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Bottom Up Swimming — Part 1

(or Let Your Legs Drive Your Long Axis Strokes)

Revised from a response to a question posted in the discussion forum.

That was then

In my video archives I have a few seconds of ancient underwater footage of Mark Spitz swimming freestyle - from way back when his name, his image and references to his aquatic exploits were in front of the American public on a daily basis. I recall seeing these same few seconds of footage played on a screen at a coaching clinic years ago. I recall the speaker's remarks to the effect that the greatest athletes are often those who, in spite of all the well-meaning input they get from their coaches, do things their own way - to great effect. He went on to say that Spitz was just such an athlete, as manifested in his pronounced body a time when coaches around the world were saying "imagine how much faster he could go if he'd just get rid of that insidious rolling motion."

This is now

Of course, these days we understand that body roll is a major component of high quality freestyle. But different coaches have different theories on how that roll is achieved and how it is related to taking strokes. Toward that end I'm going to explain several drills we do. These may help to explain the relationship between kicking, rolling and stroking in the paradigm we're currently employing.

As with nearly all sports that derive their primary power from rotation of the core body, the body roll in swimming starts in the legs. At the fundamental skill development level we use some vertical kicking (VK) activities to provide a visceral knowledge base about body rotation that can later be applied to horizontal swimming.

Get vertical

One drill we do is called Vertical 6-Beat Rotation Rhythm Kicking (or V6BRRK). We build up to V6BRRK by starting with standard Stationary VK in deep water with your hands on your chest and elbows tucked in to your sides. The kicks you use here are called "flutter kicks" (or FK) just like they are when you kick horizontally to propel yourself down the lane.

It is important to understand that the word "kick" refers to the action of driving your leg forward from behind your body plane to in front of your body plane - like kicking a ball. And while one leg kicks the other leg recovers - moves from in front of the body plane to behind the body plane, thus putting it in the correct position to kick. Each kick should come predominantly from your hips with very little knee bend. There should be no knee bend at all on the recovery portion of the kick cycle.

After you have established a consistent and comfortable vertical FK rhythm, use one of your kicks to rotate your body roughly 1/4 turn to the right and then continue FKing for awhile. After a handful of FKs use one of your kicks to turn you 1/4 turn toward your left - back to where you started. Those kicks you used to rotate yourself, one kick to turn you to the right and, later, one kick to turn you to the left, are called "rotation kicks" (or RK).

To rotate to your right you kick your right leg. To rotate toward your left you kick your left leg. Sounds simple but takes some real awareness and focus to grasp. More importantly, it does not take an extra-hard or extra-large RK to rotate you. In fact, you want to use the same kick action used for your FKs, but simply release your hips and let them rotate - and let the top part of your body "take a ride" along with your hips. There may be a temptation to try to "throw" your shoulders around to "help" make the rotation happen. Don't. Throwing your shoulders doesn't help. Not at all. Not even for you. Just take my word for it.

V6BRRK is simply 2 FK followed by 1 RK (which turns you to the right) followed by 2 FK followed by another RK that turns you to the left (back to where you started). That's 2 FK and 1 RK on each side for a total of 6 beats to complete a cycle. Continue this 6-beat rotation rhythm (6BRR) while keeping your nose pointed straight forward, at a point roughly half way between the two points your belly button swings back and forth between.

Get horizontal again

Once you are comfortable with V6BRRK you can transition to H6BRRK (yes, you guessed right - Horizontal 6-Beat Rotation Rhythm Kicking) by simply slowly leaning toward your back and allowing your hips and legs to rise to the surface. As you move toward being horizontal keep exactly the same 6BRRhythm going with your legs. Be sure to get really horizontal by pressing your buoy, hiding your head and getting your nose pointed straight up. Once you are horizontal you can drop your hands to your sides. Your FK will propel you gently along in your lane while your RKs will result in 1/4 turns that swing your belly button from pointing roughly 45 degrees to the right to pointing roughly 45 degrees to the left.

It is important that you only attempt to rotate your body 1/4 turn - from roughly 45 degrees on one side to roughly 45 degrees on the other side. This is because we are only working on using the legs to initiate body roll - not trying to cause the entire roll.

Once you get comfortable with H6BRRK in the nose-up position you can do the same thing in the nose-down position. It is good to start this from V6BRRK as you did before - but leaning toward your front this time. Here, breathing becomes an issue. When it is time to grab a breath simply allow your head to rotate with your body to the air. You'll want to go a bit further than 45 degrees on that roll so you don't have to lift your head (which, of course, destroys balance - see Of Air and Gravity).

A stroke in time

You can also do front and back H6BRRK with your arms in full streamline position rather than at your sides. It is from the fully streamlined nose-down position that you can begin to work in an occasional freestyle stroke cycle. As you H6BRRK your way down the pool, use one roll, initiated by your RK in exactly the same manner as all the other rolls, to power a stroke. Stroke with the arm that is closest to the bottom of the pool at the beginning of the roll. Start the stroke at the same time you start the roll. Try to finish the stroke at the same time you finish the roll. Do your arm recovery (picking your elbow up out of the water and carrying it forward till your hand is passing roughly past your ear) during the 2 FKs that follow the RK. Your entry/extension (movement of the arm structure from just past your ear to full underwater extension toward the far wall, where it rejoins the arm that stayed out there throughout the cycle) should take place during the next rotation (which is powered by the RK following the 2 FKs you did during the arm recovery).

Bet that's clear as mud.

Mo' strokes

After you get good at adding a single stroke occasionally to the H6BRRK drill you can start doing two strokes in swimming rhythm - which means that the second stroke takes place during the same rotation that powers the first entry - occasionally instead of just one. But, still, most of the length should be just H6BRRK with no strokes. The whole idea is not to break the 6BRR you have set up when you do add a stroke or two or...

...three strokes in a row. This is where you get to start feeling a real sense of swimming rhythm that is based on the 6BRR you have, by now, become very comfortable with. A favorite drill we do a lot of is 3 Rotations 3 Strokes (3R3S) - simply doing streamlined H6BRRK where you do three rotations with no strokes, then the next three rotations have strokes associated with them, then 3 more rotations with no strokes...etc. Each stroke happens within the 6BRR so if all we look at is your legs, hips and torso we wouldn't be able to tell when you are just rotating and when you are rotating with strokes.

And, of course, its cool to do each of these drills with flippers till you get good enough to wean yourself to Zoomers and then eventually wean yourself to naked feet.

And most all of this is as applicable to backingupstroke as it is to freestyle swimming - with the obvious adjustments necessitated by that down-side-up position the rules insist upon. Most notably, once you start the drills involving strokes you'll almost assuredly find that doing them using an arms-at-your-sides starting (and finishing) position, rather than from an arms-extended-in-front position, will make your life easier.

And, once you've gotten really good at doing all these variations of 6BRRhythm activities, you can start over and try them all again as 2BRR skills.

Future on the horizon

And, so far, all this has been done at very relaxed tempos with emphasis only on maintaining even rhythm and timing. But at some point, after you've gotten really good at doing these drills EZ you'll want to go faster with them. Read the other articles in this series, "Bottom Up Swimming" - Parts 2 & 3 for my thoughts on going faster in a kick-initiated-body-rotation paradigm. 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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