Rotation is a critical skill to swimming fast. Why? Proper rotation achieves two primary things:
- By rotating our body to initiate the underwater pull, we are in a more favorable position to use more powerful muscle groups, namely our back muscles and the large latissimus dorsi muscle (commonly called “lats”).
- Rotating our bodies creates a force to pull against. This is a bit harder to visualize than the first reason, but it is just as important. When our bodies rotate, we’re no longer pulling against just the motionless water molecules, but we also have the stabilizing force the core of our body provides as it rotates that gives us something to generate power against.
To elaborate a bit on the harder-to-visualize point #2, think about a full stroke cycle starting with your right hand entering the water. As the right hand enters, your body is rotated to the left. As you begin the catch, the body begins the counter-rotation back to the right. This point where the counter-rotation begins is called the “connection” between the arm and core/hips. This counter-rotation creates a stabilizing force for your body and gives you something to pull against so you can exert more force on the water.
Some coaches and swimmers believe that good rotation in freestyle and backstroke is beneficial because rotation reduces frontal drag. However, many swimming experts disagree, arguing that if frontal drag were reduced significantly by rotating to our sides, swimmers would move through the water faster when kicking on their sides than when on their stomachs, which is not what actually happens. What is actually beneficial about rotation is the enhanced ability to use powerful muscle groups, and the creation of a force to pull against.
Rotation of the body doesn’t happen automatically. You have to make it happen and that requires a concerted and directed effort and a lot of core strength (it’s not a coincidence that most elite-level swimmers have a chiseled set of abdominals!). However, the dividends paid back on a fast and well-timed rotation are large. The force generated by proper rotation allows swimmers to cover more distance with each stroke and thus move through the water faster.
So how much rotation is enough? The fastest freestylers and backstrokers rotate their shoulders to either side about 30 degrees from the surface of the water. See the photos in the links below for a sample set of some of the best freestylers and backstrokers in the United States:
In freestyle and backstroke it is far more common to see someone with too little rotation rather than too much. And it’s most often the hips that are left out of the rotation. The shoulders, torso and hips should all roll together as one.
When trying to swim faster or slower, think about changing your rotational rhythm. To swim faster, increase the cadence of your rotation. This incorporates use of your powerful core muscles instead of just your arms and legs. The bigger you are and the faster you rotate, the more energy you create to couple with the pull and thus propel yourself through the water faster. Add in the fact that you are using more powerful muscle groups when rotating, and it definitely makes it worth the extra effort to rotate the body. Good rotation is a great tool for swimmers who want to swim faster and more efficiently. Not to mention the core-muscles you’ll develop!