Recently, I’ve gotten a few requests for more input on core body strength and spine alignment so I will share some comments I have been giving students in my lessons…
First of all, we are land mammals. We have all grown up learning to standing vertical under gravity’s pull. We feel that pull upon our skeletal frame, and our spine is the primary pillar on which the rest of our upper body stands.
Our brains know what stand straight means – when we stand up against gravity – and as successfully bipedal land mammals we all have decent proprioception: the ability to know where our body is in space and control it (without looking). That is, we have decent proprioception on land, standing up.
But something strange, even confusing happens to our brain once we lay down horizontal in the weightlessness of water. We lose connection to how the core works in this aquatic condition. It is understandably a foreign situation and it requires we develop some new aquatic skills.
I hear and agree with this talk of ‘strengthening the core‘. That is supremely important for swimming as well as all our land-based activities. But keep in mind that muscles are ‘stupid’ in the sense that muscle cells contract or release. They just turn on or switch off. We’re not merely looking for muscle strength, we need muscle control. This control is about triggering certain teams of muscles to fire in unison, in a precise way, in a precise amount. And the positions we hold in the water (e.g. that distinct rotation of Skate Position) is held against gravity in a way unlike anything we do on land.
What comes naturally on land, does not always come naturally to the same person in the water. Not even all those who are trained to a high degree of skill for core strength and control on land are necessarily good at it in the water – but there is no doubt those students tend to be more in touch with their body and learn quickly.
Yoga and pilates, as complementary activities for swimming, do more than make your core strong. They make your mind aware that you even have muscles and that you can actually control them.
This is the critical missing piece for many swimmers. It may not be that you don’t have strong core muscles, it may be that you just don’t know they exist or how to control them in a way that meets your aquatic needs.
Working your core on land in yoga or pilates will complement your core skill in swimming but it will not complete it. It will not be possible for you to develop on land all the neuro-muscular control you need to learn. At some point you’ll have to get in the water and work it out there. But what you take from yoga and pilates that will help you perhaps more than the muscular strength, is the awareness of where those muscles are, how they work, and how to fire them at will in support of your swimming stroke.
From my own experience I can tell you that TI swimming practice in turn, can go along way to accomplish what yoga does, at least in terms of what you need as a swimmer. I have been a swimmer for 26 years and a TI Swimmer for 13 and only recently did I started trying some basic yoga. My core toning comes completely from TI Swimming and when my wife guided me through her normal yoga abs routine for the first time she was a bit stunned that I could do some advanced core-supported moves that many avid amateurs can’t hold so well. (Granted, I have a long of a history of maintaining my flexibility through stretching – that is a massive advantage for me in all activities. I insist that it is an imperative for remaining agile into oldest age. It is never too late to start this critical discipline and you can improve at it indefinitely, so get started!)
I am making the case that TI drills and focal point training will teach you the control and provide the conditioning you need for your swimming, if you conduct them with as much care and patience as you would treat your yoga or pilates routine. But for many reasons, dry land work is a great thing to add to your palette of activities. I added it because there are times water isn’t accessible, or for when time or energy does not permit. And yoga just feels great too. (And I like having something to work on where I am back at Grasshopper stage.)
Stay tuned: I have some practical thoughts to share on body alignment in the next post.
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