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Why We Should Rotate Our Bodies In Freestyle

By Gary Hall Sr. | March 01, 2016, 8:39 a.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

All of the elite swimmers of the world rotate their bodies along the long axis, the axis that their body is moving down the pool, while swimming freestyle and backstroke. They don’t just rotate a little bit. They rotate a lot. The question is, why?

It is commonly believed by both coaches and swimmers that the reason for rotating the body is to reduce frontal drag; that the body has a lower drag coefficient on its side than it does on its stomach. Although I am all for reducing frontal drag, I do not believe that this is the reason that we rotate. I do not believe that the drag coefficient of the human body is significantly different in the water on its side than it is on its stomach. If it were, we would be kicking faster times on our sides … but we don’t.

swimThe truth is that it takes a lot of core strength and work to rotate our bodies from one side to the other while moving down the pool. So if it is not to reduce drag, why then? I believe there are two compelling reasons why we rotate our bodies on these two strokes. The first reason is a biomechanical one and the second is related to laws of motion or propulsion.

If I were to pin your shoulders to the wall in the gym and bring the pulley machine over, you could pull a certain amount of weight downward, using essentially the same pulling motion as you would in the water. If I unpinned your shoulders and allowed you to rotate your body inward toward the pulley machine and you duplicated that same pulling motion with the same elbow bend, I can guarantee that you will be able to pull more weight downward. The reason is that when you rotate in, your big back muscles, particularly the latissimus dorsi muscle, gets into the act. When your shoulders were pinned, that big muscle was sitting on the sidelines, unable to offer much help. By rotating our bodies in the water, we gain a biomechanical advantage of power on the pull.

The second reason we rotate our bodies is a little harder to understand, but it is just as important as the first. I call this second phenomenon coupling. The act of rotating our bodies from one side to the other has zero direct propulsive effect on our motion down the pool. Yet when this motion, which creates energy of its own, is coupled with the propulsive force generated by our pulling arm/hand, the two forces occurring together result in a stronger pulling force than if we were simply pulling alone, without the rotation. One can consider the relationship of these two motions synergistic.

A good example of this coupling effect, and one that is easier to visualize, occurs with relay takeoffs. With the correct start, the arms are swinging fast in reverse direction at full length at the precise moment we push off the starting block with our feet. The swinging of the arms alone has no effect of getting us off the block or down the pool, but when coupled this motion with the push off the block, it helps make the push more forceful, resulting in a better start than if we did not swing the arms.

Body rotation is one of the coupling motions we use in swimming (arm recovery is another) in order to go faster. The bigger we are (more mass) and the faster we can rotate, the more energy we create to couple with the pull, and the faster we swim. When you add the biomechanical advantage that we gain from the rotation, those are two pretty important reasons to make the extra effort to rotate the body. At The Race Club we spend a lot of time teaching swimmers how to rotate the body effectively in freestyle and backstroke.

Chime in on the comments on our most popular video, Secret Tip: How to Pull in Freestyle.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.