We're not joking, The Village People really can help your swimming:
At our recent June 2010 Clinic Series, we counted 76 of the 108 attendees as having some level of crossover in their stroke, where the lead hand crosses the centre line at the front:
This is bad for your stroke because it causes you to fish-tail down the pool and hurts your catch on the water - reducing your propulsion. It's also a major cause of scissor kicks and associated with shoulder injury. All round best avoided then! For these reasons, good alignment in the water is fundamental to a good freestyle stroke and many other parts of the stroke click into place when you remove cross-over.
But how should you go about removing it? All the time we hear swimming coaches telling swimmers to think about going wider with their arms to remove cross-over. Swim Smooth disagree with this instruction quite strongly - it does remove cross-over but it tends to cause an over-exaggerated wide hand placement, reducing the swimmer's body rotation. Very soon after being told to go wider, their hand entry is way too wide - resulting in more problems than it fixed. The subtlety lies in what to specifically focus on when making this correction in your stroke and getting to the root cause of the problem.
Instead of thinking about extending wider, think about extending straighter. In a minute (we're sure you're dying to know) we'll show you how The Village People can help with this. But first, let's think about posture for a second. These days many of us have office jobs and work in front of a computer. This causes us to bend forward at our desks with shoulders slumped forwards to operate a keyboard or mouse:
By spending hundreds or thousands of hours in this position the muscles of the chest shorten, and the muscles of the upper back lengthen. When we go for a swim this predisposition shows up straight away - that rounded shoulder position causing the lead hand to veer across the centre line when extended out front.
How to straighten yourself up? By improving your posture! Really we are talking about the same good posture that your Mum was referring to when she told you to 'stand up tall and proud' as a child, or that feeling of drawing your shoulder back and down when standing to attention.
The Village People's most famous song was The Y-M-C-A. Here's an exercise which is quite similar, which will help you tune into this good posture. It's called the Y-T-W-L :
Perform the YTWL after a gentle land-based warm-up before you swim - or as part of a conditioning routine. If you attend a gym, it's well worth adding a few YTWLs into your routine. Aim to hold each of the positions for about 10 seconds and notice if you have a tendency for the arms to drift forwards and not be straight out to the side.
As you perform the routine, think about drawing your shoulder blades together and back to bring your arms into line. You should find this position isolates and engages the muscles between your shoulder blades (technically: scapular retraction) which are over-stretched and underused in your stroke. The great thing about the YTWL is that it isolates these muscles of the upper back and makes you aware of using them.
Now when you hit the water, we recommend you start with some kicking on your side drills. To become straight and aligned in the water, think about drawing those shoulder blades together and back. This is what we mean by becoming straighter. Practise this whilst kicking on your side - you should find you track much straighter down the pool without veering towards the lane ropes.
At Swim Smooth we call this concept 'Swimming Proud'. Pushing your chest forwards and bringing your shoulders down and back brings you into this proud position. Not only is this great for your alignment, it also helps connect your arms to your core and so generate more power in your stroke.
You can find out more about this subject in our full web article on swimming posture.