Downhill Swimming

By Kim Brackin – July 1, 2014

Imagine the pool you are swimming in miraculously gets tipped…downhill. Think of the momentum created by swimming downhill versus the steady “uphill” swim the majority of fitness swimmers battle each outing.

The first thing I always address with a new client is body position in the water—how does a swimmer get horizontal when legs are dragging behind and creating tremendous frontal resistance? Typically, swimmers will kick harder in an attempt to elevate their legs. I am an advocate of using the legs for propulsive kicking, not to balance the body. Those swimmers are wasting precious heartbeats to merely stay afloat versus gaining forward propulsion. Let’s talk about how swimmers can manipulate body position and begin to use those legs to go somewhere.

For men, the body’s center of gravity tends to be located around the stomach; for women, it’s even lower, at the hips. Because the lungs are filled with air, a human’s front end will float while the large leg muscles cause the back end to sink.

Consider the center of gravity as the fulcrum on a seesaw; the front end should be balanced with the back end. If two children of different weights were playing on a seesaw, it would be necessary to move the lighter child closer to the end and place the heavier child closer to the fulcrum to achieve balance. When the body is in the water, length and pressure (via the arms) become the “little kid;” in order to create balance in the water, swimmers need to create as much length as possible in the front end. There are three techniques to accomplish balance: extension with the arms, leaning or pressing into the water with the chest and arms—and even face—and front quadrant swimming.


A longer vessel holds speed longer, so a swimmer’s goal is to lengthen the body. Rotation and extension are different, and I continually correct swimmers who have too much rotation. To illustrate extension, think of raising a hand to answer a question; you’re just trying to get an inch or two longer. As the swimmer enters the water, I encourage a slight rotation onto the hip and shoulder of the entering hand that is combined with extension forward and slightly downward. Instead of just placing the hand in the water during entry, extend it forward as if searching for that extra inch or two of length.

Pressing the T

This is an old school swimming term that I first heard from swimming guru Bill Boomer, who taught me to coach my swimmers to “lean into” their stroke. Picture a “t” made up of body parts: the lungs make the bottom, shoulders form the cross bar, and the head is the top. The head literally slides forward on the spine so that the swimmer’s nose and forehead are pressing downward into the water (like a chicken slides its head forward on its neck). Most swimmers hold their head much too high; when a swimmer is not breathing, I should just see the very crown of the head exposed—the rest is underwater. When taking a breath, the swimmer should keep pressure on the water with the temple, not lift the head away from, or out of, the water. Ideally, one goggle is kept in the water during the breath. Swimming with a snorkel is a great way to practice the ideal head position. In regard to crossing the “t”, the press (or lean) of the swimmer’s chest and shoulders needs to be continuous, even as she rotates from side to side. So, when kicking flat on the stomach, the swimmer would press the sternum into the water; once swimming, however, the pressure transfers the pulling arm’s armpit, back to the sternum, and then to the opposite armpit of the arm that is now pulling. This is truly that “downhill” feel.

Front Quadrant Swimming

Think of everything in front of the shoulders as the “front quadrant”; I coach my swimmers to always have the objective of keeping some length/weight in that front end in addition to the head. A lot of people swim with “helicopter arms” (blades that are always opposite each other). I advocate for more of a catch-up stroke where, as one arm is in the catch position and beginning to pull, the other is just entering the water. This gives both length and weight in the front end to help to balance out the weight of the legs.

Drills for Front Quadrant Swimming

Full Catch-Up

Before pulling with the right arm, make the left arm fully finish the cycle and have the two hands meet in front and side by side. This drill flattens the swimmer out tremendously and slows the tempo, but the horizontal position of the body on the water is amazing. This is also a great drill to practice setting up a good catch and feeling the forward movement gained by applying pressure backwards on the water with the pulling arm. Take your time with this drill and recognize how the kick is driving you forward.

Breathing Side Catch-Up

This drill is done exactly as the full catch-up drill, but the swimmer only catches up during a breathing stroke. So, when breathing to the right, let the left hand wait in front for the right hand to meet it before the left arm can pull. Don’t wait for the left hand to meet the right before pulling because no breath was taken; as a result, this stroke looks a bit lopsided. Why practice this? In general, the extended arm usually pulls too soon during the breath; therefore, the swimmer has no length in the front quadrant during a breath. Imagine for a moment: no length in front and the head lifting up for a breath. This weight distribution is like the child on the lower end of the seesaw jumping off and sending the child up high crashing down. Eventually, you’ll want to swim with an “almost catch-up” stroke to create a faster tempo with a more rotationally balanced stroke.

Enjoy your time in the pool, and remember—technique fuels your speed.


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