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What Floats Yer Boat?

Fair Warning: Read the whole article before you go try any of this stuff.  

The best swimmers don’t struggle in the water. They glide through the surface between strokes. They need only a few strokes to get to the other end while appearing to do it effortlessly. Ever wondered how? A big part of the answer is that they have great floating skills.

Are you a floater or are you a sinker?

Based on their experience with hips and legs always attracted toward the bottom, most swimmers, and nearly all 3athletes, tell me they are sinkers; Yet when I ask them to sit motionless on the bottom of the pool with lungs half-full of air, very few are able to do so. In order to stay at the bottom, most must blow out all their air at the very least, and in most cases require continuous effort pushing water upwards with sculling, paddling or kicking motions. Such people, and perhaps yourself, are not sinkers but, rather, floaters who just have lousy floating skills.

Swimmers with less than excellent floating skills tend to fall into one of three groups:

  • They swim somewhat uphill – head higher than shoulders, hips lower than shoulders and feet deeper still – and thus swim against two or three times as much frontal resistance as is necessary. This extra resistance causes the swimmer to lurch to a stop whenever there isn’t a large propulsion force being applied.
  • They use some portion (often most) of their kick for artificial support (like Grandma using a walker) to prop the hips and legs up near the surface (or at least to keep them from sinking really deep) or,
  • Both of the above.

In any case, poor floating skills require lots of energy to be directed away from propulsion – wasted either in overcoming great resistance or in propping up the swimmer’s back end.

Highly effective swimming requires one’s neuromuscular system to fully grok the relationship of gravity and buoyancy in that narrow band where air meets water and where swimmers spend most of their time. Far from instinctive, this understanding tends to elude all but the most elite swimmers. But this is correctable. Toward that end, our group spends a fair bit of time learning and refining floating skills – both static and dynamic – skills that allow them to remain in a low-resistance horizontal gliding position at all times while swimming.

Static floating skills

We split off in peer-coaching groups of 3 or 4 people. In each group, swimmers take turns floating while the others offer feedback about posture, body lines and balance as well as cues to success.

The swimmer floats lengthwise in the lane with the entire body horizontal from head to heel. Nose and navel should be pointed straight down. Arms extended toward the far end of the pool but at a slight downward angle (backs of the hands somewhat deeper than the front of the chest). Swimmers with great shoulder flexibility may have one hand on top of the other, as in a streamlined glide position. We call this an A-shaped position, or A-float.


A-float position

Swimmers with less shoulder flexibility (most adults) should use a position with the hands separated to roughly shoulder-width apart – called an I-float.


I-float position

The goal is to have the back of the head, shoulder blades, butt-cheeks and heels all exposed to the air. Some swimmers will also be able to have most or all of the back and backs of the legs exposed as well. Those with lower body mass indexes will settle somewhat deeper in the water, exposing less flesh to the air, but the horizontal-head-to-heel goal remains unchanged.

Foam assistance

When beginning this exercise, we build in a success factor by placing a half kickboard (we call it a floatboard since we use it for floating, not kicking) under the middle of the thighs, for artificial support (yeah, like Grandma’s walker again). Once the swimmer demonstrates success in achieving a horizontal floating position, we substitute a slightly smaller floatboard.

FloatBoards

With further success we repeat the cycle with ever smaller floatboards until the swimmer is not quickly successful in achieving and maintaining a horizontal float. This is where learning begins. The swimmer must focus on improving posture in order to have continued success.

3Piece KayakWhat’s all this hoo-haw about posture?

Visualize a kayak – a water-worthy craft that is maneuverable, fast and fun to paddle. But imagine cutting that kayak into three pieces and tying them loosely together with bungee cords. Also imagine that only the middle section is buoyant, the other parts tending to sink. Not exactly the boat you want to be paddling. But if you swim with a relaxed core – we call it schlumpy posture – you are, in effect, paddling just such kayak.

Swimmers with good aquatic posture use core muscular tension to pull the three critical body masses – head, chest and hips – into a firmly connected aquatic vessel – a one-piece kayak. As I explain in the second edition of my book, Fitness Swimming, assembling good posture requires engaging specific muscles – lower abdominal tension that draws the navel toward the spine and flattens the lower back (note the yellow areas in the drawing), upper abdominal and chest tension seems to knit the lower ribs together, and upper back and neck tension that draws the chin and nose straight back toward the spine line as it elongates the neck. Think, “military attention position” or “stand up as tall as possible”.

SchlumpyTight
Schlumpy....................................................Tight line

The effect is to draw the entire body onto a tight, straight line – we call it tight-line posture or, simply, your tight line – which transmits the large buoyant force provided by air in the lungs (the only part of you that is really buoyant) from head to heel, allowing horizontal flotation. (See also the Critical Mass in the Twilight Zone and Claim Your Lollipop articles.)

1 piece kayak
This is the kayak you want to be paddling.

Peer coaches point the way to success

During the floating exercises, peer coaches watch body lines and “tickle” different areas of the swimmer’s body to indicate what area of the body requires postural attention. For instance:

  • Tickling the small of the back indicates that the swimmer needs to pull the belly button more firmly toward the spine to reduce lower back curvature.
  • A tickle in the middle of the back alerts the swimmer to knit the lower ribs more firmly together.
  • Attention needed for neck and head position is called for by tickling the back of the neck. For some people, once the head has been pulled onto the spine line, tipping the head into a nose-pointed-slightly-forward position (instead of the nose pointing straight down) can be helpful.
  • A tickle at the heels or back of the calf means an adjustment of the leg angle at the hips is needed.
  • A tickle on the bottom of the foot means to point the toes more like a gymnast.
  • Tickling the arm means an adjustment of the angle of the extended arms is in order – usually to a bit more of a downward angle.

It is important that peer coaches not make the adjustments for the swimmer – not lift the feet up or push the head up or down, etc. – but, rather, give tickle cues for adjustments needed, then let the swimmer make the adjustments themselves.

Once the swimmer has achieved a good horizontal position, a peer coach gets directly behind his feet and gives him a brisk push straight forward (careful not to put any upward, downward or sideward force on the feet). The swimmer must resist bending/crumpling during the push by increasing overall tight-line tension. If the swimmer maintains posture during and after the push, he will glide for a surprising distance. Most first-timers are amazed how little resistance they feel and how long it takes to slow down. Yes, the floatboard may fall away during the push but momentum and water flow will serve in its place.

Once horizontal success has been reached consistently with any floatboard, it is time to go to the next smaller floatboard.

Dynamic floating skills – from a peer-push

After pushing the limits of floating skills while keeping arms and legs motionless, the next step is to add some swimming motions. This should be done in small steps because each step adds a layer of complication. In the beginning, each of these skills should be practiced with peer-coach-powered push-offs. Some swimmers will benefit by moving back to a slightly larger float when first trying out these motions.

Sculling propulsion: After gliding a bit, the swimmer reaches over an imaginary barrel out in front and begins to scull gently for propulsion while focusing on maintaining the same tight-line posture used in the static float. See the video clips and the Over The Barrel drill in Part III of the Get a (Better) Grip article series. Be careful to reach far enough over the barrel that the water you deflect with your sculls is flowing toward your feet, not toward the bottom of the pool. Deflecting water downwards will tend to lift your front end and sink your back end. One can also begin sculling directly from a static float, as demonstrated below.

Kicking propulsion: This time, instead of sculling, the swimmer begins to kick gently after a bit of gliding. Again the primary focus is on maintaining the same tight-line posture used in the static float. This is not about trying to go fast but, rather, about keeping good posture, which becomes more complex as leg motions are introduced. The fundamental skill we are trying to build and reinforce is the use of buoyancy and floating skills to support the swimmer, rather than kicking to prop the hips and legs up. Therefore, one must resist what may be a strong temptation to allow the kick to take over some portion of the support. Kicking directly out of a static float is also a possibility, as seen in the next video clip.

Add rotations: Once the swimmer can kick successfully without letting it take over any of the support responsibilities, kicking in a 6-beat pattern for long-axis rotations may be added (see the Bottom Up Swimming articles). Maintaining the same tight-line posture used in the static float becomes even more complex as body rotations are introduced.

Stroke Propulsion: Once consistent success has been achieved with kicking and rotations, the next step is to begin taking strokes after the first couple of rotations. These should be done at whatever rotation tempo has been working in the previous step. The primary focus must remain on maintaining the same tight-line posture and horizontal position used in the static float. If that starts to fall apart, the swimmer should spend more time ingraining the preceding skills.

Dynamic floating skills – from a wall-push

With peer-coach push-offs, the swimmer has time to assemble his tight line with benefit of the floatboard before moving. Not so in the following steps:

The swimmer practices pushing off from the wall at the surface, snapping into the static float position as his feet leave the wall, feeling for the same minimum-resistance sensations experienced with the peer-coach push-off.

Once this is working well, after gliding for a bit, the swimmer starts to kick for rotations,. And, as in the peer-push progression above, once rotations are working well, the swimmer then starts to take strokes.

Repeating the previous steps, but from an underwater pushoff, is the final part in this progression.

Throughout each of the preceding exercises, peer coaches offer feedback about posture, line and balance and suggest corrections.

Pitfalls and tips

When working through the skills above, the following things and thoughts may prove helpful:

  • The most common error people make in both the static and dynamic floating exercises is to try to extend their arms straight out front, parallel to the surface or, worse, at some degree of up-angle. Nearly all adult swimmers need some degree of downward angle for their arms in order to avoid bending or breaking their tight-line posture. Only those with exceptional shoulder flexibility can get away with horizontal arm extension while maintaining the requisite tight-line posture for static floating. (See also the Yer Middle Name Ain't Gumby article.)

downangle arm
Arm extension at a bit of a down-angle

  • Some swimmers may experience some degree of lateral instability – tending to roll over to one side or the other – when first trying static floating. The solution is to simply spread the arms so that the hands are somewhat wider than the shoulders. This Y-shaped floating position can be used until horizontal success has been achieved. At this point moving the arms closer together to achieve either an I-float or A-float should be much easier.

Yfloat
Y-float position

  • Any change to any part of the floating vessel affects the entire vessel. Avoid making large or rapid adjustments when trying to master that next smaller floatboard. Each adjustment should be small and made slowly. Additionally, sufficient time must be allowed for the entire aquatic vessel to react to the change before making the next change. Otherwise, the swimmer does not get accurate feedback about the results of each adjustment.
  • Resist the temptation of starting with a small floatboard or going to the next smaller floatboard too soon. Better to really master a floatboard with which you can achieve the desired position easily. Then work down to the floatboard size that is challenging but doable and master it. Trying this stuff with insufficient artificial support – such that it is more struggle than success – is a waste of your time and your peer coaches’ time.
  • When adding kicking, it is really important to kick from the hips, not from the knees. Knee-kicking tends to immediately result in breaking posture and allowing the hips to submerge in order that the feet not end up flailing around in the air. If your peer coaches tell you that you are doing any knee-kicking, try keeping your legs straight as planks.
  • When first doing the portions of these exercise that involve long-axis rotations or taking strokes, I suggest you eschew breathing in favor of simply holding a comfortable amount air in your lungs throughout each repeat of each exercise. Adding breathing motions adds a couple layers of complexity best left until after you’ve mastered the baseline exercises.
  • Trying to do this stuff when you are too cold makes all of it much harder. If the water is cool enough that you are getting chilled, swim a few laps to warm up before continuing with the exercises.  
  • Experiment with different amounts of tension in assembling your tight line to achieve horizontal floating success. You want enough core tension to keep your head, torso, and hips all firmly connected, but not so much that you waste energy. What we’ve found is that, for many people, their first experience with sufficient core tension is when we preach “head to heel like steel”. At first this seems, to the swimmer, too much tension to sustain. But once they’ve experienced the marked difference in how the body reacts as a one-piece vessel as opposed their usual multi-bobbing-bunch’o’body parts, they get motivated to work on using and conditioning aquatic postural muscles. Ultimately, the amount of tension actually required is dependent on:
    • Activity level – low intensity activity requires less core tension while high intensity activity requires more.
    • Technique – if your other swimming motions tend to push different body parts away from a laser-beam path down the pool, you’ll need more core tension to resist those forces. If your motions simply propel you without disturbing your line and balance, you need less core postural tension to be successful.
    • Visceral learning – when learning new physical skills, the neuromuscular system tends to fire off way more muscle fibers than are necessary, many of them antagonistic to each other. With practice and refinement the neuromuscular system slowly learns which fibers are necessary and eventually stops firing off those that are not.
    • Conditioning and habit – As tight-line aquatic posture becomes more strongly habituated, and as the aquatic postural muscles become better conditioned, you will perceive less core tension as you go about various aquatic activities – even though you will undoubtedly be using a lot more core tension than the schlumpy swimmer in the next lane.

How low can you go?

In a perfect world every swimmer would be able to execute a horizontal static float without benefit of any floatboard. But, depending on your personal buoyancy factors (body-fat distribution, lean-to-fat mass ratio, bone density, limb length, limb muscularity, torso length, lung volume, distance between center of mass and center of flotation, etc.) it may or may not be possible to achieve a fully horizontal static float position unaided (no floatboard). Only a small percentage of male athletes can do it – perhaps one in twenty, maybe fewer. Women generally have a better shot at it.

However, we don’t need to achieve unsupported static floating in order to be able to swim without support (either artificial support or prop-up kicking support). As a swimmer moves through the water, if he tends to be a bit under-balanced (hips/legs lower than shoulders) the onrush of water exerts force on the front surfaces of the body. This tends to plane the hips/legs towards the surface.

At slow speeds there is not a big planning force, but it gets bigger the faster the body moves through the water. At typical adult (Masters/3athlon/fitness) swimming speeds the amount of planing force exerted by water flow is in the same ballpark as the amount of support provided by my floatboards in the #4 to #7 range (depending on several factors like speed, ratio of body length to body width, streamlining, etc.). The vast majority of people I’ve worked with are able to improve their static float skills sufficiently to get down into the #5 or smaller floatboard range, so most everyone gets to the place where I have great confidence in their potential to swim fully horizontal without having to use kicking to prop up the hips and legs.

Regardless of how good you get at this, keep working toward smaller and smaller floatboards. The less artificial support you need, the more leeway you give yourself in case of errors while swimming. And anytime you are working at the edge of your technical ability, lots of visceral learning is taking place.

Adding equipment

No equipment beyond several sizes of floatboards is necessary in order to get great benefit from these floating skill exercises. There are, however, a couple tools that can help extend the exercises, either separately or in tandem:
 snorkel

  • A training snorkel can be helpful in extending the exercises and can serve as a helpful stepping stone on the way to the addition of normal breathing motions – but only after you’ve mastered the baseline exercises. Changing the amount of air in your lungs changes your flotation dynamics. Using a snorkel allows you to experiment with this added complexity without the added distraction of turning your head to breathe.
  • Fins can be useful if trying to do this stuff without a partner for push-offs. The swimmer starts gently kicking to create some momentum from the static floating position. After a few seconds he stops kicking and rides the glide. This is less complex than starting from a wall push. Of course, using fins that sink rapidly (or float like corks) should be avoided as they will taint your floating dynamics.  

Keep learning

Regardless of your swimming ability, the activities detailed here will help you refine how your aquatic vessel rides in the water. But floating skills and water-supported horizontal balance take time and hard work to learn, condition and habituate. And, of course, there is a goodly learning gap between acquiring good static floating skills and being able to put those skills to effective use in conjunction with all of the motions that swimming calls for.

These exercises and drills are not a magic bullet. This isn’t stuff for the I-want-it-now athlete preparing for a competition next week. But if you give some of this stuff a try you may just discover there is a whole new level of swimming proficiency waiting for you to take the next step.

Floating skills, once learned, should become part of your technique at all intensities of effort. But you must master these skills at low intensities before you have even the slightest hope of having them show up while you are trying to swim fast. 

As with any fundamental skill set, it is important to regularly revisit your floating skills. Once you have established great floating skills you will still find these exercises beneficial throughout your swimming career. Especially in cases where you have substantial body changes – gain or lose weight, gain or lose muscle mass, change in joint range of motion (particularly shoulders). In such cases your balance dynamics may change enough that you must adjust or relearn floating skills.  

So find a partner, split the cost of a couple cheap foam kickboards, cut them into several different size pieces and put them to use in the pool. The more you learn to use buoyancy rather than effort to stay horizontal, the less energy you’ll waste overcoming resistance and the more energy you’ll have available for added speed. What’s not to like? 

H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2008-2012

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, holds an ASCA 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. The first edition has been translated and released in French (entitled Natation, published by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, published by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong) and, soon, in Turkish. 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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