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by Jane Harper

April 1, 2005

Get more skills in the water

It is amazing the number of products designed to increase resistance to build strength and speed for athletic training. In swimming, there are products galore, but we overlook a very effective one we have right with you, our own body.

In swimming, the idea is to minimize resistance of your body through the water and maximize your power and efficiency to increase speed. You can only do so much with your body type, so you work on your bodyline in the water, suit, cap, goggles, etc. To add strength we add resistance. Most often it is with a piece of equipment, such as paddles, gloves, pull buoy, drag suits, tether cords.

In water exercise, you also have options for additional equipment, but initially you learn moves without equipment. Here, the idea is to be aware how much or how little resistance you can create with just your body position.  This enhances the persons “feel” for the water or ability to work the water.   However, it does not happen immediately, and the use of equipment quickly demonstrates the effect of resistance.

I have been teaching both water exercise and swimming for 30 years. As youngster I did not immediately have perfect strokes or breathing technique, but I was determined to find out what worked.  Science was my love, so I poured over Counselman’s books and articles. I used builder wallboard foam for paddles for water exercise classes.

Over years of teaching water exercise to non-swimmers, it was interesting to see them develop a sense of the water. Swimmers take this for granted. They know that you pull the arm back to make the body go forward. Instinctively, you might see that swimming in the horizontal position is easier than trying to move forward in the vertical position.

Water exercise wants to make it more work. Your body must recruit other parts to effectively move that way. To stay in the vertical position in deep water, you must do effective kicking, or sculling. A straight arm through the water is less effective than a bent. The curved path is more efficient than a straight. The principles of physics are the same only the application varies.  I used a variety of drills, crossing from swimming to water exercise and from water ex to swimming depending whether more or less resistance is needed. This practice has led to great water exercise fun as well as more water worthy Masters and triathletes.

Coaching swimmers, particularly Masters, many of these body resistance ideas are helpful. Kids learn to swim by trial and error and do all kinds of silly looking moves in the water, even if they are in instructions. In doing these other moves they actually develop a repertoire of water sense that adults do not automatically have.

Our group did an open water swim with a deep water start and commented later how easy it was for them and how uncomfortable others looked struggling to tread water waiting for the start.

I give my swimmers the opportunity to test themselves and develop a more varied repertoire of skills in the water than just the basic swimming strokes. Any skill you add to your bag of tricks can only enhance that which you can recruit in a race or swim.

Kids usually try anything you ask. Masters might resist a bit. If it doesn’t look like an official stroke, they want an explanation. Why use their precious time in such a frivolous manner.  I know what I want to see and why, and have the explanation ready. Now, other than my favorite attorney swimmer, most just try anything I ask. (I think his questions are usually a ploy for more rest more than for knowledge)

Another purpose for using some of these type drills, particularly for Masters and older adult swimmers is that the resistance can be controlled. A hand paddle may be too much for the shoulders, but many gut it out to finish the set and risk injury. As joints become less forgiving, smarter training is crucial.

In a typical practice, the initial swimming or warm up is for thermal muscle warm up with swimming, kicking, pulling, and some drill work. I will then throw in some cardio warm up with sprints, some of these resistance drills or a combination of both. Having to think as well as function is always an interesting feat as well.

Examples of some of these fun drills:


Our pool is gradual slope to deep water .We use an underwater arm recovery and jog until you can no longer touch the bottom. Keep jogging into deep water keeping the body in a vertical position. This is a lot of resistance with the full frontal position of the body. You are forced to find an efficient arm and hand position to make forward locomotion. I emphasize recruiting the core muscles by driving leg and arm together with head still facing forward.

This can also be done across the deep end of the pool, vary the resistance by altering position vertical to horizontal.

Vertical kick               

In a vertical position in deep water, you can kick in a flutter style, breast, dolphin, scissor, a march. For swimmers, I focus on competitive strokes, and add the scissor for glut work and variety.

Sample Sets*

  • 2 deep bobs/ EZ flutter for 15 sec / Fast 15 sec/  All out fast, shoulders out out of water for 10 sec/ and repeat.
  • Cross country skiing or large scissor with legs using arms along side in forward and back press 15 sec / dolphin kick big 15 sec / dolphin kick quick 15 sec/ arm scull only15 sec.  Once able to do sets, add time to intervals.
  • Vertical scull- In a vertical position in deep, start with easy scull out to the side, T-position. As scull is more productive, bring arms down towards side. Body in pencil or vertical position, only hands scull along side hips close to body.
  • Head up freestyle- This position drops the hips and the increases body drag
  • Head up breast - Arm only or with a jog or flutter, work the breaststroke arms. Alternate one arm drills, or two rights, two lefts and two full.
  • Reverse scull- Feet first, hold gluts tight and press hips up to reduce drag; sit up to increase it
  • Double touch push off- This is a double foot touch, forcing you to quickly recruit abdominals to touch the wall with feet, extend them back out then touch again and push off. This core work is resistance training for quick reverse on touch turns for breast and fly.
  • V’s or T’s underwater dolphins- In a stream line you squeeze arms along head, one hand over the other, stretch out and explode off the wall, add a few dolphin kicks and break out. Vary the arms by opening up the streamline to a ‘V’ then a ‘T’.  Try to work the dolphin kick to against the wide spread arms. Try the push off and open up the arms and see how far you get with the same kick, or, how much more effort it takes to reach the same point with arms out.
  • Upper body press outs- At deep end of pool, touch wall, slide both hands, shoulder width apart up on deck. Lift body out until arms straight. Bend elbows and drop down and press up again. Slowly drop and slowly lift to recruit maximum muscle fibers. Sample set*   4-6 press outs and climb out on deck on last on. Try to press out and lift until feet on deck. Dive in.  Repeat swim set/ press outs/ step up and dive in.
  • Front to back reverse swims-  This is a “center of the pool” reverse, bringing the feet under you and extend out in the reverse direction and swim back. Obviously, this can be free, or breast, quick reverse and swim back in the opposite direction. This is fun on the whistle, if they can hear the whistle. First one back, a bit like red rover, is the test. Of course, you can alternate with back to front changes. The reverse requires core fitness and kicking like crazy to pick up momentum. Your whole weight has to be redirected so I would call that a bit of resistance.

This month's article was written by Jane Harper, Masters coach of the Fort Bend Masters in Sugarland, Texas.