Everyone always seems to be asking what the ONE thing they should be focusing on above all else when it comes to improving their swimming. Just like with everything else in life, there’s no magic button that will make everything better and get you to the Olympics overnight. There’s no blue or red pill to choose from, no “easy” button, no miracle drink that will have you bouncing around saving your tree from evil doers (Gummy Bears anyone?) But in this instance, I actually can tell you one thing that will improve your streamline, straighten your spine, AND keep your hips/legs at the surface of the water. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still have to focus on training, drills, and other technical aspects of your stroke (sorry, I tried), but this one’s a triple whammy when it comes to effectiveness.
So what is this insanely help one thing? Keeping your ribs down and closed during your freestyle.
Sounds simple, right? But what exactly am I talking about, and how can you start implementing it into your swimming routine? Take a second and stop everything you’re doing (including reading this) and cough. Do it 2-3 times, not too forcefully, and really pay attention to what’s happening to your ribs/midsection when you exhale that air. When you cough, you should feel your ribs contract and move downwards in your abdomen. If you pay very close attention, you’ll even notice a slight tuck inwards that happens right above your belly button. This slight tuck can also feel like you’ve raised your lower back slightly (think minuscule hunchback - but at the bottom of your back - not at your shoulders).
This is the position you want to have in order to keep your ribs down and closed. This position, when in the water, will straighten your spine, allow you to achieve a better streamline, and as a result your hips'/legs will be brought closer to the surface of the water.
Not sold? Let’s think of it from the opposite end of the spectrum for a second. I want you to stop what you’re doing again and arch your back. This is the movement your torso make when your ribs are open. Swimming in this position forces a curvature to your spine (I refer to this as swimming like a banana, not cute) that brings your hips downward, making it impossible to straighten your spine, as well as causing your hips and legs to sink. Aka not what we’re looking for.
The best way to feel these differences in the water? After your warmup, try coughing in order to set your ribs in the down and closed position. Then, after you’ve coughed and without inhaling, start swimming to see your new body position. Just take 5-10 strokes, then stop to get a breath. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to cough before every swim set you do for the rest of your life (unless you want to, to each their own), but starting out this way ensures you’re in the position we’re looking for and helps you understand the impact it has on your stroke. Make sure you don’t stick your head out like a turtle when doing this! I say this because it’s my natural inclination to do so whenever I actively focus on keeping my ribs closed.
Once you get the hang of this new feeling and swimming with this new movement, it’s going to become extremely easy to tell if you go back to swimming improperly. You’ll feel the curvature to your spine, and if you’ve really made a lot of progress but accidentally go back to swimming like a banana, your lower back will start to hurt.
Not a magic button, but this position - with practice, practice, practice - will really help you to start swimming more efficiently, keep your hips/legs up, and straighten out your back, and help you maintain proper streamline.