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by Emmett Hines

June 1, 1993

Sometimes the basic assumptions you employ in pursuit of a goal get in the way of success.

Take astronomers. In not too ancient history an astronomer was a person that studied the way the planets revolved around the earth in an attempt to perfect the calendar so that it would be accurate year after year - up till then it had been slightly off - every 100 years or so it would snow in July and the Pope would say "Crank the calendar back six months." July became January and the calendar would be right again. But, this put a real crimp in people's vacation schedules so a better way had to be found. Hence, astronomers enjoyed gainful employment.

The problem was that astronomers were laboring under a false model. The very definition of what it was to be an astronomer, studying the way the planets revolved around the earth to find the perfect calendar, precluded them from finding the right answer. At the time, it did seem logical to assume that all heavenly bodies revolved around the earth - the telescope hadn't been invented and everyone could clearly see for themselves that everything revolved around the earth - there was no basis for any other kind of assumption. Then, a very inquisitive fellow named Copernicus challenged the whole notion of Earth being at the center of the Universe. Using nothing but math he theorized that the earth and planets all revovled around the sun. It took 100 years, another guy named Galileo and the invention of the telescope to get the concept out in the open. Even then, the Pope wanted to burn Galileo at the stake for daring to imply that the earth was not the focal point of all Creation (some people get very fidgety when you challenge their basic assumptions about their world).

Are you laboring under a false model in your swimming? Does your definition of swimming go something like this - "Pull with the arms, kick with the legs, do it faster and I'll go faster?" If so, you need to take a step back and ask some questions. So often, I hear swimmers talking about swimming with their arms and legs. When they decide to go into the weight room they think in terms of strengthening their arms and legs. When they want to swim faster they think and talk about moving their arms faster and kicking harder.

To the untrained eye it seems reasonable and logical to look at a swimmer and say "See those arms moving water, see those legs churning away like a motorboat - that's what makes the swimmer go." I mean, if the arms don't move and neither do the legs then the swimmer becomes a floater, right?

But think for a moment about other powerful moves you see in sports - a pitcher throwing a baseball, a batter hitting that ball, a golfer hitting a drive, a tennis player hitting a backhand, a discus thrower, etc. All these activities, and in fact, nearly all one arm power moves, are based on the same principle - they use the arms to deliver huge forces that have been developed by rotation of the body trunk.

In swimming freestyle and backstroke we are really doing the same thing. The arms are used as a delivery mechanism for power that has been developed by rapidly rolling the body from side to side. We use sculling motions produced by the small muscles in the arms and around the shoulders to help us hold onto the water but it's the large muscles of the torso that provide the bulk of the propulsive power.

Breaststroke and butterfly cannot be excused from this examination either. In these strokes the large propulsive forces are created by bending and unbending in the torso - these forces are then delivered to the water with the arms and legs.

Imagine how ridiculous a swimmer would look if he held his torso absolutely flat and just moved his arms and legs (he'd probably take about 88 strokes per length). Think of a baseball pitcher standing absolutely still, facing home plate and throwing the ball using just his arm? Or an "arm-only" discus thrower?

Your thinking in swimming should be on how to develop power in the torso and deliver it to the water with your arms. This may prompt questions. It may even make you fidgety. But, suffice it to say, if your focus is still on swimming faster by just moving your arms and legs faster and harder, then the earth is still at the center of your universe.

This Article first appeared in Schwimmvergnugen, the monthly newsletter of H2Ouston Swims.

Coach Emmett Hines is the head coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1982 and was selected as United States Masters Swimming's Coach of the Year in 1993. Currently he coaches workouts at the University of Texas Health Science Center, the University of Houston and The Houstonian Club. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or through the Internet at


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