By Dave Scott

Q: “What is your view on body rotation when swimming freestyle?”

— T.M., Austin, Tex.

A: Every swim coach has an opinion about the ideal freestyle rotation. A swimmer’s body should rotate on a longitudinal axis, from the shoulder to the pelvic girdle. What degree of rotation gives optimal efficiency is the big question, and there are several key parameters that need to be considered when teaching body rotation to triathletes.

I’ve noticed that many coaches try to increase stroke length when teaching freestyle stroke mechanics, but prioritizing distance per stroke for every triathlete is actually a mistake.

Consider the Olympic triathlon gold and silver medalists, the Brownlee brothers. Their high turnover—combined with minimal rotation of the shoulders and hips—is quite different from most Olympic swimmers who compete at the 200- to 1500-meter distances. Most Olympic swimmers are hypermobile in the shoulders, back, and ankles, and have very strong flutter kicks. This enables them to lengthen their stroke and increase their shoulder and hip rotation. The Brownlees are less flexible and have a lighter kick—so they rotate less—but they are still very, very fast!

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For another comparison, consider two other Olympic triathletes: Joanna Zeiger and Laura Bennett. They’re both fast and fairly equal in ability, yet Zeiger has a flatter stroke and takes about 24 strokes per 25 meters whereas Bennett takes only 16. They’ve both maximized their abilities and limitations by adjusting their body rotation to suit their personal strokes.

If an athlete can increase mobility in their hips and shoulders, in combination with their thoracic spine, it will increase the length of their arm stroke by allowing the entry arm to get maximal extension. When the arm is extended, it is actually in shoulder flexion, which is one of the trademarks of an elongated, rotating stroke.

It’s this combination of joint mobility and muscle flexibility that allows the swimmer to implement more rotation. However, most triathletes lack mobility and flexibility. Suggesting that they lengthen their stroke while they have tight joints and inflexible muscles and tendons causes the athlete to overcompensate which increases drag and deceleration. When the swimmer hangs dead in the water, while trying to increase roll and ultimately distance per stroke, the load is heightened on their upper back and posterior deltoid, and they slow down.

So what do I recommend for the large portion of triathletes who need to swim with less rotation and more economy?

First, you have to assess your shoulder flexion, and thoracic, lumbar and hip mobility. Without this mobility, rotation cannot be timed properly. A stiff athlete will look like a rigid plank of wood when they rotate. This stiffness and tightness causes their feet to splay apart and elbows to drop on entry; their posterior deltoids will be heavily loaded, and the core muscles will be limited in their firing pattern. While strengthening the core will help, core strength cannot completely negate the problems caused by excessive rolling, since the feet aren’t anchored while swimming, and excessive splaying of the feet, combined with lateral movement in the midsection limits the ability for the core to fully fire. Keeping knee flexion at 15–20 degrees to remove any “bicycle-riding” in the flutter kick will allow swimmer to rotate less and maintain an economical stroke. Rolling or rotating too far just compounds all of these issues.

An economical swimmer will roll their shoulders and hips independently. The shoulder rotation will vary from 65–30 degrees, with hip rotation from 45–10 degrees. Again, there is a wide range of rotation and body roll among swimmers. Rotation for every swimmer needs to take in account the variables noted above.

Immobility and inflexibility is not a curse, and implementing the proper stroke sequence will enable the swimmer to implement less body rotation and ultimately develop a much more effective stroke.

Here is a step-by-step protocol to correct the stroke and make these positive adjustments. Start with 4–12 × 25 m for each point. Select two items per workout and repeat for 5–12 sessions. If you’re making progress on the first two items after a couple of sessions, then keep progressing down the list.

1      Head down; water level at the middle of the head.

2      Hand wide on the entry, in line with the outside of the shoulder.

3      The entry angle is shallow and with a shorter arm extension (shoulder flexion) stop at 170 degrees—again, this is for someone who has the mobility issues noted above.

4      Shoulder rotation should be 25–45 degrees below the water surface—again, depending upon mobility.

5      Initially, start with no hip rotation so the entry arm can feel the anchoring of the water on the front end of the stroke as the elbow is flexed. Ideally, this will minimize the depth of the kick. Most triathletes also have poor plantar flexion of their ankles, which results in a deeper, splaying kick that increases drag.

6      Try using a single paddle with a shallow entry 4–8 inches below the surface and feel pressure on the hand.

7      Swim with a small pull buoy between your calves.

8      Introduce hip rotation. The rotation is approximately half the angle of the shoulder rotation. This is important with swimmers who have mobility issues. They should feel their shoulders and hips roll independently, which stretches the internal and external obliques, and the iliacus and psoas muscles of your stomach and hips. The athlete should also feel this stretch through the entire back musculature. Holding the buoy tight between the calves will also engage the adductors, sartorius, and gracilis muscles of the athlete’s inner thighs. This teaches athletes to rotate along their longitudinal axis, keeping their feet close together and allowing their body to engage their core muscles. This stabilizes the spine, and now the “tight” athlete can swim with proper shoulder and hip rotation and engage the core.

9      Try the stroke without the pull buoy.

10    Then try it with two paddles, and finally just swim, concentrating on a minimal rotation and a faster turnover.

The end result is that the body rolls with the hips moving first and then the shoulders—not like a rigid plank! This staggered roll increases the stretch in the trunk and back muscles, and it provides a firmer hold on the front end of the stroke that minimizes deceleration.

What you don’t want is a wiggly, serpentine freestyle stroke with massive amounts of drag. To avoid that, implement rotation sparingly and keep working on mobility and flexibility.


Dave Scott is a six-time Ironman World Champion and legendary coach. Send your questions to asktheman@davescottinc.com. For information on upcoming Dave Scott Experience camps at the Four Seasons Resort in Kona, visit www.davescottinc.com.