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Hops, Whirlpools, Shoulder Thangs and Stretches

(or Wacky Warm-ups)

Revised in 2001 from an article which first appeared in SWIM Magazine circa 1998.
Revised in 2010 to include video of each ovf the movements.

The goals of our program go well beyond giving yardage workouts. In addition to fitness, we want to teach skill and technique improvement, efficiency, and stress reduction. Finally, we want to keep motivation high with variety and perhaps even a little silliness.

We want our swimmers to think of workout as “play” or “practice” instead of “work.” That is why kids are usually much happier than adults — they spend more time playing. Learning new skills, strength, flexibility, and conditioning can be fun. It doesn't have to be monotonous and boring. Using the pool differently than just swimming from one end to the other and then back again is one way to do this.

Enter Hops, Whirlpools, Shoulder Thangs & Stretches — often shortened to Hops, Etc. a great opportunity to improve your skills, coordination, strength, and flexibility in a very short time period - on a daily basis.

H2Ouston Swims began a variation of these exercises in 1986 and they have evolved over a period of many years. In September 1995, Coach Michael Collins’ team, Davis Aquatic Masters, started a variation they called Wacky Warm-ups. Despite this moniker, they should be done after a full warm-up, not as your full warm-up.

Shoulder Thangs

Shoulder Thangs are essentially the same motions taught by physical therapists to build balanced shoulder stability — internal and external rotation of the shoulder joint against resistance. The water creates a reasonable amount of resistance. Many athletes do similar exercises on land using surgical tubing or rubber bands to help develop shoulder strength & stabilization that allow them to perform with greatly reduced risk of injury. We have 3 exercises that fall in this category: Small Flashes, Big Flashes and Scoops.

Small Flashes are done while standing on the bottom, keeping your elbows pressed against the side of your body. Start with both arms across your lower ribs. Then, keeping the wrists stiff, briskly press with the back of the hands and forearms in an outward motion (external rotation), as far as you can while still keeping the elbows tight in against the body. Then reverse directions and sweep the hands toward each other, back to the starting position. Alternate which arm passes over top of the other with each flash.

Hops, Etc. — Small Flashes

We call these “flashes” because the motion is vaguely reminiscent of a rain-coated back-alley perv flashing an unsuspecting passerby.

Big Flashes are essentially the same as small flashes but with straight arms. Done in shoulder-deep water, they start in a full-wrap position as if are giving yourself a hug. Sweep the arms briskly outward with firm wrists, pressing with the back of the entire arm and hand as far back as possible (as in a “Big Fish” story gesture). Then sweep the arms inward and past each other until your arms are wrapped around your body. Again, alternate which arm passes over top of the other with each flash.

Hops, Etc. — Big Flashes

We call ’em “big flashes” to reflect that they are similar to the small flashes only bigger – not to imply any enhancement to what the aforementioned perv might display.

Scoops are shoulder exercises that are often mistakenly done more like a bicep exercise. Stand upright in chest-to-shoulder-deep water with your arms bent 90 degrees at the elbow, palms facing up. Keeping the 90 degree bend of the elbow throughout the exercise, swing your arms behind you as far as possible and then swing them forward and up out of the water as if to scoop water up into the air, stopping the motion before your elbows get much above your shoulders (once your elbows get above the surface there is no more water resistance to work against, hence no need to go further with the motion). Swing the arms back down and fully to the rear again.

Hops, Etc. — Scoops


Hops begin in the same standing position in chest deep (or deeper) water. With your arms held straight down in front of you, palms facing each other, crouch down low in the water and leap off the bottom into the air as high as possible. As you begin to leap up, start sweeping your arms upwards to the sides through the resistance of the water. Keep your arms straight, palms facing down. The first 45 degrees of arm motion against water resistance is the most important and it is not necessary to try to get them all the way up to shoulder level underwater. At the top of your leap just bring your arms together and, as gravity pulls you back down, drop your arms straight down in front of you as you reach the original crouch position. Repeat rhythmically.

Hops, Etc. — Hops

Hops, like Flashes and Scoops are an important exercise for decreasing muscle imbalances around he shoulder joint, thus decreasing the probability of rotator cuff injuries. Hops are also great for building leg strength in a plyometric exercise that improves push-off power the place where you are moving fastest in each length of the pool.


The Whirlpools sculling exercise enhances “feel” of the water and strengthens the muscles needed to get a better grip on the water (see the Get a (Better) Grip! article series). Using a side to side sculling action of the forearms for support, raise your feet to the surface so that you are in a sitting 'V' position with your toes out of the water and pointed gymnast style. Your legs should be straight, you should be sitting with at least a 90-degree bend at the hips, head upright with your nose pointing forward, not up. The idea is to keep both your toes and your blowhole dry while supporting yourself entirely with side to side sculling motions. Hold your elbows away from your sides, a bit below shoulder level. Sculling motions should be made strictly from the elbow rather than from the shoulder. By reversing the pitch of the hand with each arm sweep you’ll constantly be deflecting water downwards, which creates an upward force on your hand. The faster and more effective your sculling action the greater this upward force will be, creating a more stable “platform” for you to press down on in order to support yourself. But we don’t want up and down motions with your hands and arms - that would be called “drowning motions” instead of sculling motions. If you are making the proper motions with your arms you will see small whirlpools appear on the surface above each hand (hence the name “whirlpools” for this exercise).

Hops, Etc. — Whirlpools

People who are really good at whirlpools will be able to keep both of their feet out of the water rather than just their toes.


Streamline Stretch – Our version of this classic stretch is done a bit differently than most expect. Standing in chest-to-shoulder-deep water, facing straight forward, arms at your sides and assemble your tight line (not sure what “tight line” means? see the What Floats Yer Boat?, Critical Mass in the Twilight Zone and Claim Your Lollipop articles). Now, keeping your arms straight, slowly bring them up in front and toward your streamline position. As you bring them up, place one hand on top of the other, one wrist on top of the other as if you are wearing a watch and want to cover both the hand and watch with the other hand and wrist. Bring your arms up as far as you can without bending or breaking your tight line. If your shoulder flexibility is such that you can get your arms close to vertical in this manner (hint: only a tiny percentage of adults has such shoulder flexibility) then squeeze your head firmly with your upper arms (do not push or tip your head forward to get it between your arms and do not arch your back to get your arms more vertical). Keep your nose pointed forward and your neck long. Keep the rest of you core line tight and straight. Finally, get up on your toes. You should now be assembled in a firm, tight line from finger tips to toes. Think “be the javelin, be the javelin…” until 30 seconds have expired.

Hops, Etc. — Streamline Stretch

The Streamline Stretch improves the flexibility needed not only to maintain maximum speed off each push-off, but also in reaching full extension on every stroke, which can greatly aid improvment of distance per stroke (DPS).

Pectoralis Stretch The pectoralis muscles are involved in nearly all of the high resistance motions we make in swimming. Pec muscles have a tendency to get tight and short if not subjected to a regular stretching regimen. To do this stretch, stand in armpit deep water with your chest close to or against the lane rope. Raise your left arm so that your upper arm is parallel with and along side of the lane rope, 90-degree bend at the elbow so your forearm is pointing straight up. Now rotate your body to the right. The lane rope keeps the left arm from moving. As your body rotates to the right you should feel a stretch diagonally from the shoulder across your left pec to the sternum (breastbone). If you just feel the stretch in the shoulder area you need to raise your elbow a bit higher (or skooch your body down a bit lower) until you feel the stretch pull across all the way to the sternum. Otherwise you aren't stretching the pec muscle you are just prying the shoulder joint apart. Hold this stretch to 30 seconds and be sure to stretch both sides evenly.

Hops, Etc. — Pec Stretch

Just Doin' It

Now that you know how to execute each exercise properly, the best way to use them is in a 6-minute set done after your warmup or first swimming set (ideally, at every practice). On most days we go three cycles of the following:

  • 30 sec of Hops
  • 30 sec of Whirlpools
  • 30 sec of Shoulder Thangs (1st cycle is Small Flashes, 2nd cycle is Big Flashes, 3rd cycle is Scoops)
  • 30 sec of Stretch (1st cycle is Right Pec Stretch, 2nd cycle Left Pec Stretch, 3rd cycle Streamline Stretch)
  • Recycle to top (total of 3 cycles)

Each cycle takes 2 minutes so the whole set requires 6 minutes.

Just Doin' It Right

While the exercises are a bit like water aerobic activities, they are really more about technique, skills and injury prevention for swimmers. Putting your best effort into doing them correctly will greatly increase their value over just doing them “close enough”. The exercises that involve rhythmic motions should be done briskly they are, after all, exercises – rather than just going through easy motions while gittin’ yer yada-yada on. If, during any of those 30-second chunks, you are not working the motions briskly enough to incur a goodly level of fatigue in the muscles used, well then my friend, you are squandering a valuable training opportunity.


Ideally, the transition from one exercise to the next is instantaneous one second you are finishing the last hop of one segment and the the next second you are in a V-sit position diligently whirling your pools. But real life is not always ideal and we sometimes must settle for “close”. So you should be thinking “quick” transitions about 3 seconds qualifies as a good mark to aim for. That way you still experience a good 27 seconds of useful activity in each segment, as opposed to the shorter (sometimes much shorter) periods experienced by those of your swimmates more given to sloth than endeavor. 

Short Sprints

Short Sprints can be added between each exercise if the water and/or air is chilly enough for swimmers to get cold during the above 6-minute set. Start from wherever you are executing your Hops, Etc. and swim to the wall and back. Try to accelerate quickly to carry high speed into the wall and maintain momentum through the turn and into the breakout stroke. Emphasize streamlined push-offs on the turns. This may be done in any stroke or simply as a sprint kick. This gives the opportunity for some fast short swimming with significant rest for your sprint swimming muscles early in the workout. Slower swimmers move closer to the wall to stay on the interval. Faster swimmers can move a bit further away.

So here’s how we might do them on a cold day:

  • 30 sec of Hops
  • 30 sec short sprint (swim or kick)
  • 30 sec of Whirlpools
  • 30 sec short sprint
  • 30 sec of Shoulder Thangs (1st cycle is Small Flashes, 2nd cycle is Big Flashes, 3rd cycle is Scoops)
  • 30 sec short sprint
  • 30 sec of Stretch (1st cycle is Right Pec Stretch, 2nd cycle Left Pec Stretch, 3rd cycle Streamline Stretch)
  • 30 sec short sprint
  • Recycle to top (total of 3 cycles)

The addition of the sprints of course lengthens the set. Done as shown above the set requires 12 minutes to complete. But you don’t have to include all 4 short sprints in each cycle. Instead you could do them say, twice per cycle maybe after just the whirlpools and the stretches. Options abound.

Maybe you can use a similar regimen to add variety, improve skills and help avoid shoulder problems in your swimming future!

H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 1998-2010. 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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