterior Pelvic Tilt (PPT)
As alluded to above, the ability to posteriorly tilt the pelvis, keep the ribs down, and straighten the arch of the lower back can improve body line in the water by removing counterproductive curvatures. Swimmers must have the muscular strength and control to achieve these positions during full-stroke swimming and while streamlining off the wall. Further, they must be conditioned to sustain this posture while fatigued.
Initially, the focus should be on achieving the appropriate posture in static positions under low load. This can take the form of ‘plank’ exercises or modified versions of gymnastic hollow body holds. As strength increases, the challenge can and should be increased.
Active PPT exercises differ from static PPT exercises only in that the limbs are being actively moved while retaining effective position. The most effective exercises include flexion of the hip where the legs are brought closer to the body without losing position of the spine and rib cage. Exercises such as various leg raises, ‘bikes’, or planks with limb movement make up this type of torso training.
Swimmers should be able to flex their spine against load with tall posture. In addition, they should be able to return to an extended posture while maintaining PPT positioning and controlling their rib cage position to prevent the ribs from flaring out. This type of movement takes the form of various ‘sit-up’-type movement. The postural element can be reinforced by required swimmers to reach overhead, loaded or unloaded, at the top of the movement.
In opposition to spinal flexion, swimmers should also strengthen the muscles that extend the muscles of the spine. This ensures that full postural stability can be achieved from all perspectives. As with all torso exercises, full range of motion should be emphasized. While this type of training may be slightly less relevant for swimmers, it is important for maintaining balance throughout the torso.
Beyond the importance of rotation to general function as human beings, rotational and twisting forces are present throughout freestyle and backstroke swimming. As such, rotation should be trained to ensure that swimmers can maintain posture while rotating, as well as create large forces through rotational movements.
There are several different types of rotational movement, and all should be addressed over the course of a training cycle, even if in limited amounts. Most rotational exercises will fit into multiple sub-sections listed below. When using specific exercises, consider the multiple impacts that exercise has.
Rotation Through the Ground
Standing rotational exercises require swimmers to use the feet to create rotational torque through the ground and apply it up the chain. While the primary value is training the body in the transverse plane using basic human movement skills, a secondary benefit is that it can create a basic framework for creating rotational torque through the flutter kick.
Any rotational exercise performed while standing fits here.
Rotation without the Feet on the Ground
Placing the feet on the ground creates greater stability. Conversely, keeping the feet off the ground removes stability and swimmers must have great postural control to rotate effectively with force and/or velocity. Exercises such as seated Russian twists or rotational medicine ball throws fits here. These exercises require swimmers to find stability from instability, as is the case when creating stability in the water.
Rotation with Flexion Torque
In this exercise type, swimmers must rotate while a static overload is also present for the torso flexors. An example would be a rotational movement when holding a 45-degree sit up position. The 45-degree body position requires the torso flexors to maintain position while the swimmer rotates. Another exercise would be rotating chess press variations using any form of resistance.
This movement is similar to the rotational postural demands of swimming backstroke.
Rotation with Extension Torque
In this exercise type, swimmers must rotate while a static overload is also present for the torso extensors. An example would be a rotational movement while laying prone on the ground and arching the back with legs locked down. The elevated arched body position requires the torso extensors to maintain position while the swimmer rotates. Another exercise would be rotating rowing variations using any form of resistance.
This movement is similar to the rotational postural demands of swimming freestyle.
Shoulder Rotation in Sequence with the Hips
In this category, rotational movements where the hips and shoulders move as a unit are performed. This creates a unique rotational stress and provides the swimmer with the ability to move the torso as a unit as necessary. Relative to what happens in the pool, it can create a conceptual understanding of how ‘hip-driven’ freestyle is performed.
Shoulder Rotation Separate from the Hips
Any seated exercise locks the hips in place. As such, any seated rotational exercise will result in a twisting motion that dissociates the shoulders from the hips. This twisting action challenges the muscles in a distinct manner. In addition, a secondary benefit is that this exercise type can be used for sprinters who are learning to aggressively drive their shoulders with stable hips.
Any exercise that consists of shoulder rotation with locked hips is working on a twisting shoulder rotation.
This type of training consists of maintaining a rigid body posture in spite of various movements that create torques that can de-stabilize the torso. They key goal is to move well through the limbs without allow the spine to rotate, extend, or flex. This type of training is particularly suited for short range of motion, high velocity movements can be very effective at creating large torque loads that must be absorbed by the body.
Beyond the specific stabilization movements, locomotive activities such as crawling and weighed carries can be very effective at training stabilization patterns. Crawls can take place in any direction with any type of amplitude. Carries can be as simple as walking with a medicine ball in various positions. More challenging variations such as carrying a partner in different positions are possible as well. As an added bonus, they tend to be particularly enjoyable for younger age groups.
As with all ‘anti’ torso training, the torso does not move during anti-rotation exercise. Instead, the arms are moved in rotational arcs or held statically to create rotational torque that the swimmer must control with rigid posture. Medicine balls and cords are excellent tools for working in the transverse plane as is required when performing anti-rotation exercises.
Similar to anti-rotation training, anti-extension training stresses the torso’s ability to resist extension of the spine. The abdominals must be strongly activated to prevent the lower back from arching. Active PPT exercises are a form of anti-extension training, as are overhead medicine ball throws which tend to cause swimmers to arch their back. This movement must be actively resisted.
Holding the torso stable and actively flexing the hips through large ranges of motion can effectively train the hip flexors as well as anti-extension qualities of the torso. As the hip flexors are underdeveloped, yet critical to kicking performance, it is an opportunity to train multiple functions simultaneously.
In this exercise category, swimmers must use their extensor muscles of the back to prevent flexion of the spine. Hip hinge exercises where the swimmer bend through the hips without spinal movement are a form of anti-flexion training, as are medicine ball exercises performed from a static hip hinge position. These exercises can be loading actively or statically.
Coaches should not limit themselves to exercises that strictly adhere to the somewhat rigid categories I’ve laid out. In fact, coaches should strive to create their own hybrid exercises that simultaneously challenge multiple categories. Doing so not only further challenges swimmers, it enhances training efficiency allowing more to get done in less time. Ensure that loading is appropriate and posture is retained.
Having discussed the types of movements coaches can employ to create a comprehensive program, these movements need to be loaded to enhance fitness, strength, and power. To do so, you need to increase the load experienced by the targeted movements.
Increase the repetition number per set.
Increase the total volume of repetitions.
Increase the density of work by reducing the rest periods.
Increase the resistance through larger external loads.
Increase the speed of repetitions.
Increase the lever arm of the limbs to increase torque.
Increase reversal speed during repetitions to overload postural control.
Increase the impact with medicine ball throws.
The following are some basic considerations for how to manipulate loading over the course of a training cycle.
Torso training will always be relatively low intensity, even the ‘high intensity’ torso work.
The overall focus should be on quality of movement with relatively low intensities and higher volumes.
There initial focus should be on building work capacity as reflected by higher volumes, longer set durations, and denser work.
Later in the training cycle, the focus should gradually increase toward faster movements, larger loads, and greater torque as swimmers gain strength and stability.
However, small amounts of higher intensity work should be present from the beginning and longer duration work should be retained throughout the training cycle.
Work to establishing position first and loading second.
To develop total conditioning, train the torso in all planes with multiple challenges.
Work to establishing position first and loading second.
Create an exercise library that scales exercises from easier to harder. They should build upon each other.
In general stick to higher volumes and lower intensities and slowly progress to higher intensities.
When developing work capacity, create circuits that rotate stress to stay with torso, but shift emphasis amongst the different movement types.
Higher intensities that focus on high repetition speed and large impacts are useful, especially for sprinters. Movement quality must be protected.
The Bottom Line
Put simply, a successful program will-
Establish the appropriate positions and posture.
Hold the appropriate positions and posture.
Train the appropriate positions and posture through all planes of movement.
Progressively increase load.