Tag Archives: swimming

Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [3]

Range of motion of the shoulder joint is not a simple matter…  first, the shoulder joint is not a single joint, it is in fact comprised of four joints: the sterno-clavicular (collar bone to sternum), the acromio-clavicular (collar bone at the shoulder blade), the gleno-humeral joints or what is widely considered the ‘shoulder joint’, and last but not least the scapulo-thoracic joint (the shoulder blade against the chest).

The scapulo-thoracic ‘joint’ is not a joint in the same anatomical sense as other joints where two bones are held together by a capsule, ligaments, crossing a joint space covered with cartilage and filled with synovial fluid.  The scapulo-thoracic joint has no capsule, no ligaments, instead the scapula ‘floats’ over top the rib cage (i.e. the thorax) suspended by the collar bone and a long list of muscles.  The relevance of this joint to sport is made evident in the gif of Lesman Parades at 2015 Junior World Weightlifting Championships:

Lesman_Paredes_OHP_stretchNote how Parades’ back remains flat, dead flat in fact: he has the ability to distinguish movement so that end range of the shoulder comes specifically from the the scapulo-thoracic joint, not the spine, and not the gleno-humeral joint of the shoulder.

Athletes with neck, back, wrist, elbow, or shoulder pain, rotator cuff injuries, and those who have difficulty with upper body exercises (e.g. plank, pushups, pullups) are generally unable to differentiate between movement which needs to come from the gleno-humeral joint, versus the shoulder blade/scapula, versus the spine.  The outcome is that they move ineffectively with a variety of inefficient biomechanical compensations while attempting to obtain desired range of motion [ROM].  The typical compensation is to force movement into one joint instead of spreading the load across multiple joints, hence pain, stiffness and injury.

In addition to the loading of the extremity joints (i.e. wrist, elbow, shoulder), athletes with poor biomechanical patterns will arch their back in search of ROM.  The problem is that arching the spine removes both the spine and all spinal muscles from providing rotational power as they become locked in their end range position (for more info on rotation refer to the Blog Library for all posts on Rotation).  When the spine is locked, it cannot couple movement between the lower and upper extremities.  In the case of Olympic lifting, if Lesman Parades arched his spine when lifting, then all the power his legs generate could not be transferred into his trunk or arms, his lifting technique would become ineffective, reducing his power and lifting potential.  When the spine is used to compensate for insufficient movement in scapular movement, the athlete not only limits their maximum speed, strength, and endurance, they expose themselves to injury. To correct this pattern, significant retraining is required to develop both flexibility and neuro-muscular control.

The availability of full range of motion at the shoulder complex becomes clear when load is added to the equation as in the gif below of Parades’ performing the Snatch…


But what has Olympic weight lifting technique got to do with swimming? Biomechanics are biomechanics.  Whether it is Olympic weight lifting, cycling, swimming, archery, gymnastics, ballet, dance, running, rowing, or whatever may be the performance art or sport… the basics of human movement are consistent across all sports, and the basics apply equally. If an athlete doesn’t have the ABCs (agility, balance, coordination which all rely on flexibility), then the starting point for training needs to be basic physical literacy, prior to any additional training of sport specific technique.

Without the ABCs, outcomes are predictable: limited athletic potential due to limited flexibility resulting in pain, stiffness, and soreness with training, lending itself to a pattern of overtraining, then injury, and illness, erupting eventually into frustration due to the lack of significant and consistent progress.  In the end, the athlete gives up and quits, or presses on forcing progress by masking training side-effects through legal means (e.g. painkillers, anti-inflammatories, alcohol) or illegal means (i.e. PED).

For example, the overhead press position is no different between the Olympic lifter and the swimmer who stretches out at the entry and initiation of the catch phase of all four swimming strokes: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke, and during the streamline position maintained off of dive starts and each turn. Like Olympic weightlifters, swimmers need a straight line from the top of their head through their spine to ensure that their trajectory vector is perfectly straight.   To accomplish this the extremities must rotate around the spine and its trajectory vector generating the power to provide propulsion (either the lift or the pull depending on the sport).  Without the range to perform the overhead press, neither lifter nor swimmer can execute the technique of their sport effectively.

Watch the entry of the butterfly stroke – executed by Michael Phelps – and you will see the overhead press position translated into swimming…

Michael_Phelps_FLY02 long

What is critical is that scapulo-thoracic motion be controlled distinctly, so that the trajectory of movement is not compromised.  End range arises not from hyperextension of the spine, nor from excessive movement at the shoulder joints, instead it arises from the scapulae being able to retract and depress fully.  If that wasn’t enough to consider, the range of motion of the rib cage must be dynamically stable, and coordinated with breathing to allow the elastic properties of all the joints to be levered into generating maximum propulsion with minimal effort and resistance.

The similarity in range of motion and fundamental ability between different sports may seem surprising, but is not unexpected when rotation is understood as the basis of all movement.

Below Yuliya Efimova provides an opportunity to observe the range of motion of vertical movement of the scapulo-thoracic joint during the breaststroke: watch how low her shoulders depress to initiate the insweep and then how high they elevate exploding into the glide/recovery aspect of the stroke.  The massive range of motion and her control over that range increases the amplitude of the stroke increasing efficiency and power.


Amateur athletes seeking to excel in their sport can do so by focusing on developing further their flexibility.  This will provide not only the opportunity to prevent injury but to develop total body awareness of range and improve coordination of muscles providing the athlete additional sources of power to execute the technique of their sport with greater efficiency, uncovering new levels of speed, strength, and endurance.

The foundation of peak performance across all sports is flexibility.

With proper training, ROM and control become available in the delivery of technique leading to consistency in training and in competition.  Below, Bruce Lee demonstrates exactly how much ROM and control are available to those who want to train to become Grand Masters of the function off their body…


With proper training, this is exactly how much neuro-muscular control is possible over the scapulo-thoracic joint…

Significance of the Kick in Swimming [3] – The Thorpedo

Ian James Thorpe is an Australian swimmer who has won five Olympic gold medals, the most won by any Australian.  At the 2001 World Aquatics Championships, he became the first person to win six gold medals in one World Championship.[wikipedia]

He picked up the nickname “Thorpedo” because of his speed.

Not convinced that swimming is rear-wheel drive (i.e. kick powered) and not front-wheel drive (i.e. arm/pull powered), then watch the cadence of Ian Thorpe’s kick…

If you are in search of a pre-race pump-up video, or footage to use for visualization of technique especially kicking, then you may want to consider adding this video to your line up.

Significance of the Kick in Swimming [1] – Speed

Olympian Ryan Lochte can kick 50 short course yards (scy) using underwater dolphin kick (UDK) in 20.8 seconds, when converted to meters that equals 23.1 seconds.  Now consider that he swims 50m backstroke in just under 27 seconds.

It would seem that kicking is quite significant to peak performance in swimming…


Olympian and World Record holder Alexander Popov could kick 50m freestyle in 27 seconds, when his WR for 50m was 21.64 secs.


When ESPN did a study on Olympian Rebecca Soni’s breaststroke they found that her kick provided around 100 lbs of propulsive force, while her pull provided about 20 pounds of propulsive force. While not many have the propulsion in the legs of Rebecca, the truth is that most of the propulsion from all good breaststrokers comes from the legs, not the arms. The key to a fast breaststroke is to develop a strong kick and to reduce frontal drag after the kick.

Read the full story here.


Olympian Gary Hall Sr. who now operates The Race Club in Islamorada, Florida writes in triathlete magazine online:

If there is one skill that most differentiates the fast swimmers from the not-so-fast swimmers, it would be the strength of the kick. As a triathlete, one of the biggest dilemmas, given the limited amount of swim training time you have, is how much time and effort you should spend trying to improve your kick. I believe focusing on the legs is one of the best ways to improve as a swimmer.

By doing dry-land stretches and focusing more on your legs in training, your swim will get faster. Having your legs in better kicking shape will not only help your swim time, but will give you more confidence to finish the bike and run faster.

Read the full story here.

At The Race Club, Hall coaches two full workouts a week entirely dedicated to the legs.


Since swimming a lifetime best (21.32) in the 50 long course meter free at last year’s European Champs, French star Florent Manaudou has been almost unstoppable. In December, he broke the World Record in short course meters, and in 2015 he has yet to lose a long course final in the 50 free.

Manaudou ran that streak to 6-straight meets on Friday at the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome by posting a 21.64 and breaking the Meet Record.

The way Manaudou has been so good is a little contrary to the trend we’re seeing in men’s sprint freestyling: he’s doing it with big underwaters. This is not something new for him: when he won Olympic gold in 2012 in this event, he was the last swimmer up.

Read the full story here.


How important is a powerful kick?  Here is China’s Tao Zheng (Lane 5) swimming to a new world record in the 100m BK in a time of 1:13.56 (long course).  You decide….


Gary Hall Sr. wrote a two part article on the importance of the freestyle kick:

A link to The Race Club page on developing ankle flexibility: Power Your Swim Kick


If the kick provides the momentum to each stroke, timing for the pull, and the stability across the core maximizing the power of the pull, then why are athletes resistant to dryland leg workouts, developing flexible hips and core through stretching, and challenging themselves with massive kick sets?

Comparison of Swim Start Techniques – UWO Research Study

A study performed at the University of Western Ontario comparing the grab start to the track start concluded that as hypothesized the track start results in a faster time in the first 2 meters off the starting blocks.

research - start times

Based on the results, a track start can result in a difference greater than a tenth of a second. Considering that swim competitions are often decided by hundredths of a second, an effective start may not only yield a personal best time, but also the winning time.

US Olympian Dara Torres states that there are 3 parts to a sprint: the start, the final meters, and the touch.  If the start is one area where a sprint is either won or lost, then starting technique, reaction time and strength training is crucial for short and middle distance athletes.

Download the Research Paper:

A Comparison of Two Swimming Start Techniques from the Omega OSB11 Starting Block

To help swimmers train starts, dryland training sessions are being held at Gary Allan HDSB this summer.  The ‘New Programs’ link at the top of the webpage leads to registration.

Swim track start:

Track & field track start (Asafa Powell):