Let’s Talk About the S Pull in Swimming

Elizabeth Beisel demonstrates the S Curve in freestyle swimming.

In response to this conversation on the Swim Speed Secrets Facebook page that has developed after this “S-pull” post on SwimSpeedSecrets.com, I first want to mention that what we posted online from Swim Speed Strokes was only part of the chapter—and only part of the story. My publisher tries not to give away too much of my books online, but in this case that caution has caused some confusion. (As punishment for my marketing guy, I’ve added 8×25 Dog Paddle drills to his set tomorrow!)

Later in the chapter (the part that we didn’t put online), I explain where swim propulsion stands today.

So let’s clear up the confusion.

Interestingly, the majority of comments on Facebook agree that the “S-pull is no longer the correct path to coach” swimmers.

These comments are partially correct and partially incorrect.

The confusion about stroke path is a big part of why I wrote Swim Speed Strokes. Because of the feedback we’ve gotten on Facebook, I will offer a short explanation of what I mean by “S-pull” and how all elite swimmers today show it in their stroke.

The famed coach, Doc Counsilman, from Indiana University, was the first to introduce the S-pull path to the sport of swimming in the early 1970s. Prior to 1970, swimmers were taught to push straight back on the water. In his underwater research, Doc saw that the best swimmers did not push straight back, but rather stroked in an “elliptical”, “curvilinear”, “S-pull”, or “inverted question mark” pull pattern. Call it whatever you want, the main point is that the pull path is not straight back.

Doc wondered why despite decades of being coached to pull straight back, the best swimmers were pulling with a curve in their stroke. He reasoned that just as a propeller-driven boat is faster than a paddle-driven boat, so too is a swimmer who operates the hand/arm like a propeller faster than a swimmer who operates the hand/arm like a paddle. Hence, Doc encouraged swimmers to exploit propeller-like (S-pull) movements as they stroked.

Doc’s S-pull stood for more than 20 years as the agreed upon best way to coach the swim strokes.

In the 1990s though, a number of new studies revealed that more power is generated by pushing back on the water than moving the hand/arm laterally or vertically (like a propeller) in the water. In the past decade swim propulsion theory and teaching has re-set the focus on pushing back on the water rather than exploiting the propeller-like movements.

HOWEVER! A curved path back is still the proper path to teach, and it is present in all elite swimmers’ strokes.

The benefits of the curved path are explained in the book, and no top coach or theorist disputes these. The point that needs to be understood is that both movements (pushing back and moving the hand/arm in a curved manner through the water) are present in elite strokes, but today swimming researchers agree that swimmers should focus more on pushing back than on exploiting the curves.

I want to make a very important clarification now: The “S-pull” and “curved path” are phrases used to explain the same pull pattern. The problem is that the S-pull is so closely associated with Doc’s propeller-movement exploitation theory that coaches/swimmers who have not studied swim propulsion history get confused.

We are dealing with the classic case of the telephone game here. One person whispers a sentence into someone’s ear and then that person whispers the same sentence into the next person’s ear, and so on. By the time the message gets to the last person, it is distorted.

The telephone game has distorted swim teaching, and I will make a bold statement about this:

Coaches, and the federations certifying coaches, are not delivering the proper message.

Because the focus is now on pressing back on the water rather than stroking in the manner Doc encouraged, the phrases used to coach today are “Train Tracks” and “push straight back.”

If you are a coach using these phrases, I strongly encourage you stop.

If you are a swimmer who has adopted these phrases, I encourage you to stop.

The underwater pull path is complicated and involves a unique manipulation/rotation of the upper arm, which affects the path the hand/arm takes through the water. The path is curved. You can even call it “S-shaped” if you like—that word choice doesn’t bother me.

Swim Speed Strokes is full of photographic evidence of elite swimmers, Olympians, and gold medalists who show the same curvilinear path in their stroke. The fastest swimmers in the world show the curvilinear path in all four competitive strokes.

Here’s one example. You can see in the photos of Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel that her hand/arm does not push straight back on the water but rather takes a curved path back. Note the position of the limb in Frame 1 as compared to Frame 2.

This is the curvilinear path, the ellipsis, the S-pull, the inverted question mark. Whatever you want to call it, elite swimmers do not pull straight back. They don’t swim on train tracks.

Some might claim that body rotation is what makes it “look” like a swimmer strokes in an S-pull pattern. This is incorrect.

Note that Elizabeth’s hand/arm is wide of her head in Frame 1, and then under her head in Frame 2. The head does not move laterally, thus we see that is the hand/arm that moves to an adjacent plane of water. Call this hand pattern an S. Call it a curve. Give any name to it you wish. Just please don’t call it “Train Tracks,” and please don’t instruct swimmers to push straight back.

Proper wording is to coach the following:

We focus our efforts on pushing back as we take a curved path through the water.

I am sorry that the post on SwimSpeedSecrets.com didn’t tell the full story. But in some ways, I’m very glad to have the opportunity to tell the rest of the story and to start a conversation about how we as swimming coaches talk about the swimming strokes.

I hope this explanation is interesting. Stroking properly is an intricate movement. The upper arm movement and resulting hand/forearm path through the water are explained thoroughly in Swim Speed Strokes, and the explanation is backed up with more than 350 photos of Olympic swimmers.

Thanks for the conversation! Let’s hear what you think in the comments below or on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/swimspeedsecrets).


Sheila Taormina

Swim Speed Secrets by Sheila TaorminaIn her best-selling book, Swim Speed Secrets, Sheila Taormina reveals the world’s fastest way to swim by breaking down the swim technique of the world’s fastest swimmers.