How to Maximize Propulsion in the Water

By Gary Hall Sr. | Aug. 14, 2017, 7:40 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.

While nearly all of the forces that create propulsion come from the hands and feet, there are certain other movements that we can do with our bodies that will increase the amount of propulsion coming from the pull and kick. We call those coupling motions.

I have written extensively in the past about the importance of coupling motions, but for those that missed reading them, let me explain. A coupling motion is a motion of some part of our body that by itself produces no propulsion, yet, when coupled with the propulsive forces, will make them stronger. Since we live in what is called an open system in nature, where the energy from one part of our moving body affects other parts of our body, using coupling motions are a powerful way to swim faster.

poolThe coupling motions of swimming are very important; like putting a fuel additive into your gas tank. Any serious discussion of propulsion in swimming would be remiss without mentioning the coupling motions.

The following are important coupling motions and the propulsive forces they are coupling with. We will focus on freestyle for triathletes.

• Freestyle: Rotation of the body (including the head after the breath) and the recovery of the arms (pull and kick)

The keys to making the coupling motions effective are precise timing and more energy. The coupling motion is most effective when the maximum kinetic energy of the motion is timed precisely with the maximum propulsion. For example, if the coupling motion ends before the propulsive force begins, it has no effect at all. A good example is in breaststroke, perhaps the most timing-sensitive stroke of all, where if the body pressing forward reaches the water much before the feet begin to push backward, the benefit of all that work is lost. For that reason, the kicking cycle of breaststroke needs to be lightning fast to work well with the coupling motions of the upper body.

The kinetic energy of coupling motions in swimming can increase in the following ways: rotating faster, lengthening (straightening) the arms, pressing the body forward harder or snapping down the head faster. There is a price to pay, however, and it is called work.

It is much easier to swim without using these high-energy coupling motions. I call that technique survival stroke, which utilizes less energy to get through a workout. If you get accustomed to swimming with survival stroke technique that is the way you will likely swim in the competition. You may invest less energy in the race, but you probably won’t swim as fast and likely won’t win.

At the Race Club we take coupling motions very seriously. Coupling motions are one of the main reasons that swimmers who do not appear to be very strong can swim faster and with more power than bigger, stronger swimmers. 

gary hall sr

Yours in swimming,

Gary Hall Sr.

Gary 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.

We have designed many drills that will help you with the energy and timing of your coupling motions. Come to Islamorada or Coronado and let us show you them!

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.