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Use Your Hips to Power Your Swimming

By Tom Denes

swimEver wonder what those guys and gals in the "fast lane" do that makes them so darn speedy? Aside from great technique—which we won't cover today—they are applying physics to their swimming. They intuitively know that the more power they generate, the faster they will go. And they do this with their hips.
Power, if you remember your old high school physics, is equal to force times velocity.  Force is measured in pounds and velocity is measured in feet per second.  When you multiply the two you get foot-pounds per second.  (This can also be easily converted to horsepower or watts.)  So what this says is that if you can increase your force and/or increase the velocity of applying the force, you will generate more power.  And generating more power will make you faster.
Now let's apply this to swimming. Force is the amount of pressure your hand and arm apply to the water. The harder you push, the more force you exert. Velocity is the speed with which you move your hand and arm through the water. To increase your power, you need to push harder against the water or move your hand and arm more quickly through the water...preferably both. Of course, your technique needs to be good enough so that you are applying the force in a manner that will move your body through the water efficiently.  
The secret to applying more power is to use your hips. Have your ever seen shot-putters in the Olympics? They hold the heavy shot next to their ear, then twirl quickly around and release the shot with a gigantic thrust of their hips and an unworldly grunt from their lips. Maximum velocity and maximum force create maximum power for the shot putter. Or picture a golfer whacking the ball on a mighty drive. Again, the hips are used to swing the club so that it moves quickly through the air until it hits the ball with high force. A combination of force and velocity sends the ball a long way. 

It's the same with swimming—you should use your hips to generate power. Picture yourself swimming freestyle. When your right arm is extended in front, you should be on your right side with your left arm beginning its recovery. If you like, you can think of your body as a lever that extends from the tips of your fingers, through your armpit, along your side and finally ending at the fulcrum: your hips. At this point, you should roll your right hip to the surface to power your right hand and arm quickly through the water with a powerful movement. With that roll, the right arm should go through its full range of motion so that you are applying force as long as possible. At the same time you should complete your left arm recovery and reach for the catch, with your body now on its left side. Ideally, you should have a slight glide with every stroke so that your recovering hand (the one in the air) is at least up to your ear before you begin your stroke. 

The point to remember is that with each stroke you should apply a good deal of force to the water in the shortest time possible.  This will generate your maximum power.  Ultimately your body becomes a little machine, generating power with each roll of your hips. Apply these principles to your next race and leave your competitors in your wake.

Based on your feedback, I’ve made some slight modifications to the article to emphasize rolling the body with each stroke to generate that extra hip power. I’d also like to briefly provide more information in two areas:  a) whether to use the hips and 2) how to use the hips when swimming. 

First the question about whether to engage the hips. Most coaches will tell you to roll from side to side when you swim. This engages your hips. I haven’t encountered any coaches who recommend swimming flat. Again, the reason is that you can generate more power by using the hips. As I mentioned in the article, shot putters and golfers use their hips to generate maximum power.  So do batters, pitchers, quarterbacks, tennis players and even dragon boaters. (During my days as a dragon boater; we were constantly nagged to engage our hips into each stroke.) 

So now onto the “how” of engaging the hips. Basically you are rolling from side to side as you swim each stroke. The thing to think about is engaging your core by staying hard but flexible while you swim. The secret to engaging the hips is to roll your body with each stroke. Think of yourself as a piece of meat on a spit rolling back and forth as you swim. A website that describes this well is The site is Australian and those Australians sure do know how to swim fast.

Tom Denes is a Masters swimmer and triathlete. He is the co-authored The Waterproof Triathlete with Desiree Ficker, and he is the author of The Waterproof Coach and The Armchair Athlete. Tom lives and trains in Kensington, Md.