SwimmingGet High In the Water

Get High In the Water

The First Commandment of Freestyle Sprinting: Get High In the Water

By Rich Cote

The ability to get “high in the water” is central to high-performance freestyle sprinting. This is due largely to the fact that getting up and over the surface of the water addresses both sides of the drag/propulsion dilemma at one and the same time. This high-body position, in effect keeping the upper chest, shoulders and armpits dry, reduces frontal drag while also enabling the arms and shoulders to freely “turn over” at a higher tempo. Less drag + more propulsion = increased speed. The first commandment of freestyle sprinting thus reads: “Thou shalt get as high in the water as possible.” The question, of course, is how?

Traditionally, six techniques have been singly or collectively recommended to achieve the sprinter’s high-body position. Keeping the head down and generating a higher kick rate are two of the most often recommended and we’ll return to these later, noting only that they are necessary, but not sufficient to achieve a higher body position. Of the remaining four, the first is “engaging” or tightening the abs or core, followed closely by the second, “engaging,” or tightening the glutes. The remaining two are most often heard from coaches on deck directing swimmers to “get your hips and legs up high” and/or “swim downhill.” Ignoring the apparent contradiction between getting the chest, shoulders and armpits high in the water and swimming downhill, you will notice that getting your hips and legs up high is an outcome — a result — and not a “how to.” Are engaging the core and the glutes the key to getting the hips and legs up higher and, thus, getting the sprinter’s torso and shoulders higher in the water?

A Simple Experiment

Bear with me for a moment and follow my lead. Stand up fairly straight and tall and deliberately tighten your abdominal muscles. Do you feel any fundamental change in body posture or position that would lead you to swimming “higher in the water?” No. Now, do the same with tightening your butt muscles. Feel like you would be higher in the water? The answer, again, is no. If you believe that actually being in the water versus simply standing on dry land would make a difference, then by all means give it a try. It won’t. You’ll have tight(er) abs and tight(er) glutes but you will not be higher in the water. Engaging the core, engaging the glutes, simply attempting to get your hips and legs up higher, and “swimming downhill” do not result in getting higher in the water.

So, the question remains: how does a sprinter/swimmer get higher in the water? Is there a particular technique, a particular body posture that enables a swimmer/sprinter to accomplish this? The answer is yes and it is found in the position of the hips.

In a separate article, I have suggested that there are fundamentally three positions of the hips in swimming. The hips are either (1) in a position of extension (think of a pelvic thrust, with the hips pushed far forward and your butt tucked in and pulled forward); (2) a position of flexion (think of bending over to touch your toes, with your hips sliding backwards and your butt out behind you); or (3) in a neutral position (think of simply standing up fairly straight and tall with your hips in line with your shoulders, knees, and ankles). Depending on the stroke, the swimmer’s hips are either in an extended position, a flexed position, alternating between extended and flexed (butterfly and breaststroke) or neutral. The key technique that enables the freestyle sprinter to get high in the water is to consciously and deliberately shift/thrust/position the hips into a Position of Extension and maintain that position. Let me explain.

Let’s return to our “experiment” one more time. Stand up reasonably straight and tall. Now, shift your hips into a position of full extension (again, think of thrusting your pelvis forward) and hold this hip position. You will quickly notice several changes in body posture. First, your spine will lengthen, your chest will broaden and your shoulders will shift back. Second, your spine will curve slightly, with your shoulder and upper torso further back than the tip of your spine. Third, you will feel your legs “straighten and lengthen,” as though your quads and hamstrings are being stretched. Fourth, your knees will be just ever so slightly flexed, not overly bent. Fifth, your hips/pelvis will be forcefully pressing forward. Lastly, and this will surely grab your attention, your abs and glutes will be both tightened and engaged.

What does this postural adjustment have to do with “getting as high in the water” as possible? Everything, in my opinion. When the swimmer assumes this position in the water, with the hips in full extension pressing forcefully down and slightly forward into the water (down toward the bottom of the pool) the first thing that happens is the water pushes back (Newton’s Third Law). It is the water pushing back on the swimmer’s extended hips (pelvis area) that keeps the hips high in the water. The stronger/fuller the extension, the higher body position in the water. And that, of course, is not all. Shifting the hips into a position of extension causes the spine to also shift into a position of extension. With the resulting spinal extension, the chest broadens, the spine curves and the shoulders shift back. In the water, this translates to the shoulders, upper chest and arm-pits riding high and above the surface. You will also recall that the legs straighten and lengthen with only a minimal bend in the knees. In the water, the legs and feet rise to or very near to the surface of the water. And yes, the abs and glutes are tightened and engaged, but that is a function of the hips being in an extended position.

To summarize then: in order to get as high in the water as possible, the sprinter must shift/thrust the hips into a position of extension and maintain that position while sprinting. In this position, frontal drag is reduced and the arms and shoulders are free to turn over at this highest rate possible. Less drag + more propulsion = increased speed.

Two important questions remain: (1) How much hip extension is ideal?; and (2) When do the hips shift into an extended position?

How Much Hip Extension?

Let me state right upfront that I do not have an answer to this question. It would take a researcher with far more experimental experience and far more scientific instrumentation than I have to provide and accurate answer. I do, however, suspect that two things will prove to be true. First, the amount of hip extension that is optimal for any freestyle sprinter will be largely an individual matter. There will be personal differences and variations, based on factors such as body size, type and composition, hip and spinal flexibility, abdominal and gluteal strength, and more. Second, I suspect that the amount will vary according to the freestyle sprint event, with 50 freestyle sprinters exhibiting the greatest amount of hip extension and 200 freestyle sprinters exhibiting less.

The Question of When to Extend the Hips?

The question of when the sprinter should extend the hips is easier to answer. Let’s remember that a 50 freestyle sprint begins on the blocks, not in the water. It begins with a powerful, dynamic start, progresses to multiple fast and powerful underwater kicks, and then transitions to a breakout where the full freestyle sprinting begins. So when to extend the hips?

The answer comes from a multi-part, livestream clinic series with Caeleb Dressel from several years ago. In the course of one, 45-minute segment focusing on starts, underwater kicks and breakouts, Dressel somewhat innocently and very casually mentioned that his final kick on his freestyle breakout was an Up-Kick. No explanation. No elaboration. He quickly moved on to another topic. It struck me as a truly odd statement, especially given the fact that most coaches, and many sprinters, emphasize a very strong Down-Kick to accompany the breakout pull (yes, Dressel does in fact do another forceful down-kick, but that comes after he has broken the surface of the water).

It was only when I began to focus on sprint freestyle body posture that it hit me. Consider what happens in butterfly swimming, specifically the undulation of the hips (extension to flexion etc.). As the swimmer presses the hips downward, shifting the hips into an extended position, the chest, shoulders and back rise and the legs/feet kick up. What Dressel was describing (unintentionally, perhaps) was not so much what his final kick was doing but the process of shifting his hips into a position of full extension as an integral part of his breakout. As his hips shifted to an extended position, his legs kicked up. Extending the hips is part and parcel of Dressel’s breakout — one of, if not the best breakout in the world.

To maximize the full potential of the breakout, the sprinter’s hips should be thrust/snapped into a position of full extension as the pull begins and just prior to the head and torso breaking the surface of the water. From the breakout on, the hips should remain in that extended position. Snapping the hips into extension raises the upper chest, shoulders and armpits out of and above the water, the spine extends and lengthens, the chest broadens and the back curves, the hips, legs and feet rise to the surface, and yes, the abs and glutes engage. In brief: the breakout initiates the drive to get as high as possible above the water, creating minimal resistance and avoiding pushing water. Getting high in the water is the result of and begins with the hips deliberately being shifted into an extended position; the greater the hip extension, the greater the force of the hips against the water, the greater the push of the water back against the hips, the higher the sprinter will be above the surface of the water.


The First Commandment of Freestyle Sprinting is: Thou Shalt Get as High in the Water as Possible. To get as high in the water as possible, the sprinter shifts the hips to a fully extended position to initiate the breakout. Extending the hips causes the hips to press down into the water, and the water presses back, keeping the hips and legs high. In addition, extending the hips also extends the spine, shifting the shoulders, upper chest and armpits above the surface, enabling the shoulders and arms to turn over at the highest rate possible. This extended hip position also engages the abdominal and gluteal muscles, while at the same time engaging the quads and hamstrings, lengthening the legs and minimizing knee bend, leading to a faster, more powerful kick. The sprinter’s body posture in the water, a function of the extension of the hips, optimizes the ability to achieve and maintain maximum speed.


Rich Cote is a sprint/swim coach with Westminster Academy Swim Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has also served as a consultant to various Olympic and collegiate sprint programs.

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