Total Body Extension Power as a Vital Aspect of Swimming Races

Guest editorial by Tom Herrmann: EdD, PT, ATC, CSCS, University of Cincinnati

CINCINNATI, Ohio, July 28. AN explosive start and explosive turns may be the most purely athletic maneuvers a swimming athlete performs during a race.

While there is no apparent correlation between lower extremity power and kicking speed or efficiency, there is an inescapably positive correlation between lower body extension power and explosive jumping ability as measured by vertical jump.

It is not a great stretch of logic to assert a positive correlation between vertically-directed power off the ground and horizontally-directed power off of the blocks or the wall. One could also argue that restoring a streamlined trunk position relative to the lower body after entry or coming out of a turn requires vigorous trunk extension forces to oppose the flexion force of the water against the trunk.

By training these powerful extensor mechanisms to respond quickly and precisely a swimming athlete can improve impulse generation when in contact with a stable surface and generate a high energy propulsive force much in the same way that a volleyball or basketball athlete trains to improve jumping ability or a track athlete trains to improve starts.

High musculoskeletal forces and high angular velocities at joints produce high energy maneuvers. These events are typically generated through coordinated large amplitude movements of a number of links in a kinetic chain. Total body extension power requires synchronous application of forceful trunk, hip, knee and ankle extension.

In terms of weight room training, these requirements are met during multi-segmented activities like front squats, back squats, lunges, cleans, snatches, and lower extremity plyometric activities. All of these exercises require careful training, considerable practice and close supervision, but they pay remarkable dividends in improving useful, functional, transferable total body extension power.

Front Squat:
Athlete begins standing in the squat rack. The hands are located just outside shoulder width on the bar and the bar is nestled across the clavicles and the anterior deltoids. The elbows are brought forward and pushed upward until the upper arms are parallel with the ground; pressure on the bar from the fingers should push the bar snuggly against the lower throat.

The descent phase begins with the athlete very slightly bending the knees and then pushing the hip back and down. This knees then hips pattern is different than the initiating move of a back squat (hips then knees) but it allows the athlete to better maintain the neutral spine and erect posture against the extra anterior load of the weight.

The athlete needs to continue to push the hips back through the descent phase in order to keep the weight over the feet and the torso erect. The desirable bottom position of the front squat is with the thighs parallel to the ground, the shins slightly forward of perpendicular to the ground, the spine in neutral to slight hyper-lordosis, and the bar centered over the feet. This position puts the lower extremity muscles on the appropriate pre-stretch positions, the lumbar extensor muscles in the best position to hold an isometric back, and maintain stability.

To initiate the ascent phase of exercise the athlete first drives the elbows upward and slightly inward (an upward/inward scooping motion) that sets the bar back against the anterior trunk and helps keep the trunk erect against the load. By generating downward pressure through the middle and rear foot, and pushing the knees outward slightly the athlete initiates the gluts and hamstrings in order to facilitate the hip extensors early in the motion. These are the most powerful muscles in the kinetic chain and bringing them in early improves the overall power production of the entire movement. The athlete finishes the ascent through extending the hips and knees until standing erect.

Back Squat:
This is probably the most common multi-link lower extremity exercise in the weight room. The bar is located across the upper margins of the shoulder blades and the posterior deltoids. Shrugging the shoulder blades together and pushing the elbows back and up creates a muscular ridge for the bar to rest on. The trunk tends to be inclined slightly forward in order to accommodate the increased load on the back.

The athlete initiates the descent by pushing hips reward and increasing lumbar lordosis, then bending the knees. The athlete must continue to maintain this reward hip push during the descent in order to maintain the necessary lordosis and to keep the bar centered over the feet. The desirable bottom position of the back squat is similar to the front squat.

To initiate the ascent phase the back squat the athlete simultaneously drives the knees slightly outward and the shoulders upward. This helps initiate the gluts and hamstrings for hip extension and stabilize the trunk against the flexion force of the weight. The pressure into the ground should be through the middle and rear foot. The athlete continues to extend the hips, knees and trunk until standing erect.

Why both?
The subtle differences in the location of the load and its effect on the knees and trunk make both of these exercises a vital part of any lower extremity training program. Front squats generate slightly less compression on the knees and require slightly more lumbar extensor activity. The shorter lever arm to the lumbar spine during the back squat allows the athlete handle heavier loads to achieve greater strength gains.

Moving heavy loads also facilitates neuro-muscular changes. High power, fast-twitch fibers have higher activation thresholds than slow twitch fibers; after training with high loads the recruitment of high power, fast-twitch fibers tends to be earlier and quicker within the trained muscles, allowing for functional and transferable power gains.

Another common multi-link lower extremity training activity, possibly its greatest value is in the asymmetry of the movement. The bar is racked across the upper back in the same manner as the back squat then the athlete steps forward with one foot and descends toward the floor.

The desirable bottom position is with the thigh of the front leg parallel to the floor with the shin perpendicular to the floor, the thigh of the rear leg perpendicular to the floor, and the trunk erect. The asymmetry of the hips (one in flexion and one neutral or in extension) and the narrowness of the base of support require an increase in torso stability not only in resisting flexion but also in controlling rotation.

Even though athletes cannot handle as much weight as in the back or front squats, this positional differences and increase in stability requirements makes this exercise a valuable addition to the lower extremity strength training routine.

This is the fundamental lifting maneuver in the Olympic style lift sequence. The objective is to pull the bar and weight from the floor, accelerate the bar vertically and end with the bar resting across the upper chest and shoulders in the same location as in the front squat. The initial position is with the bar against the shins, the hands gripping the bar just wider than the legs, the hips settled down and back, the spine in neutral to mild hyper-lordosis, and shoulders up so that the arms are straight (this trunk/hip/leg position is very similar to the bottom position of the back squat).

The initiation of the pull from the floor begins with the hips settling down and back and driving upward through the middle of the feet pulling the bar up the front of the shins. The trunk to floor angle should not change through the initial pull. Maintaining this angle endures that the trunk is stable and the back is protected.

The key to the explosive nature of this lift is the second pull as the bar clears the knees. In the second pull, the knees are vigorously extended, the hips are extended and pushed forward, the weight pulled upward tightly along the trunk by shrugging the shoulders and bending the elbows, and the trunk extended. This provides the upward acceleration of the bar necessary to be able to rotate the hands under the bar, flex the legs to get the shoulders lower than the bar, and rack the bar across the front of the shoulders.

This is a somewhat more advanced and demanding lift than the clean in that the weight is pulled to fully overhead in one pull from the floor rather than to shoulder height. The stance and grip tend to be wider, which moves the hips lower to the ground at the initiation of the first pull. The execution of the first pull to knee height is very similar to the clean. The second pull requires an even more aggressive upward drive in lower extremity extension through the ankles and a vigorous shrug of the shoulders. This provides the upward momentum to the bar that allows the athlete to duck all the way under the bar and catch it overhead with straight arms.

Why Both?
The explosive upward movements of the clean and snatch are similar to the upward movement patterns of the vertical jump or the horizontal movement patterns of pushing off of the wall, including the upward trunk and arm motions. If we operate on the premise that power is not just an affect of strength, but is also an affect of speed and movement efficiency (neuro-muscular execution), then resistance training in a similar pattern to the actual execution pattern is of clear value. High volumes of muscle applied in a precise manner produce high forces in desirable pattern.

Lower Extremity Plyometrics
A common training component for nearly all high power athletes, the value of plyometrics in general is to take advantage of the stretch-shorten cycle within the muscle and improve the impulsive response of the muscles. The rapid accept load/generate responsive force or eccentric/concentric contraction pattern is what provides athletes with explosive power in direction changes. There may be no more pronounced direction change in sport than the 180° change of the swim turn. If an athlete can improve the impulsive muscular response in the movement, that is producing more power in the same amount of time, or the same power in less time, that athlete has a decided advantage.

In a sport where technique and conditioning seem to be paramount, the differences among competitors at the upper ends of the competition spectrum the margin in these areas is very small. The edge in performance may lie in an improvement in pure physical, athletic power that is applied only 2 or 4 or 8 times in a race. A hundredth here and a hundredth there may very likely lead to a medal here and a medal there.

Tom Herrmann is an assistant professor of Clinical and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.