Article image

by Gary Hall Sr

May 17, 2019

Focus on these motions to swim faster

Coupling motions are part of our everyday lives and help us move faster, but we don’t think about them much. These motions by themselves generate no propulsion. But when they’re coupled or timed with a propulsive force, they act to make that force stronger.

Consider walking. When we walk, we don’t allow our arms to simply hang by our sides. We swing them back and forth. As one of your arms swings backward, it reaches its maximum kinetic energy at the bottom of the swing precisely as you’re pushing off the ground with your corresponding foot. Even though the arm-swing by itself generates no propulsion, the coupling of that motion with the propulsive force from our foot enables us to step farther than if we simply let our arms hang. If we were running, we’d not only push harder with our foot, but we’d also swing our arm backward more aggressively.

Athletes in many sports learn to use coupling motions to augment power or propulsion, swimmers included. To become faster on all four strokes, you should know what these coupling motions are and how to improve them.

Freestyle and Backstroke

The two major coupling motions are the same for freestyle and backstroke: body rotation and arm recovery. How quickly you rotate your body and how quickly your arm finishes the recovery phase of your stroke determine how much the propulsion from your pull and kick will be augmented.

Couple the pulling motion of your stroke with the speed of your arm at the end of the recovery. Not only will throwing your hand into the water hard increase your swimming speed through a higher turnover (though you should be sure not to slap the water and find yourself with bubbles all over your hands), it will also automatically increase how quickly your body is rotating. This is the only BOGO I know of in swimming.


There are three major coupling motions that you should be focused upon on breaststroke, one for your pull and two for your kick.

During your pull, the elevation of your upper body, including your head, augments the propulsive forces of your hands. Similar to a rowing machine in the gym, you can generate more power by pulling with your arms and your back, than with just your arms. The more you elevate your shoulders, the stronger your pull should become. Of course, doing so requires that you have some flexibility around the lower part of your spine.

During your kick, the two coupling motions are the pressing down of your upper body and the snapping down of your head.

Your shoulders should be elevated as high above the water as possible during the pull, not just to assist the pull but to further help the kick. Then, rather than casually allowing your upper body to fall forward in preparation for the kick, you should increase the speed and energy of this movement by using your core and pressing your upper body quickly down toward the water. With a flexible neck, your head, which weighs about 12 pounds, can move in a larger range of motion than your upper body.

During your breath, your chin should be lifted well off your chest, so you’re looking directly forward. Then, during the downward motion, your head should snap down so that your chin actually touches your chest as your arms drive forward, putting you into what’s called the racing streamlined position during the propulsive phase of your kick.

Capturing the peak kinetic energy of your upper body and head crashing into the surface with your kick is challenging because you only have about .4 seconds to do so. That means you need to get your legs from a straight back position with your toes pointed (during the pull) into the propulsive phase of your kick (the insides of your feet moving backward) quickly. To do so requires lightning-fast legs. Without fast legs, you miss the opportunity to couple with your upper body and head. This is the primary reason why breaststroke is the most challenging stroke to teach and learn.


The two major coupling motions of butterfly, the arm recovery and the head snapping down, are timed with the second down kick of the stroke. To maximize the kinetic energy of your arms, they should both be straight on the recovery. To capture the energy of your arms and head, the second down-kick should occur precisely when your hands enter the water and as your head is moving downward following your breath.

You should avoid gently laying your hands into the water and should put your head down far and fast enough to increase the propulsion of the second down kick.

At my training program The Race Club, we tested elite butterflyers on our velocity meter, which measures speed, acceleration, and deceleration every .02 seconds. We often see a swimmer’s velocity from the second down-kick (the only source of propulsion at the time) exceed the velocity from the swimmer’s first down-kick, which occurs during the pulling motion (when there are two sources of propulsion). That’s a great testimony to the power of the two coupling motions in butterfly.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle
  • Stroke Technique