KNOWLEDGE

Hard-core

This article was published in a monthly magazine "Bieganie" ("Running") No. 05/2012 in the section devoted to triathlon.

If I were to choose one universal skill which directly influences swimming technique, I would, without any hesitation, point to the ability of maintaining proper body position in water. A person possessing this skill is able to keep his or her body high so as to reduce frontal resistance by contracting of the muscles of upper-body and shoulder girdle. The advantages of high economy of movement are obvious. However, little does anyone know that core muscle stability is essential for one more reason - it is responsible for generating force of every movement performed by a person, not only in swimming.

The basic and initial position of every healthy person is a straight spine and a head in neutral (face-forward) position. It is the most stable body position and its importance stems from the fact that every move we make in our daily life is initiated in the centre of our body. Proper muscle organization near our centre of gravity allows us to move in optimal conditions. Lack of such organization renders the movement inefficient.

The contraction of core muscles is especially important in swimming - we don't have any stable support when we're in water. In water conditions, there are different forces (waves, whirls etc.) which additionally throw our body off balance. Effective control of one's moves in such an unstable environment requires the ability to contract core muscles in a very specific manner. Among them, short muscles, located near the spine, are the most important. Large muscle groups participate in stabilization as well, however their role is secondary.

The unique character of stabilization in water by means of short muscles makes it very difficult to learn the proper body position (especially in the case of adults). There are two ways of learning and perfecting this technique. The first are technical drills performed in water of which the most effective are: kicking on the side, kicking on the back with arms above water and others which force a swimmer to seek balance in water. The second way of practicing the correct body position is, apart from training in water, doing core muscle exercises at the gym or sports hall.

So far, hundreds of exercises for abs and back have been developed. Nevertheless, not all of them will effectively support our performance in water. For instance, doing sit-ups, although it will probably strengthen our abs, won't help us to achieve the optimal body position in water. The exercises we choose to do should engage exactly those muscles that we need during effort.

The greatest number of exercises which can be successfully applied in swimming come from artistic gymnastics. The principles of core stability in this discipline are practically identical with those valid for water conditions. In gymnastics, the most basic position is the “hollow body” which is illustrated in the picture below. It is the most neutral position a human body can take and it also gives maximum stability. Don’t let yourself be fooled by its seeming simplicity – it’s very difficult to remain in this position. However, mastering the “hollow body” may quickly strengthen the short muscles close to the spine and increase awareness of your body in water.

Picture 1: The hollow body position. It is important that the lower back remains in contact with the floor at all times.

Training stimulus can be added to the „hollow” position by rocking the body back and forth imitating the movement of a cradle. Putting the body in motion teaches a swimmer to fight forces acting in different directions – it simulates the conditions under water. It is essential to remain in the position at all times during rocking. Failure to maintain hollow body is a sign that the basic version of the position still needs practicing.

An exercise similar to the “hollow body” is based on the position of the “superman”. Likewise, putting the body in motion will make the exercise more difficult and will better prepare a swimmer to move in water conditions.

Picture 2: The superman – legs and arms are straight. Arms should be at least parallel to the floor, however the closer they get to being the extension of the spine, the better.

Another exercise which is especially effective in perfecting the body position of a swimmer in water are planks (front, back, on elbows, on hands etc.). This exercise should be performed with great carefulness – inability to keep the body in a straight line will mercilessly result in an incorrect body position in water. The best way to avoid this problem is training with another person who can make sure you keep the right position. Otherwise, it may become necessary to train in front of a mirror. In order to increase the difficulty level of planks, unstable support for hands or legs can be added (a medicine ball, wobble balance cushion, gymnastic rings or any other equipment, depending on your own creativity).

Picture 3: Front plank on elbows. The most important aspect of this exercise is to keep the body in a straight line – straight knees, hips lifted high, flat back and head in a neutral position.

The positions mentioned above are only a few examples out of a whole list of core-strengthening exercises which every coach and swimmer should know by heart. We should remember that the key to development is constant modification of training stimuli and searching for new solutions. The exercises described in this article are very basic, however they are a great starting point on the road to their more demanding versions. Their advantage is that they don’t require any equipment – a piece of the floor is enough, so when you don’t have much time or financial means you can do them at home.

How often and for how long should you train core muscles? I think that an hour of training out of water two times a week is a good start, where most of the time is devoted to core exercises (but not all of the time – don’t forget about a dynamic warm-up, stretching as well as other, preferably functional, exercises). You should also be careful not to overdo practicing the ability to keep the described above positions for as long as possible. If you easily perform one minute series in a given position, it’s time to move on to more difficult exercises – we’re not trying to break a Guinness record, most of all we want to increase our fitness and improve our performance in water.

Paweł Rurak

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