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Swim Smoother, Not Harder

“Right now you swim like a bull in a china shop. By the end of this season I want you to be a Jedi.”

This is what Jonty Skinner, my coach and once the world’s fastest swimmer, said to me during one of my first practices with him.

Having learned body awareness and principles of speed I had never fully appreciated until I was under his guidance, I transitioned from a Padawon to a Jedi throughout the course of that year.

The best part? I wasn’t even having to work as hard physically as I was before.

Efficiency within swimming varies tremendously. Swimming requires the athlete to have multiple iterations of each individual stroke they swim, and with separate gears of each of those iterations.

Take the freestyle stroke for example. Every freestyle swimmer should be able to perform these iterations of the freestyle stroke: shoulder driven, hip driven, body driven, or a gallop. Within those different styles of freestyle, the swimmer must also be able to change into different gears and/or be able to transition fluidly between styles of freestyle swimming.

See below for example:

University of Michigan hip/shoulder/body driven:

Michael Phelps Gallop:

Sound complicated? It can be. But not when you stop working so hard and start FEELING better.

Swimming requires the athlete to utilize both the buoyant nature of the water to hold them up and the resistive principles of water to move them forward. At its core swimming is nothing more than moving a shape through resistance. Developing this feel for the water is dependent upon a handful of very basic principles.

Principle 1: FLOATING

This seems so rudimentary, but if you’re not practicing being a master at floating you will never be an efficient swimmer. It was not unusual at the collegiate level for us to practice floating on a weekly or even daily basis. Master the way you float and you will see dividends pay off immediately. The key to floating is staying relaxed + learning to shift your weight.

Pro tip: use a snorkel so you can breathe freely.

Principle 2: MOTORING

Once you’ve mastered floating, you are going to begin to motor yourself down the pool utilizing just your kick. Think how fishing boats use trolling motors to quietly and smoothly glide through the water; if you are able to make your body float well you then will have the ability to easily use your legs to generate easy forward propulsion.

Pro tip: use a snorkel so you can breathe freely… again.

Principle 3: SCULLING

Once you’re able to float and motor, being able to scull properly is the next logical step (and perhaps the most power generating aspect of these 3 principles). Olympic Gold medalist John Mix defines sculling as, “a hand technique that allows swimmers to ‘feel the water’ and maintain the ideal hand and arm position to move through the water. Sculling allows the swimmer to maximize surface area for effective propulsion and lift. This is effective only if the hand’s surface area differs from the water’s surface area. Adequate surface area and speed of the surface area – when moving in the intended direction – are the two contributors that must work together to produce speed and lift for a successful swim. Sculling is a way of maximizing surface area for movement in the water, for turns, and for the catch phase of the stroke.”

See below for floating, motoring, and sculling drills:




Mastery of principles will not turn you into Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, but they will give you the foundation to stop working so hard and merely surviving your swim sessions and, instead, allow you to focus on your conditioning.

If you’re interested in doing some fundamental swimming training, contact us to set up a session!

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Jacob Reynolds PT, DPT, OCS

Physical Therapist

Board Certified Specialist in Orthopedic Physical Therapy


Follow Jake on Instagram: @theswimmingphysio

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