You may have noticed that there is a proper way to do a squat, or a dead lift. We understand that when you load these movements, if the body is properly positioned, a proper load placed, and that load it carried through the best pathway, the athlete can do it without injury. He becomes stronger and more stable in that strength.
There is a proper way to do a boxing punch, or a karate kick. There is a proper way to do a golf swing, or a tennis forehand swing. There is a proper way to throw a ball. There is a proper way to run a sprint or hurdles. The is a proper way to do all those very difficult and dangerous gymnastics maneuvers.
When doing these movements improperly, when deviating from that ideal movement path, it is understood that this reduces the dynamic power potential and it increases the injury potential. The human body can create movement in several ways, relying upon primary support, secondary, tertiary – if you insist on doing the movement, the body will find a way to get it done, even if not ideal. The human body does allow a lot of room for variation in movement patterns, but they are not equal under loading. And, swimming is a sport which has a lot of repetitive movement under loading.
We just had the Rio Olympics, and swimming gets enormous public attention at this time. With each Olympics comes the flurry of interest in joining swim lessons, clubs and teams (USA swimming reports how their numbers surge after each Olympics). And with the Olympic performances comes the flurry of coaches and pundits giving their opinions on what features of the stroke made so-and-so fastest in the water.
While there seems to be a consensus about proper and superior movement patterns in many other sports, where is the consensus on how the swimming stroke should be done? It does not seem like there is one.
Why do we recognize a superior way – a stronger and safer way – to do loaded movement in so many other sports but some people try to say there are many acceptable ways to do it in swimming?
We’re not disputing that swimmers are getting the job done in a variety of ways. What it not being discussed is the price they are paying to do it in those variety of ways.
Technique Has A Cost
First, it needs to be considered soberly: if approximately 96% of the Olympic athletes are suffering from rotator cuff tendonitis, (as reported in this article in the The American Journal Of Sports Medicine on 2008 Olympic USA Team swimmers), should you be eager to follow their stroke style and training patterns?
I mean, if you intend to head for the Olympics and are willing to follow their program, and gamble your shoulder health to get that gold, that’s your professional choice. While 99% of the other swimmers in the world should receive some inspiration from Olympic achievements, they should also be careful about following the examples of elites when not actually heading for the same goal. If performance-plus-longevity in swimming – in terms of freedom from physical and mental injury – is our ultimate goal, perhaps we should look to older, long-lasting, successful swimmers for our examples. Last I heard, Janet Evans and Matt Biondi are still competing in masters races 20 years after their last Olympics which testifies to some appropriateness of their technique and training style – they would make better role models in how they are swimming and training now for those living similar athletic lives, not in how they were swimming and training back then. And, how about finding some examples from 40 and 60 years after their Olympics?
It is certainly interesting to examine how those young elite swimmers move, but it can never be assumed that an unusual feature observed on an Olympic champion is actually a contributor to his success. Even the best humans are terribly inefficient in conversion of power to forward movement, in comparison to aquatic mammal cousins, which means they have a lot of wasteful movement going on. Elite humans have great skill and strengths in certain areas and thereby great opportunity to compensate for inefficiencies in other areas which the rest of us cannot compensate for. And, from the scandalous injury rates reported, we see evidence that they are withdrawing from their future health in attempt to win now. When observing the field of elite competitors in an event, we may see that one uses the variation and another does not. Yet, they are both swimming at elite speed (relative to us). So, the presence of the variation in one or two of the swimmers, but not used by all swimmers in the same race going about the same speed (relative to us), should be a sign that this particular feature is not going to be a massive game changer for you and I. The unique little detail this elite is using to get ahead of that particular pack of swimmers is not going to get you and I even close to swimming at the tail of that pack. So what are we doing looking to imitate those funky features?
The lesson here is: master the universally recognized fundamentals first. Try the unusual stuff only after you’ve squeezed all you can get from the fundamentals first. That first task will keep you busy a long time.
Correlation To Injury Rates Matter
Just because a variation is observed in some successful swimmer, or even in a bunch of them, it still cannot be assumed that these movements are intentional part of the technique, or even beneficial. They may simply be the product of unchallenged habits or traditions-passed-on, or degradation of technique under extreme stress – and those Olympic swimmers are swimming under stresses far greater than anything citizen athletes will willingly subject themselves to. It is a fact that variations are present, but it is no fact that these are beneficial. I see those commentaries but see very vague if any compelling argument from physics or physiology what this-or-that is making some serious contribution to their success. Despite the vareity of styles, if their stroke and their training style causes injury in most of those swimmers, I think it is wise to treat their ideas with careful skepticism.
To put it as direct as possible: many ‘experts’ of swimming are drawing their examples of ‘correct’ swimming technique from elites with damaged shoulders. If that is the case, does it matter how fast they are? If you want speed at the cost of your shoulder health – fine, take the risk of following their advice. If you want swimming that doesn’t cause injury, then for your example look to swimmers who do not have injuries. Most elite swimmers have injuries. That is the point I want to sink in.
I am certainly vulnerable to bias, like anyone invested in a system of training. Yet, I am curious and I am not content with the arguments I see presented by many of the ‘swim experts’. The more I study with an open mind what renown therapists and strength/conditioning trainers teach on proper movement pattern and training, the more I see that our corrections to the stroke actually remove pain and repeated injury for swimmers who come to us, the more I am encouraged that TI is on the right track in how we teach you to form the stroke under loading. If I quit getting those results and quit finding the science and consensus backing it up, I would go searching for an approach that produces better (= healthier) results for citizen swimmers. I am loyal to these healthy results, not a brand.
I hope I can make it clear that this is not about defending the program I am associated with – what I care most about is my spine, shoulders, and mind and yours. I paid a price at an early age for poor movement under heavy loading, for not having good guidance, and it is a driving passion of mine to help others avoid all that. It just so happens that upon discovery, TI delivered my shoulders and spine from doom, and now that I’ve tested it extensively for 16 years, on myself and hundreds of other citizen swimmers and seeing those being coached by my colleagues, I see that it consistently, reliably produces stronger, safer swimmers when taught by trained coaches who practice what they teach.
The report of injury rates by USA Swimming and in a report like that from the Olympics give us a statistical view. That means not every swimmer is getting injured, and not every program is injuring so many of their swimmers in scandalous rates. I trust there are some programs out there which have solid physiology principles guiding their instruction, and their low injury rates alongside performance should reveal that. I hope that you have had the fortune of a good experience with one of those programs. But we must consider the ‘swimmer triage’ or worse, a ‘swimmer’s cemetery‘ that must be set up next door to most other programs training Olympic hopefuls. If the swimmers making the Olympics are being injured by their technique and training style at something like 96%, what are the statistics for all those not even making that final cut?
Consider The Cost
In this essay, I want to advocate specifically for adult, ‘citizen’ athletes – people like you and I who have other very important things do with our time, energy and attention besides swim training. I want to advocate for the solid, scientifically supported idea that there is a single superior way to position your body and move under loading in the swimming stroke which is safer and stronger than the others. When someone is pointing out variations, and giving you a choice of many ways to position your head-spine (they are intimately connected, after all), or a choice of ways to move your arms or legs under loading, you should consider, and even question how that can be, when so many other intense sports show us there is only one superior way to position and move. If they cannot give a compelling argument in the context of a whole, organized system of physical logic, but only point to an example of some elite, then you should keep shopping for better advice.
Referring to elites for our safest example is problematic because the objective study of performance swimming is tricky business.
BEFORE – There is the measure of the all the costs involved to get up the ladder to that elite spot.
DURING – There is the cost in energy of generating then sustaining that speed – one swimmer could be achieving the same speed at higher cost or lower, we do not yet have the technology to measure this in action. And, even with great efficiency, there is tremendous repetitive stress going through the swimmer’s joints to create that amount of Olympic level force on each stroke.
AFTER – And there is the unseen cost which that athlete will pay in their joint health in the years afterward for what they tried to achieve by that stroke and training method.
How can any of that be neatly studied and summarized in the days after the Olympics? However, we are entertained as the pundits and coaches continue to talk and debate to encourage you, the citizen swimmer, to swim in a similar way.
But I think we can do something to clean up that debate a bit and put things in better order, so we can think a bit more critically about the commentary and advice being offered. (You may also read more on this topic in How To Judge Stroke Advice, and Judging An Efficient Stroke).
Let Advice Fit The Context
Where is the swimmer coming from? What event is she doing? What does she want to achieve now (or soon)? Where does she want to be capable of 20, 30, 40 years from now? What price must she pay to use this technique Before, During, and After?
Solutions for an adult citizen athlete must be considered in the context of that athlete – her age, her physical and mental condition – and her potential for improving those conditions – her training budget, her aspirations, her long-term values and intention in the sport and for her body. The solutions for this athlete need to come predominantly from patterns that have been tested on those who are in similar conditions, who are aiming for similar goals. If you want to swim in the Olympics, have a similar starting point to those Olympians, and are OK to deal with all the costs and consequences that entails, look to the Olympians for your examples. But if you want to be swimming awesome at 80 with no reason to stop, you should look at the smoothest, strongest, happiest elderly swimmers you can find in the pool and ask for their coaching.
As For Me…
I have every intention of one day being that smooth-swimming elderly guy you find and ask for help. What I study, practice and teach right now is the best, current understanding I can find on what will take me and you toward that goal. I seek performance, yes, but at a carefully considered cost. My performance now and my performance 40 years ahead are tied together. The choices or habits of Olympians for technique and training are interesting, but we’re not swimming toward the same goal, so their suitability as a role model for me is quite limited.
How about for you?