Postural Considerations for Swimming

One of the biggest issues I see first with my swimming clients is their posture. When they cannot get their spine aligned properly, nearly everything about swimming is very difficult.
We start with balance in the water, but if you cannot get truly horizontal in the water, then balance is hard to achieve. Most of my clients are Silicon Valley professionals – hence, a desk job at a computer for years, if not decades, with their upper (thoracic) spine and neck both dropping down, and their shoulders pulling inwards towards their chests as they look down on monitors and type on keyboards. When your posture is like that, and for many years, your body and mind think that is normal posture. All your structures and muscles have (mall)adapted to this shape. Then, one day, you want to start an athletic endeavor (great!) but unfortunately your posture is now not in an optimal shape for movement.
What does poor posture, and therefore, poor spinal alignment, produce? The body is an amazing machine. It has mechanoreceptors (nerves which sense mechanical pressure or movement) which will fire the right muscles to do what the brain is telling it to do. If you want to move or lift or whatever, and your spine is aligned, then the correct muscles will fire to perform the movement. Primary movers, big muscles like your pectorals and lats, that are designed to move your body parts fire and do the main work. Stabilizers, smaller muscles whose main function are to keep your body parts in alignment during movement, fire to keep the body structures stable so that primary movers can do the heavy work.
When the spine is not aligned, your body will do its best to enable it to perform whatever instructions your brain gives it. But knowing that your spine is not properly aligned, it will begin to fire the wrong muscles, meaning stabilizers or the wrong primary movers, in order to perform the movement. Stabilizers are great at one thing; they are designed by nature to keep the body in alignment – they are not great at creating power for large movements over long periods of time. They are smaller, and they do not have the proper mechanical leverage due to their location on the body which is not like primary movers which are placed in the right locations and attached to create huge mechanical advantages for movement. Consider the list from the Postural Restoration Institute in the document entitled Swimmer Dyssynchrony Syndrome. Muscles perform duties they were not designed to do, leading to poor swimming and injury.
Not only do muscles perform the correct functions, but also things like balance in the water get hard to accomplish. Trying to press the front part of your body down into the water becomes nearly impossible when your upper spine is frozen in a curled position. Nor is holding your body truly straight possible – so the lower part of your body wants to bend downward and trying to straighten resists muscles and structures that won’t or can’t get there.
Fixing posture then becomes a critical part of swimming well.
Sometimes, posture can be addressed by practicing activity. For example, some coaches have told me that continuous, diligent practice with Superman Glide can often aid in postural correction enough to improve balance.
Humans were designed for movement. It is the lack of movement that is creating problems in our postures. So sometimes getting people moving again and doing something other than sitting is enough. Other times it is not. Or, if someone wishes to speed up the process, then other interventions are possible and desirable.
There are many resources to address posture. I recently took the Gokhale Method which was excellent. Its methods are very much suited for the non-athletic population and think they are great for both athletes and non-athletes.
Another great resource is Foundation Training. Their therapy involves a bit more exercise and movement. However, there are some excellent exercises to help you tone up muscles and your nervous system to hold your body’s shape during movement. You can look at their DVD or find a resource who is trained in their methods on their website.
If there is anything I’ve discovered about swimming, it’s that swim training doesn’t have to take place only in the pool. There is a lot you can do out of the pool. A lot of postural correction and training can and needs to take place out of the pool. It can be like Gokhale Method where the practice does not resemble traditional exercise, or it can involve practice like more traditional exercise, like the movements described more fully in Foundation Training. Working on spinal alignment and reawakening muscles that support proper spinal alignment is a 24/7 activity.
In summary, postural improvement is an important part of swimming. Corrections to your posture both in and out of the pool will be beneficial and speed up your ability to become a better, faster, more healthy swimmer.