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Bottom Up Swimming — Part 2

(or Your Swimming Machine)

A follow-up to Bottom Up Swimming -Part 1, posted in the Articles section.

Fair Warning

The following exercise in verbosity will make little sense to you if you have not yet read my article Bottom Up Swimming - Part 1.

Your Swimming Machine

Allow me to reach into my bag of tricks and pull out an analogy. Let's think of your body as a swimming machine - much like your car is a driving machine. We are going to explore the primary parts of the drive train and how they work together.

The Engine

Your driving machine has an engine. Its job is to burn fuel in such a way as to provide large rotational forces by way of its crankshaft. That's it. Pretty simple really.

Your swimming machine's engine is your leg and core lower torso muscles. Used properly, they initiate the rotations of your crankshaft (your spine and the muscles attached to it) along the length of your torso. That's it. Also pretty simple (see "Fair Warning" above). It is this core body rotation that must be somehow directed and transmogrified such that it ultimately becomes linear motion.

The Transmition

In your driving machine the transmission is responsible for transmitting the rotational motion of the crankshaft to the tires.

In your swimming machine, the shoulders and arms act as the transmission. By using the muscles of the shoulders and upper arms predominantly to support and stabilize the forearm and hand and direct core rotation forces through them - rather than trying to "pull" lots of water or trying to "pull" the hand backwards through the water - the swimming machine smoothly transmits your core body rotation into forward progress.

The Tires

Your driving machine's tires are where the output of its engine is finally applied to produce linear motion. Where the rubber meets the road we look for a high degree of traction - to "hold onto" a spot on the road - so that as much of the applied force as possible becomes propulsion.

Your hands and forearms are your swimming machine's "rubber" and the water is the "road". By avoiding the Dreaded Dropped Elbow and using your entire forearm and hand to "hold onto" a spot in the water you can deliver the highest percentage of transmitted forces to the water as propulsion.


It is nice to understand what the parts do. But, just as it takes more than understanding to make your driving machine go, we need to add something to this mix to turn a bunch of body parts into a cruising vehicle.

Try this: Start the engine in your driving machine and step on the gas. You get little more than a wildly spinning crankshaft and a pegged tachometer. Take your foot off the gas. After your engine slows to idling speed, put 'er in gear and gas 'er again. Is this enough to get going? Not necessarily. If your teenager's been playing mechanic (or you live in a trailer park) your driving machine is probably up on blocks. If this is the case, you again are treated to wildly spinning parts but no mosey. To get your driving machine to move you've got to have all three components - engine, transmission and tires - engaged and working together. Any one of the components not operating properly brings the whole vehicle to a halt (or at least makes your Sunday drive a lot less enjoyable).

Back to your swimming machine. So that we're all on the same page, I'll briefly describe the swimming machine drive train: 1) You start your engine by initiating core body rotation from your legs. 2) As your rotation begins you engage your transmission (the arm and shoulder you're about to "stroke" with) by rotating your upper arm to raise your elbow into the "over the barrel" position. The idea is to get your forearm and hand (not just your hand) as close to vertical as possible, as far out in front of you as possible, as early in the body rotation as possible. Once your transmission is engaged you want to keep it engaged as your engine continues to purr (e.g. your core body rotation continues). To do this, you'll apply only enough shoulder/arm force to finish the stroke at the same instant that core body rotation finishes. 3) Once you got to that "over the barrel" position your tires are on the road as well - that's the vertical hand and forearm established a spot to hold onto. To maintain rubber on the road you must maintain that vertical forearm/hand glued to that spot as your body rotates past it. If not, you'll "slip" water by moving your hand backwards. That's the same as spinning your wheels.

More Synergy

Note that each time I referred to the legs' involvement in core body rotation I said they initiate the rotation. That's because there is another mechanism that comes into play to complete the rotation. Assuming that you are practicing front quadrant swimming (see Swimming in Circles) you are aware that as one arm is stroking the other arm is entering the water and going to full extension out front. When you recover your arm (lift the elbow out of the water and carry your forearm like so much dead meat forward to a point roughly even with your forehead) you store energy (potential energy) in the form of a lifted mass poised to fall again. When you begin your entry you release that stored energy by allowing your arm to fall just as you begin the next core body rotation. Actually, the arm doesn't fall straight down but, rather, you guide its descent on a slope to pierce the surface at an angle calculated to allow a straight path to full extension. It is the kinetic energy of this falling/extending mass that provides the force required to complete the core body rotation. Using muscles along that side of the body to be aggressive about entering and reaching way out in front of you will also add to the power and snappiness of your rotation.

Moving Right Along

Now that you understand the drive train of your swimming machine, we can now move along to the "What can I do to go faster?" stuff. Bottom Up Swimming - Part 3 (The Spin-Doctor's Prescription) is just what you need now. v

Copyright 1999–2009, H2Ouston Swims. All rights reserved.

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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