Go For Muscle Or Skill?

I want to stimulate our thinking about the difference between focusing on building muscles (i.e. fitness) during swim practice versus focusing on building skill.

Let’s take this example of the difference between a practice set using  paddles versus a set using a fist in the stroke.

Paddles increase the surface area of the hand and increase the work-load on the shoulders for each stroke. What is the common reason swimmers train with paddles? To build muscle strength. Or in other words, paddles are used for building fitness.

And how is improvement typically measured? How do we know we have become a better swimmer because we used paddles? In a traditional mindset we trust that the time spent adding extra force to the shoulders will result in bigger muscles that can handle greater force next time, or the same force for longer duration.

What is the reason we might train with closed fists? To build muscular control. Fists are used for building skill.

And how is improvement measured with fist swimming? The first way it can be measured objectively is by stroke counting. Close the fists, then swim a 25 and see how many strokes it takes to get across. Now, how are you going to reduce that count (making your stroke longer), without cheating? By cheating I mean transfering your propulsion to other parts of your body- namely, the kick or the glide.

To further focus the skill building situation, reduce the kicking to 2-beat pattern, and add a Tempo Trainer to hold tempo constant. Now you have a serious problem to solve and only skill-improvement will solve it. To make up for the shortened stroke you can’t  kick more than 1 per stroke and you can’t just coast along longer than the beep. What are you going to do?

Figure out how to build a better catch!

Fist-swimming reduces the surface area of the hand and you feel the disappointing difference immediately. To gain more stroke length back it requires that you figure out how to hold more water with your fore-arm and get better torque out of your core-body-rotation.

But common paddle-work assigned by coaches rarely (if ever?) designates a skill-building opportunity for the swimmer. Better skills don’t evolve out of bigger muscles. Muscles are stupid- in the sense that they just turn on or off. It’s the brain that controls precisely where force is applied, and exactly how much.  Neuro-muscular training is where skills are built, how the stroke is improved so that it will takes you faster, and farther with less effort required.  The better swimmer (in terms of skill and results) has better neuro-muscular control than her opponent.

Training with or without paddles is not the issue. What you are focused on during the drill set is. And the second issue is how you are going to hold the practice set accountable (and the coach who is assigning the practice set) to prove its value to your swimming ability .

Paddles can be used for skill-building as well, but it will require a lot more effort in focus to overcome the mindset for how they have traditonally been used. Paddles, used without much thought, magnify the load on the small shoulder muscles and enduring the discomfort becomes the objective of the set. If paddles are used mindfully, you can instead focus on ‘holding’ water and sliding your body past using body-rotation, rather than from the shoulder joint. This re-distributes that work to the core of the body where the massive muscle units work, from the smaller shoulder units that will tire quickly. When done correctly the paddles will magnify the sensation of holding water. When done the old way, you’ll just feel shoulders getting tired.

For paddles to be used with such focus drills must be done in slow, careful movements because you have to take time to re-structure the muscular control in the whole sequence of the catch. Instead of driving water back as quickly as possible with the shoulder and triceps, you are going to teach your body and brain how to hold water and slide the body past that point using the whole body-rotation and core muscles. You have to train those shoulder muscles to support the sequence rather than lead it. And the musculature in your body will transform accordingly to reflect the change in emphasis from shoulders to core-body power (smaller triceps, bigger lats).

Now for the brain principles involved.

If you want to replace an old pattern with a new one, you have to quit using the old pattern and only use the new pattern. Let old patterns lose their strength by disuse, and new patterns gain dominance by continual use. The better you adhere to this principle the quicker the new skill will develop.

Using fists to build a new skill in your catch, but then reverting back to paddles to continue practicing old habits will block your skill improvement. This is why the classic coach-assigned drill set, “Grab the pull buoy and think about being ‘smoother,'” (or whatever toy and mystic concept is popular at the moment) does not work. There is no point to doing drills for part of the practice if

  1. You don’t know what specific skill you are trying to work on, and
  2. You don’t have a way to immediately. objectively measure its effectiveness

Mindless, measureless drill work is pointless if the very skill the drill emphasized is not then taken into the rest of the practice and the swimmer holds himself accountable to put that skill into use. It is just building sandcastle concepts that get washed away by the next set focused on fitness. It is a waste of precious pool time and damaging to the swimmer’s appreciation for the power of ‘drill work.’ Instead drill work should be known as the critical time for neuro-muscular skill-building.


The same activity with a subtle but profound change in focus point can have dramatic positive effects on your practice time.

There are other areas that traditional swim workouts could be greatly improved. For instance: kicking sets. In kicking sets what skill can be focused on, and how can it be objectively measured, right away? How can you practice kicking so that you become a more skilled kicker (using less energy, traveling faster) rather than merely a more powerful one?

I bring up kicking because it is so popular to emphasize. Beware that your emphasis on kicking is not being used as a cover up for a stroke that has plateaued in its improvement. When muscular strength is the only focus and the clock is the only form of measurement masters swimmers in particular set themselves up for a plateau experience. The reality is for us who are aging past the prime-powerful 20’s, muscle strength is getting more and more expensive to build and maintain. Skill is where our gold is at. Don’t cover up with mindless kick work your opportunity for building skills that will take you much farther for the effort involved.

So if you want to become a swimmer with a better recovery heart-rate, then continue on with fitness-oriented workouts. Get the heart rate up, keep it up, build muscle and burn calories. Becoming a better swimmer, in terms of skill rather than fitness, is not your goal. If you focus on fitness, you get fitness, but not much skill-improvement because it doesn’t happen by accident.

If you focus on skill-improvement, you get both skill and the exact measure of muscle to support it.