How to ‘Work Your Abs’ While Swimming
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on June 27th, 2010

In a thread on the TI Discussion Forum Andreas posted  this closeup of his torso taken from video of his freestyle stroke, drawing attention to the drag-producing water vortices apparently created by curvature in the lower spine.

He commented: “My abdomen is relaxed, when it should be tense to draw my spine straight. When practicing in front of a mirror, I really have to maintain massive abdominal tension to reduce the arch. Today at the pool, I had some success, by telling myself I was not swimming but making a bridge.”

Katie and Alan both advised Andreas to focus  on releasing his head to a neutral position before focusing on core muscles. TI Coach Suzanne Atkinson added that “some focus on contracting the abdominals . . . will aid in all the fundamentals . . . connecting the pull with rotation with kick and even breathing, tightening your body position and unifying the actions.”

This is all advice worth taking to heart:
1) Releasing your head to a neutral position should solve most issues with excess lower-back curvature, reducing the amount of ab activation needed.
2) Creating tone (not tension) in the core should be directed more at stabilizing the bodyline overall, and with improving integration of all elements of the  stroke.

This got me thinking about how I’ve trained and thought about core muscles in relation to swimming, and specifically to freestyle technique.

I regularly  do many hours of dryland exercise, like the bridge illustrated above, plus yoga. I do those as much to keep my back strong and supple–though spending many hours sitting at a computer desk–as to benefit my swimming.  I’ve sometimes compared the ‘core engagement’ I feel while doing dryland exercise to what I feel while swimming. I feel my abs working much more intensively during land exercise  than while swimming.

On a few occasions I’ve  thought of ‘pulling in my belly-button’  or ‘tucking my tailbone’ while swimming. As “Stroke Thoughts” I’ve found those interesting, but not sensed significant change in my stroke as a result.

On the other hand, what I’ve found more revealing are times when I’ve simply paid attention to abdominals as I swam, to bring what’s happening naturally from my subconscious to conscious awareness.

When I first did so, I was surprised to discover a striking level of abdominal tone, despite not trying to contract them. My immediate reaction was “Hey, this is a pretty good ab workout.”

After later reflection, my intuition was that tone in the core most likely resulted from hundreds of hours of thinking about Active Streamlining, including such thoughts as:
1) Fit through a smaller ‘hole’ in the water.
2) Use the extending arm to lengthen the bodyline.
3) Keep the bodyline long for a extra nanosecond in each stroke.
4) Make less noise, fewer bubbles and smaller waves.
5) Line up each side of my body to follow the spearing arm through the ‘sleeve’ it makes.

In other words, thinking consciously of an image like the one below- as well as practicing the variety of drills and Stroke Thoughts that produce this kind of alignment – will ensure that every length you swim will also give your abs a good workout AND fire a larger and more integrated network of circuits in your brain.

10 Responses to “How to ‘Work Your Abs’ While Swimming”

  1. Tom says:

    I’m not an expert at this at all, but I’m just wondering if the “massive abdominal tension” you’ve been applying might have created more problems than it’s solving. Tough to be fluid with that much energy focused on your core. I think just being aware of your core–“paying attention,” as Terry Advises–while following Katie, Alan, and Suzanne’s key points might do the trick. “Awareness” to me is “attention without the tension” (my aphorism of the day….). It would seem that you’ve become so focused on the core, you’re probably reflexively tonifying it quite a bit already without even trying. Just an amateur’s thought…

  2. Alan says:

    Spot on Chief!

  3. Georgiana says:

    I find swimming and yoga to be an ideal combination for many reasons. But in terms of this article, core strength is one of the most elemental.

    I realized at some point that I was getting lazy and one of the results was relaxing my abs. And using core toning — not tensing — abilities practiced in yoga to maintain balance and fluidity (sound familiar?) worked beautifully.

    Right on, Terry!

  4. Esperanza Alzona says:

    From my training as a professional dancer and, lately, my work in yoga, I find it’s more helpful rather than thinking of tightening or tensing ANYTHING rather to think of lengthening the spine. Envision pressing the top of the head towards the opposite wall and lengthening the lower back and the abdominals will naturally float in and up. Consciously tensing will restrict the breathing and make for a less relaxed stroke. More relaxed breathing also helps in better breath control. A slow, long exhalation helps give the feeling of lengthening and it stretches out the spine, reducing the counter-productive lower back curvature.

  5. Tony says:

    Hi all

    Another thing that will cause the spine to arch this way is tight hip flexors.

    For many people, the only way they can get that nice straight spine in the lower back (even when standing up) is to tighten their abs and glutes to overcome the tension at the front of the hip joint. This is the problem I am working on right now – I swim much better when I give attention to my glutes.

    I suggest stretching the hip flexors to reduce the tension needed from your abs (and glutes). Google finds plenty of good ideas on how.

  6. Esperanza
    This is enlightened advice. You’re exactly right that an intention that centers on whole-body integration, such as you suggest, is a better choice than an intention to tighten any muscle. Are you a yoga instructor now, or simply an avid yogini?

  7. Martin Elliott says:

    How about swimming with a light Uddiyana Bandha applied – this is not a tension, but rather an intenrnal energetic “lock”.

    Never tried it myself while swimming – but will tomorrow.

  8. Martin
    Thanks for your suggestion. Can you explain in modest detail how to do this, for those who aren’t familiar with the term? Any connections we can create between swim and yoga practice is worth pursuing. I know that bandas are “locks” but even after 16 years of practice I confess to a lack of greater familiarity.

  9. Judy says:

    I love the imagery you used to help us achieve positioning and correct core use. I thinking about me being the thread and threading the needle. Reminded me of your fitting through a smaller hole.

  10. I think of my imagery phrases as intended mainly to stimulate others to develop their own visualizations and descriptive phrases. I’m delighted to see you’ve done exactly that.

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