Remedy For Sinkers Part 1

Are you a sinking swimmer?

I am going to share a little of my secret strategy, out of compassion for my swimming comrades who consider themselves ‘sinkers’ – I know a few many and a few less women who fit this category. I don’t know the overall percentage of sinkers there are among swimmers – those who haven’t given up yet – but I do know some can struggle with discouragement. Please don’t give up – it’s a physics problem, not a personal one. And we can really help you.

This is a problem I have been fascinated by for several years and I want to describe my current general approach to solving it. I can explain the approach but you still have to get in the water and figure this out inside your own body.

The solution may be found in working with the physics of the situation.

First of all, I doubt there are any total sinkers – those that will actually sink to the bottom. Increasing water pressure with depth will eventually overcome body density. But at what depth??? A higher density person will find his neutral line a bit deeper in the water than others – but it will feel like a big difference. This will put his head too deep to easily take a breath while resting on that neutral line. So we need to resolve that for sure. The challenge is – any lift of the head above neutral line pushes the hips deeper which is also deadly for the sinker. So either this needs to be solved or a careful compromise needs to be reached between the two competing interests.

I aim to accomplish two things with this strategy:

  1. Get the swimmer’s body firm and aligned on that neutral line with no pushing up or downward.
  2. Set up natural lift so the swimmer’ body line rises a bit from the flow of water under his body.

His neutral line at normal velocity can be slightly higher than his neutral line while static – if he sets things up for it – making it easier to maintain momentum forward and easier to breathe.

Addendum: It is possible, depending on the degree of sinking (after posting this I received some good comments) that these two steps alone are still not enough to get the swimmer to air easily. Some people are REALLY LOW in the water. As I will explain in the next post, we aim to eliminate as much struggle against natural forces as possible in these assignments and then look for ways to add carefully placed propulsive efforts to create more lift while protecting the streamline and momentum of the swimmer.

Does this intrigue you?

1408 sinker

Here are the first 3 of 6 assignments you may work on, in order. These will not likely be quick-fixes, but will build increasingly subtle skills of sensitivity and body control that you will develop from your deep practice of them.

Assignment 1 – Lower Rotation Angle

You need to present more surface area for water pressure to push up on. A body turned on it’s side will concentrate more mass in a smaller area and push the body deeper.

And to strengthen the case, rotation past 45 degrees will waste time and energy in the stroke cycle and increase instability (by waves, being knocked by other swimmers, by your own recovery arm, etc). With practice a swimmer can generate as much force in a 30 degree rotation or less as in a 45 degree one. A martial arts principle: learn to make it smaller; concentrate more force in a smaller range of movement.

Setting and protecting ideal rotation angle is priority over recovery swing – for the swing must serve the rotation, not the rotation serve the swing. Many swimmers rotate too far, pulling elbow too high or back over the body in order to bring the arm out of the water – this is a major problem. Shift priorities and improve rotation, then learn to form a recovery at a low – though not completely flat – rotation angle.

Assignment 2 – Form Fuller Catch

What you want is to form a better pressure zone (we call this the ‘pilates ball’ of water molecules) with the Catch and Hold to allow you to slide forward more powerfully.

A more skillfully formed Catch creates a stronger ‘grip’, a larger pressure zone of water under the body, and allows the swimmer to transfer more force into forward motion. Don’t pop that ball with too much force (in relation to your other arm extending forward to the target), or too abruptly – apply pressure as evenly as possible.

The flatter body angle will create a larger wing-like surface, if you will, for this pressure zone of water to flow under – with the acceleration of each Catch moment the swimmer can gain a little natural lift without having to push down on the water with arms or legs.

Assignment 3 – Form Straighter Frame

With fully engaged core, you’ll learn to slide the body over that pressure zone.

The front half of the body is directly connected to the arms transferring force, and rides on top of the buoyancy point – the front doesn’t want to sink. But the back half is behind the buoyancy pivot point and wants to sink without some way of transferring forces through the frame of the body (this is what is covered in TI fundamentals). Instead of using the kick to push the legs and hips upward (an enormous, unnecessary waste of your energy), form then feel that ‘pilates ball’ of water and slide on top of it.

In order to do that it is critical that the swimmer has his core muscles engaged and the body/spine line from tip of head to tail (as if that tail is extended to between knees and ankles) is straight – creating that torpedo like frame. If the core is collapsed the hips will tilt, the legs will drop in the water and plow through that pilates ball rather than up and over it.

And that is the way I would describe the difference in core control – a swimmer who creates the firm torpedo frame (core properly engaged) seems to slide lightly up and over the water versus a swimmer with an under-inflated torpedo (a squishy frame) who seems to plows heavily through it.


Next… Part 2.


10 responses to “Remedy For Sinkers Part 1

  1. I eagerly await the next part.

    There is at least one total sinker – I coached him for a short while. He could hold his breath fully, push off in superman glide and happily torpedo to the bottom of the pool. I managed to get him swimming OK, but I would have loved to know your strategy then!

  2. I am glad to find specific advice for what I only recently realised is my problem (or one of them) . I am a recent older TI learner, and I think I am one of those total sinkers that you think don’t exist. Holding a huge breath in, I can float vertically in a salt-water pool with the top of my scalp at the waterline, and my hair above. When I let even a tiny bit of air out, I go to the bottom of the pool. I had the usual beginner’s initial problems of alignment and hip sinking, except that the fix for it, letting the head cradle lower in the water created what was for me inordinate difficulty getting my mouth to air for breathing; I am now getting better in staying flatter than I have ever been able to achieve before by gradually accepting less than half of my mouth above the waterline during breathing, but it is still a struggle not to bob up a bit for the breathing stroke.

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  7. Slight correction about the statement “First of all, I doubt there are any total sinkers – those that will actually sink to the bottom. Increasing water pressure with depth will eventually overcome body density. ”
    The density of water is always the same because liquids cannot be compressed (or very little, at very great depths). But human chests can be compressed. So, actually, the deeper you swim, the higher the pressure, the smaller the volume of your chest, and the denser you become, so the more you sink (the deeper you dive the easier it is to stay there).
    What you mean is that, assuming that every swimmer is less dense than water, some swimmers lie higher than others in the water (i.e. they’re neutral line is higher) because they’re less dense, so a bigger part of their body remains above the surface. But if if you add weight so that they become denser than water, they’ll sink to the bottom, regardless of the depth.
    A minority of people are denser than water and will always sink to the bottom unless they do some movements (like sculling) to stay afloat.

    • Hi Beber. Thank you for the comments. I appreciate the clarifications and discussion of the physics.

      Since most swimming takes place within 1 meter of the surface (including a decent flip turn) I wonder if there is enough pressure at that depth to compress the body (with a normal amount of air left in the lungs) below this threshold into a sinking state.

      Density of water is the same, but water pressure can change. So, when I talk about the forces that help a swimmer stay at the surface it is not merely density, but also pressure that comes into play. Movement creates pressure zones, and those zones can be useful or detrimental to the swimmer. Examining a body in static state does not have all the forces in the equation as a swimmer in motion. So, I realize that when we are working with a swimmer in a passive (or static) drill state, this can help with some of the surfacing skills, but not all of them. And no wonder, sinking swimmers may not easily appreciate static body-position-training drills.

      And, because of a relatively small (non-statistically relevant) number of swimmers I have worked with, I just don’t have a sense of how many true-sinkers we can expect in every 100 or every 1000 people. In static state, I can imagine some, but once many of these learn the skills in motion state, then I expect there should be far less ‘sinkers’ left in the pool.


      Another swimmer sent and email and we exchanged a few on the physics – he brought up the idea of having each swimmer measure his/her vertical neutral point – in deep water, align vertically and stay still until the body finds its buoyancy point, and see where the surface of the water bisects the swimmer, usually at the head. In fresh water, when I do this my goggles are underwater. When I expel most of the air from my lungs I sink and keep going. (They will find my dead body on the bottom!) Halinity (salinity) varies by region of the sea or ocean, but in salt water my goggles will be above the surface. I can dive down 4 or 5 meters and the sea will push me right back up. But now I am curious about how much air I need to expel before I sink even in the sea.

    • Hi Max, yes I am aware of the effects of compression on freedivers below 10m turning every human into a sinker past that point. Fascinating. Fortunately, our context keeps us close enough to the surface to separate us into buoyant classes.

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