I have heard it said, that the most important and influential school teachers, are those that teach kindergarten. Similarly, I believe that the coaches that have the biggest influence on the future of a swimmer, may just be Novice group coaches and Learn to Swim Instructors. For the last few years I have been working to develop and grow the Northern Lights Swim Club Learn to Swim Program, and most recently, I have taken over as the coach of the NLSC Anchorage Novice group. In both capacities, I have come to realize the importance of teaching young swimmers how to engage their cores and maintain their connectivity while swimming.
I have recently begun taking regular classes at Studio One Pilates in Anchorage. The classes have really made me contemplate the effectiveness of what I have been teaching my swimmers. What drills and exercises are actually engaging my athletes in a way that translate into future success in the water? What can I improve? What do I need to learn?
It wasn't long before I realized that my swimmers learn arm and leg movements relatively easy, but the effectiveness of those movements are limited by the strength and stability of each athletes core. Think about your only developmental athletes and you will begin to understand what I am saying. There is a lot of stimulus in and around each of them, but are they really engaging their bodies effectively?
I have begun focusing on three basic abdominal muscle groups:
- Rectus Abdominis - for short axis power and stability and turns
- Obliques - for long axis strokes and torsional power
- Transverse Abdominis - general core stability
It is important to realize that these muscles don't really work independent of each other. That said, athletes need to develop a cognitive awareness, a feel if you will, for each of these groups. Their ability to consciously engage each these muscle groups will enhance their power and connectivity while swimming.
I was watching my Novice swimmers struggle with flip turns, and I pulled them out of the water to instruct them. "Use your abs", I said. They all know where their abs are, but none of them could actually flex them when asked to. Thinking on my feet, I asked them to place their hands on their upper abs, just below their sternum. I then asked them to laugh. They could all feel their abdomen tighten below their hands. We literally spent the next few minutes practicing laughing! It has ended up being one of the most effective awareness drills in my toolbox.
Actual development of the Rectus Abdominis muscles is pretty straight forward. I like two, in water, exercises. First, dolphin kick on their backs in a streamline position. I like to use fins because it seems to encourage a bit more abdominal engagement. Fins also let them feel some speed and feel more effective. Feeling speed and progress in the water is important, and fins help with this.
My second exercise uses somersaults. I send them off on a 25 or 50 in which they perform a somersault every 5th stroke (hand hit). Before I send them off, I prompt them to use their laughing muscle to begin each somersault.
The need to effectively engage the obliques, especially in long axis strokes, is pretty obvious. Oblique torsional strength and control allows for effective arm and leg movements, and minimizes the need to engage muscle groups that may take the body out of alignment.
I start with the swimmer out of the water. While holding their head in my hands, and asking them to keep their feet planted, I ask them to twist. For some of them, this exercise is a bit more difficult than you might think. I takes some coordination and thought.
In the water, I have a few exercises:
- Kicking on back with fins and hands at side, I ask them to rotate each shoulder and hip toward the ceiling after every 10th flutter kick. I watch them closely to make sure they aren't just shrugging their shoulders out of the water.
- Kicking vertically, with fins, and hands either streamline or crossed over the chest, I ask them to turn first to the right, and then to the left. It is important to make sure they don't twist by taking themselves out of alignment (leaning/lunging).
- Kicking streamline, with fins, horizontally, in a streamline. Send them off on a 25 or 50, I ask them to rotate to the right, and then to the left, with a 1/4 turn every 5th kick. Again, it is important to make sure they don't initiate their twisted by taking themselves would of alignment. Many of them will try to use their heads to initiate this twisting motion. Be sure to encourage torsional movement initiated from the core, rather than the extremities.
This layer of muscle is beneath the other abdominal muscles, and strengthening it is tricky. For young swimmers, it is probably impossible to isolate, and develop, the transverse abdominis on it's own. That said, some basic isometrics can help younger swimmers to begin to engage this fundamental stabilizing muscle.
- Isometric leg lift - While on their backs, with their hands underneath their hips, have the swimmers lift their legs about 6 inches off the ground while lifting their head just off the ground. This does not isolate the transverse abdomnis, but I believe it activates it. This exercise also stimulates the rectus abdominis. Have them hold this for 15-30 seconds for three to five repetitions.
- Planks - While propped up on their forearms and toes, have your swimmers hold their entire body in a straight lined (including their head). Have them hold this for 15-30 seconds for three to five repetitions. Be sure to make corrections to their body positions during each rep. Don't let them raise/drop hips or head out of line with the body.
I don't really have any in water drills for the transverse abdominis, but the dryland exercises with create awareness. I use words like "feel the tightness", or "flex your belly" when I want to try to engage this muscle while swimming.
I think it is important for the developmental swim coach/instructor to constantly be engaging the muscle groups outlined above. If we wait until they are more advanced age group swimmers, we may have allowed them to develop bad habits that misalign them in their swimming. These bad habits can be nearly impossible to overcome.
Take the time while they are developing to engage the core and promote connectivity. I believe it will pay off in the long run.