Lumbar Solutions Part III: Muscle Timing

By G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and Center of Optimal Restoration , Creator of Swimmer's Shoulder System, Monthly Swimming Research Review Swimming World correspondent
SANTA CLARA, California, July 13.THE last essential component for low back pain training is muscle timing. This series tackled muscle strength and length first, but muscle timing, the last component, is often the most important. Many people do not get 100 percent pain-free until they improve their muscle timing.

Muscle timing is an integrate dance between the core, hips, respiratory and shoulder musculature. The ability to sequence the correct muscle at the correct time is essential for success, especially in swimming.

This timing is a form of coordination, allowing swimmers to swim correctly using the proper movement patterns. Being able to utilize the core for stability, while performing an early vertical forearm or following through on your downkick of your underwaters is essential for success. Moreover, being able to use your glide and turn off your full-body rigidity, allows vital times for relaxation.

At Olympic Trials the motor control among the great swimmers in at each distance was impressive:

* Sprint free: Sprinters coordinate their stable core with large amounts of shoulder rotation. Combine this with incredible breath holding, stressing the inspiratory muscles.

* Middle and Distance Free: These swimmers are coordinating hip motion, rhythmic breathing patters and stabilizing their core. Moreover, activating the body, then gliding, maximizing energy-conservation is an unappreciated skill.

Despite the differences in the race distance, one variable remains constant: a stable core. Therefore, learning how to maintain a stable core with multiple moving variables is essential.

As different muscle groups attached directly to the core, they indirectly apply tension to the core to BALANCE forces acting on the spine. BALANCE – NOT MOVE. Everyone thinks of muscles needing to move things. Yes, some do, the prime movers, but remember, in the spine the main prime mover is gravity and the spine must REACT. REACT.

Being able to react to different muscle groups, waves, turns, and many more variables are essential for swimming success.

In back pain, the body becomes rigid to protect itself. This results in pseudo-rigamortis, stiffening of the spine to prevent movement. This is not stability, as it prevents the spine from reacting.

Poor swimmers also stiffen their body. This is the swimmer who jumps in the water and flexes every muscle to get to the other end.

Being able to relax and turn muscles on and off is essential.

Core and Breathing

Being able to use your diaphragm as a respiratory, not stability muscle allows the secondary (often muscles attached to the shoulders) respiratory muscle to relax and core to stabilize. In sprint events, this requires the athlete to coordinate the primary respiratory muscles during stressful situations. In endurance, being able to breathe repeatedly, without losing core stability is essential.

Core and Hips

Keeping the body rigid with sagittal plane (flexion/extension) movements of the lower body is important for every. In breast, controlling lateral movements is just as important. Improper use of the hip flexors decreases in strength. Make sure the hips and core are working in unison.

Core and Shoulders

The muscles in the neck and shoulder must differentiate from the core during swimming. If the arms are rigid, this waste energy and fatigue occurs. Therefore, turning the arms on/off with proper core activation is essential.


Coordination between the different joints differentiates elite swimmers from the rest of the field. Therefore, learning how to contract one area and relax the other is important.

In those with back pain, the body tightens, a natural reflex, to prevent movement. Once pain subsides, re-learning this motor programming is essential. Combing muscle length, strength, and timing isn't only for rehabilitation.

Make core timing a reality for your dry-land programs, not only for back pain, but swimming success.

G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.

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