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Sometimes it seems like we have a paradox with relaxation in swimming – a dissonance between the understanding that speed requires power and power requires muscle tension, yet speed is restricted unless there is relaxation in the muscles.

In Easy Strength the Pavel Tsatsouline noted:

Tension are relaxation are the yin and yang of martial power. Tension is strength, but it is also slowness. Relaxation is speed and endurance, but it is also weakness.

There are two extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to muscle tone and control with swimmers. Only a few of the swimmers I see in a year are on the extreme ends, but nearly every swimmer is coming from one direction or the other – tending to be a bit to stiff or a bit too soft.

On one end there are those who are strong but stiff, like a robot – they can move with power but not with precision or fluidity. To these swimmers relaxation might mean ‘go slow’ and that is unacceptable (and if those body types happen to be dense too, ‘go slower’ also means ‘sink lower’). The problem is, unless they turn down the intensity of signals firing through their motor circuits, they cannot easily retrain the muscles to move a more precise and smooth way. Speed requires compliant muscles to transfer force.

On the other end there are those who are loose and relaxed as a wet noodle and seemingly reluctant to run a greater amount of force through their muscles. To these swimmers relaxation might be understood to mean ‘move as gently as possible’. The problem is that if there is little force generated in your body, there will also be little travel forward when you apply it. Speed requires stiffness in muscles to generate force.

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The Role Of Stiffness And Softness

There is a helpful explanation of the complementary roles of stiffness and softness (or what is better called compliance) from a paid-access article called “Super Stiffness” (with ‘stiffness’ used in it’s most positive sense) at SportsRehabExpert.com. It was written by Professor Stuart McGill PhD, of is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, ON, Canada). He wrote the book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, and is one of the leading authorities on back/spine health and strength training.

At a gymnastics or martial arts meet, or at a weightlifting competition, listen to the coaches advice to the athlete — Stay tight! This means to maintain stiffness. Being stiff ensures that there will be minimal energy losses as forces are transmitted through the linkages. Optimal performance requires stability, and stability results from stiffness. Stiffness in the body results from muscular co-contraction. Used properly, it will assist in getting through “sticking points”, enhance whole body strength and speed. Be stiff, and be compliant. Knowing the difference and when to be one or the other is a major way to improving performance.

McGill points out the relationship between stiffness and compliance in performance – two states the muscles can be in. One state has muscles contracting (and thus becoming stiff) to generate force and resist movement (think ‘joint stability’). The other state has muscles relaxing to allow movement to occur, and to allow speed to build.

As quoted in the book Easy Strength McGill says further:

Optimal expression of athleticism (like jumping) require a tuned balance of variables: strength, speed of contraction and relaxation, direction and precision of force application, turning of stability/stiffness at some joints with compliance/mobility at others, etc… Power production [as in the jump action] require speed and strength, but these two variables compete with one another. Strength is needed to propel, but to enable the strength to convert to speed, relaxation is needed to mitigate the associated stiffness.

The wave of force created in one part of the body and then transferred through the body to the delivery point requires a complex choreography of various muscles stiffening while others are relaxing. For swimmers this muscle choreography happens over and over, side to side, for hundreds or thousands of consecutive strokes. This rapid changing of states is called ‘pulsing’ and each athletic movement in the sport has an ideal pulsing arrangement between these two states. At different parts of the body at different moments, the swimmer has to have both the ability to stiffen and to relax with precise amount and timing. In swim practice your body parts are being trained to pulse between contract/relax in an  an ideal choreography for each event, each intensity level.

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Swimmers who have struggled with abnormally tight or hyper-toned musculature (like certain triathletes I have seen) come to us with lots of power on board, but still go nowhere fast in the water. They might even be able to imitate correct movement patterns, but the action is robotic, mechanical and lacks the fluidity that is required for transmitting force effectively in water. The power is there but it gets locked up in the stiffness of the joints and tissues. It’s like the entire body stays in the stiffened state, resisting fast-smooth-precise movement.

Swimmers who have struggled with a lack of stability, a lack of power may also move with technically correct movement patterns but then they too wonder why they are doing it ‘correct’ but not going anywhere fast. The shape might be there but without sufficient stiffness in the muscles (for generating force and/or for stabilizing joints) there can be no force. It’s like the entire body is a shapely-but-wet-noodle resisting attempts to send more intense signals through the nervous system.

I try to be gentle with people on each extreme but I cannot hide the essential advice:

Too Stiff?

To overly-stiff swimmers: you need to slow down, power down and learn to move smoothly, fluidly like a dancer.

I want to assure you that after you have slowed down and softened up a bit in order to retrain your nervous system, you can gradually turn back on the power and resume swimming powerfully. But then you’ll actually get something out of the power you already have. In the water you need to apply power like you are ‘cutting butter’, not like you are ‘pounding meat’.

Too Soft?

To overly-soft swimmers: you need to use your musculature MORE, not less. Some parts get to rest more than you realized, yes, but other parts need to get to work and stay at it during the entire swim or during certain sections of the stroke.

I want to encourage you – if you want to swim you are going to have to work and that means generating some force, raising the heart rate a bit and working those muscles. You can develop a positive association with this exertion, with this kind of force flowing through your body. You will get there gradually with a good process.

To both, we remain insistent on TI’s priority for building positional stability first, proper movement patterns second, and then third, apply power gradually up to the threshold of the circuits.

Of all the variables required for optimal performance, building muscle strength is the easiest component to enhance with training. Far more difficult is the enhancement of the foundation components of healthy motion and motor patterns, joint stability and endurance. And only then with this foundation can serious strength with speed and power be developed.

An Example

One online athlete of mine recently noted his attempts to relax his shoulder further during the catch. If I understood what he meant correctly I was immediately concerned because the catch/hold phase the shoulder absolutely must be engaged in critical work, it must be stiff to a degree to hold shape and transfer force.

The misunderstanding may come from a focus on using the torso rotation to empower the stroke and relieve the shoulders from doing that job alone – but one cannot just turn off the shoulder. What then will hold that nice catch shape in place?

The form of relief we propose is not to turn it off, but to give it a (slightly) different job, a supporting role in the catch phase, rather than a lead role. We get power from the torso rotation but we hold position and shape of the arm (which gets the grip on the water) in order to transfer force through the torso and arms. The shoulder is going to stay working in this phase of the stroke, but not quite as demanding and tiring as if it were required to do (most of) the pulling.

[Side Note: hand paddles are notorious for virtually compelling a swimmer to pull from the shoulder – if this is what you want, go for it. I think they could be used with extreme care to train torso power with a supportive shoulder, but I have never seen a swimmer in the pool using them this way. One might learn to use them for training torso-power under the guidance of a coach who knows how.]

Smart Relaxation

I have been taking pains in several posts to explain that swimming involves hard work, no matter the method employed, TI or not. The ‘Easy’ in Easy Speed, or the ‘Effortless’ in Effortless Endurance are totally relative terms – anyone coming from an inferior set of movement patterns for swimming will immediately recognize how Total Immersion brings so much more ease and energy to swimming than ever experienced before. But even at its best, swimming is still work, and the faster and farther you want to go, the more work involved.

Relaxation needs to be understood and improved in context of a body that must remain working, where some body parts that may have short work/rest intervals, while others get no rest. Even though some parts need to keep working, they can work smarter rather than harder. There are ways the work can be re-assigned, and then muscle contraction can be applied in degrees (rather than in absolute on-or-off). That is one of the central ideas behind TI’s version of relaxation.

For those activities that demand high core or torso stability, all muscles must be activated — never isolate one. Furthermore… high performance in athletics requires rapid muscle activation onset and force development, together with equally rapid reduction of muscle force. Super stiffness needs only to occur briefly in such cases, but if it needs to be brief, the motor control system must be highly tuned to ensure optimal super stiffness.

I like to think of it as a choreography involving all these muscles and joints. like a stage full of ballet dancers. The swimming motion has certain muscle groups firing to a certain degree for a fraction of a second then resting for a fraction more, while others take over from there. Your technical work involves not just optimal movement patterns, but also training for optimal muscle firing in degree.

Now the focus is on matching the intensity of the contraction to the stability demand of the task. Interestingly enough, stiffness and stability is an asymptotic function — in other words a lot of stability is achieved in the first 25% of the maximum contraction level. Thus 100% muscle contraction levels are rarely needed — the trick is to activate many muscles to achieve symmetric stiffness around a joint.

Relaxation nor power is an all-or-nothing on/off switch – the swimmer has to build a ‘dimmer’ switch into your motor control: not only can you turn a muscle group on/off, but turn up the intensity higher or lower. Often a moderate amount of contraction applied at the right moment is enough to get the job done, compared to full muscle contraction applied at the wrong moment.

A few more words from Pavel Tsatsouline:

Mastery of relaxation is a hallmark of an elite athlete… the higher the athlete’s level, the quicker he can relax his muscles.

Lastly, at some point you will reach as much ‘relaxation’ as your skill level permits right now and you need to spend a season increasing intensity signals going through those circuits. More time and mindful training will enhance your awareness of finer details in your body and then you may come back through a process of refinement and deeper ‘relaxation’. There should be an endless depth of relaxation to gain from mindful training, but you cannot get it all, or even most of it at the beginning. It takes maturity through many seasons as an athlete to get to the deeper levels.

Enjoy your mindful exploration of this paradox of relaxation – the relationship of stiffness and compliance – in your own body.

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