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Swimming employs the use of the entire body, making it an efficient cardio activity.
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Swim meet directors sort swimming events based on the stroke used to move through the water. Alternating-stroke events include backstroke and freestyle. Undulating-stroke events include breaststroke and butterfly. Every stroke uses a similar set of muscles. They all, for example, generate motion by using the arms, legs and torso. Each stroke has a unique physiology as well. The backstroke generates power by bringing the shoulder in. The other strokes generate power by extending the shoulder out. Both methods place the shoulder and torso muscles at risk for injury.
Understand the Backstroke
The backstroke has four steps: early pull, middle pull, late pull and recovery. Muscles in the shoulders, hips and legs propel the swimmer forward. The arms alternately swim, the hips rotate back and forth and the legs alternately kick. Swimmers, however, do this stroke while lying on their backs. Because of the unique position required, swimmers start these races with their bodies already in the water. This fact allows the muscles in the lower leg to dominate more in this move than they do in other strokes. The shoulder muscles also play a critical role in the backstroke. The small muscles of the rotator cuff - especially the subscapularis and the teres minor - bear the burden. According to a September 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, this burden may explain why swimmers often have muscle imbalances in their rotator cuff complex. Protect your rotator cuff if you use the backstroke technique.
Examine the Freestyle Stroke
The freestyle or crawl stroke includes the same four stages as the backstroke with swimmers using their muscles as they do for the backstroke. The freestyle, however, more heavily relies on the leg kick. This kick provides 31 percent of the motion forward, according to an October 2015 report in BioMed Research International. A unique contribution from the shoulder and torso muscles - especially the serratus anterior, subscapularis and rhomboid - also set this stroke apart. Interestingly, the rhomboid takes over as the serratus fatigues. This change, unfortunately, damages the rotator cuff. Keep your serratus healthy and rested when you do a lot of freestyle swimming.
Break Down the Breaststroke
The breaststroke has a unique mechanical profile. It has traditional pull and recovery phases. But, unlike the other strokes, the body doesn't pass over the hands during recovery, and the hands never leave the water. This technique alters the anatomy needed for the stroke. Proper execution of this stroke activates the triceps and deltoids, according to an August 2015 paper in the Acta of Bioengineering and Biomechanics. Yet, like all strokes, muscles in the shoulders and torso ultimately separate world-class swimmers from amateurs. Specifically, the breaststroke increases activity in the subscapularis and decreases activity in the teres minor. The latissimus dorsi compensates for the decreased activation of the teres minor. Maintain strong lats if you want to excel at the breaststroke.
Float Like a Butterfly
The butterfly, like the backstroke, also has an undulating motion. Yet, it has a special mechanical profile. Swimmers don't alternate sides during the butterfly. Muscles on both sides of their bodies move in unison. The athletes display an s-shape pattern as they progress. Their bodies move up and down using the hips as a pivot point instead of the head-to-tail central axis of the other strokes. This stroke also features a whipping motion called a "dolphin kick." A December 2017 report in the Journal of Human Kinetics showed that the butterfly kick plays a critical role in generating power and speed. The move requires a strong core as the shoulders stay still. After the kick, the shoulder and torso muscles - especially the serratus anterior and teres minor - take over. Do special exercises for these muscles when you train for the butterfly.