Another problem area for the swimmer is in the hip and leg alignment.
I will first re-state that the head is the anchor for alignment of all these other body parts. Work on the head first, then the lower back, hips and legs will be much, much easier to correct. So if you haven’t seen them already please go back and refer to Core Strength And Control, and Head-Spine Alignment first.
Not merely the angle of the legs need to be adjusted – for it is easy to see in a snapshot if the legs are not in line behind the body – but the angle of the hips, which is not as easily detected. The hips and the head are the keystones in the spine alignment. Set them well, and the rest falls into place so much easier.
If the top of the hips are rotated forward, the lumbar (lower back) curves inward to an extreme, and the swimmers likely reaction is to either drop his thigh angle in order to direct the kick for an upward push, or he curves his body like a banana to try to keep head and feet near the surface.
If we are standing up straight and tall under gravity, we would refer to the hips (or pelvis) as either being ‘level’ or being tilted forward. On land, for running, and in water, for swimming, we we want it leveled.
It is proper on land, under gravity, and interestingly, it works in water for us also, because we still need to transfer forces through the body the way the body is designed to transfer them. This is the way I describe the phenomenon: once the body establishes this head-spine, hip-leg alignment the water has something it can more easily support. The body becomes parallel to the surface and glides forward so much easier. It’s like the frame of a wooden sea kayak – balanced at the surface, long and straight – ready to have force transferred smoothly through that frame and slide the vessel forward.
Let’s examine a few snapshots…
I recall that there was no power problem for this swimmer. But he’s trying to propel a vessel with a crooked frame. The orientation of the legs is suggesting that he needs to push the hips up with his kick. There is an obvious forward tilt to the hips. The angle of the thigh and deeper curve of the lower back reveals it further. By working on leveling the hips, as on land, this swimmer would be compelled to straighten the legs behind his body.
This gal, as a new swimmer, enjoyed easier (female) buoyancy. She could easily lay her body straight and parallel in Superman Glide, or Skate position. Yet, once ‘swimming’ started, her land-mammal instincts kicked in, hips and thigh angled to prepare for a survival push upward, although she had proven already, in Superman position, that it was completely unnecessary. She needs to learn to trust the water to support her in an aligned body position.
Here is the opposite reaction. We call it ‘the banana’. This swimmer knows he needs to keep his body parallel to the surface and is searching for it. His thighs are straightened behind, but the breakdown in the alignment is clearly in the hip zone. The tilt of the hips forward create a deep curve from which he has tried to straighten his body behind.
This gal is both trusting the water completely to support her body, and she is presenting an aligned body frame that makes it easiest for the water to do so. Although applying less power than the man in the first snapshot above, she glides through the water significantly faster. My assessment is that her head-spine-hip-leg alignment makes that possible.
There are perhaps hundreds of dry-land exercises to help put hips in position, and to wake up and activate necessary holding muscles. However, a limitation of many of those dry land exercises is that they rely on leveraging forces outside the body to trigger and activate the necessary muscles. Even our favorite, low-tech ones rely on gravity to show us where the correct position is and give us resistance to work against.
But in the water, the swimmer does not have anything solid and external to the body to push on – the fluidity of water doesn’t allow it. Nor (in a balanced swimmer) is there force pushing on the body – the buoyancy of water doesn’t allow it. Instead, a swimmer, unique from land-based (gravity-affected) sports, has to rely heavily on the tensegrity properties of the body. (You may recall I have referred to Tom Myers previously, in a discussion about myofascial systems.)
A swimmer has to hold alignment by creating constructive tension inside the body – body parts pulling (nicely) on other body parts in a wonderfully complex and complete system of inter-dependent, flexible connections. A swimmer achieves core muscle activation and spine alignment, not by pulling on gravity, cords, or weights – as land-based exercises suggest – but by leveraging off the firm and flexible structures inside her own body. This is the basis of my argument for why dry-land exercises can be complementary but not complete in training core muscle activation in a swimmer (nor for training other force-generating motions). The way you train those muscles on land may likely not be the way you actually need to activate and hold them in the water. Nothing suitably replaces mindful, intelligent training of neuro-muscular control in the water. It has to be developed and perfected there.
But nonetheless, we can learn a lot from certain land/gravity-based exercises. I can think of a few, but I am sure there are hundreds out there among the movement arts, and many you may prefer over mine.
Here is an exercise from the Chi Running book, called Leveling Your Pelvis, that helps identify the position of the hips we are aiming for – it applies to running as well as swimming. I will paraphrase the exercise from page 71 in my own words:
Stand tall and straight. Take one hand and place the palm on your lower belly, with thumb touching the navel, and pinky down toward the crotch. Take the other hand and place it exactly opposite, behind your body, on the back, with the fingers covering your tail bone area. Now, press both hands gently as if you are getting a grip on your own pelvis. Gently pull the front of the hip upward and push back hand downward causing the hips to tilt back, until you feel the curve in your lower back flatten out. Now notice how you need to use the abdominal muscles under the front hand to hold that level pelvis position. And notice how the muscles in the lower back, just above the tail bone, are able to relax a little (but not completely – it’s more like the two sides are coming into a balanced level of tension, working together).
I am conscious of holding correct level hip while swimming and I am increasingly aware how much it is a critical part of my extremely streamline body position. This body line allows me to easily slide along barely brushing the surface. When I do this Chi Running exercise it identifies the exact muscles that support that hip position. My navel is pulled in, my lower back is more flat, my legs streaming straight behind in my body’s envelope.
And another exercise from Chi Running, which helps you exercise those particular hip-leveling muscles (I will quote directly this time from the book, page 74):
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels touching your butt.
- Gently press your lower back into the floor so that there is no gap between your spine and the floor.
- Now, let your legs slowly straighten as your feet walk away from your lower back. Walk only as far as you can without letting your lower back lose contact with the floor. When your lower back starts to pull up from the floor, stop and hold the position for thirty seconds, then walk back up to your starting position. It does not matter how far you go before your back comes up. Remember, Gradual Progress. This exercise will strengthen your lower abs – without engaging your glutes – and give you a distinct feeling of holding your pelvis up in front while lying in a supine position. Repeat this exercise five times and hold your spine against the floor for thirty seconds each time.
The book goes on to explain a couple yoga-type plank exercises as well. I will let you go find favorite yoga and pilates maneuvers on your own.
Now, I imagine some of you will be very curious as to what you are doing with your hips in the water. Go find out and let me know what you discover!