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Slip-Slid'n' Away

by Coach Emmett Hines

Revised from an article which first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1999.

Most swimmers understand there are some general similarities between breaststroke and butterfly - the arms work in unison, the legs work in unison, breathing and stroking involve some degree of up and down motion of the shoulders and head, both strokes are more tiring than freestyle and backstroke etc. But for most people this is where the understanding of breast/fly similarities end.

Look Ma, No Hands

If I ask a typical swimmer to swim a length of breaststroke, he knows what to do (at least what wouldn't get him DQd in a meet). If I ask that swimmer to “swim” a length without using his legs, but keeping his usual arm action, he usually has little or no problem doing the deed. Of course some swimmers would reflexively reach for their pull buoys as soon as they heard the anything resembling “no legs,” but I generally kick the styro-virus out of reach before issuing the instruction. Then, if I ask the swimmer to “swim” a length without using his arms, but keeping his usual leg action, he again is usually able to execute my instructions (he does, however, first glance longingly over at his kickboard that has mysteriously joined his pull-buoy under the bleachers). But now, I ask him to “swim” breaststroke with no arms and no legs..

“Hunh?” he intones. Then silence. He gets a strange look on his face. Perhaps he's calculating how quickly he can scramble out of the pool and grab both his kickboard and pull-buoy. Soon he looks up, “OK, I give up. Whaddaya mean, Coach?”

What I mean is Short Axis Pulsing (SAP) - the fundamental movement of excellent breaststroke and, not coincidentally, of excellent butterfly as well. SAP is the fluid, rhythmic, full-length undulation around the short axis of the body. Like body roll in long axis strokes, SAP is the “engine” of both the short-axis strokes. The idea then is to connect the arms and legs to this engine and its movement in such a manner as to help transmit a high percentage of the forces generated by the large core body muscles to the water without interfering with the fluid, rhythmic pulsing action.

At this point it is common for swimmers to think, “Oh, you mean dolphin kick!”

No, no, no.Unfortunately popular terminology uses “dolphin kick” to refer to that set of motions in which people commonly use primarily their leg muscles as the prime mover — an unfortunate misnomer because its not even close to what dolphins actually do. SAP, on the other hand, refers to the core body motion that, initially, involves the legs as a transmission agent only — this is much closer to what dolphins actually do.

SAP — Introductory Description

Press the chest toward the bottom, then press the hips, then the chest, then the hips, chest, hips, chest. You get the picture — simply alternating chest and hip pressure. Use the legs and feet to simply transmit the pulse generated by the alternating chest/hips action. Think of snapping a towel. The towel doesn't do any of the work; it simply directs and delivers the energy that was generated further up the structure, by the arm and shoulder.

SAP — A (somewhat) Refined Description

Slip forward out from under the water that is over your back, then slide forward and down over the water that is under your chest.

Once the swimmer has pressed his chest into the water so that his head and shoulders are a bit below the surface, there is a rather large mass of water directly over the swimmer. In excellent SAP you'll see that, as pressure is transferred from the chest to the hips, the swimmers seems to slip forward out from under that mass of water leaving it relatively undisturbed. The less accomplished SAPer seems to lift that mass of water up with his rising back so that the water mostly “falls” off to the sides.

Another way of thinking of this “slipping out from under” motion is to try to make an uninterrupted transfer of the pressure point from near the top of the chest down the body to the hips and beyond. In our “introductory” description the impression is one of a teeter-totter with alternating pressures at either end. In this more refined description the following image might be helpful. Keeping your fingers together open your hand up as wide as possible such that the surface of your palm and fingers form a convex curve (fingers curved back). Now place your fingertips on a small (2 inch) ball on a table. While maintaining contact with the ball, roll the ball forward on the table by running your hand forward in a bit of a scooping action. In the same way you feel the pressure point travel the length of your hand you should feel the “pressure point” of SAP travel the length of your body. And by the time one pulse pressure point is rolling off your lower appendages, you are establishing a new pulse pressure point at your front end. Therein lies the rhythm of the SAP skill.

In our refined description it is important to note that all motions are made with the goal of constantly driving the head and/or hands forward while minimizing up and down tendencies.

Stretching, Rolling and Flow

A persons length and the pulsing rate (rhythm) he chooses pre-determine a waveform of specific amplitude and wavelength that must be followed if the swimmer is to 1) maximize distance traveled with each pulse 2) minimize resistance 3) minimize energy expended. Ever watch a snake slither? The snake describes a “standing” waveform and glides through that waveform. Each inch of the body goes through the same space — or slides over the same spots — as each preceding inch. In the water this translates to mean the head will just “stretch” the surface as it “rolls through” point A and then the shoulder blades will stretch the surface as they roll through point A and the butt will stretch the surface as it rolls through point A and maybe even the heels will roll through point A then the head will stretch the surface and roll through at point B and the shoulder blades will roll through point B and...etc. At a moderate pace, the distance between point A and point B should be 80 percent or more of the swimmers head-to-toe body length. A 6 ft tall swimmer ought to be able to travel 5 ft or more with each pulse or about 12 pulses per length or fewer with arms at his sides. Flippers should only take off about one pulse from this ideal count.

Doing anything that tends to take the body out of the predetermined waveform will mess things up. Trying to “get more distance” per pulse by “kicking” too hard with the legs, or breaking rhythm (especially when breathing) or using a “press the chest / lift the chest” motion instead of a “press the chest / press the hips” motion, trying to build in a “glide” phase, pressing the chest too deep (too much amplitude), trying to lead/initiate the pulsing motion by wagging the head off of the spine line — all tend to violate the waveform and force one part of the body to work against the flow already set up by the rest of the body.


Most everyone is able to attain a fluid, rhythmic, core body driven SAP motion with their arms at their sides. But when we go to an “arms extended” position there are lots of people for whom the same action now becomes much less fluid. Separating the arms to a less streamlined (but more relaxed) position often allows the fluidity comes back. Those who have exceptional shoulder flexibility and can get into a relaxed but very streamlined position have less trouble expressing fluency in SAP while covering great distances with each pulse. Regardless of where the arms are in the extended position the idea is that all motions should drive the hands forward - not up and down. If, due to poor shoulder flexibility, “pressing the chest” forces the arms to go down out of streamline and waveform fluency will be lost. The harder the swimmer has to work to get streamlined, the more trouble they have with pulsing.

The other flexibility area seems to be the lower back — it shows up with arms at the sides and gets worse when we go to the “arms extended” position. Those who have exceptional lower back flexibility seem to be able to look more like a dolphin coursing through the surface showing head, shoulders blades, mid back, butt cheeks in a very fluid motion. Those who have less lower back flexibility (runners are the worst) seem to have to rely on piking more to “feel” the pulsing actions. But this piking action is akin to grabbing the snake I mentioned earlier and giving it a sharp bend half way down its body. It puts a non-figurative kink in the works and flow.

More to come

There are a bunch of other aspects of SAP to explore as we continue to refine our description. And, yes, somewhere in your future is a description of how to add the arm and leg motions necessary to avoid DQs. But, having run out of keystrokes I'll have to leave them for another day.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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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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