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MSR Freestyle Swimming: Part 1 The Science of Speed

Updated: Apr 1

Image of Freestyle Swimmer

Freestyle swimming, a mainstay in competitive swimming and triathlon events, is celebrated for its speed and precision. For MSK practitioners, the technical sophistication of this stroke presents a compelling study of biomechanics and the involved anatomy.

In freestyle swimming, the upper and lower body muscles coordinate to generate propulsive force, maintaining optimal body alignment. This involves the strategic phases of the arm's propulsion and recovery, precise body rotation, and the well-coordinated leg action known as the flutter kick.

Article Index:


Enhancing Freestyle Swimming through Manual Therapy

In the intricate world of freestyle swimming, performance hinges on a fine balance of biomechanical principles. Every stroke, kick, and glide in the water demands a complex orchestration of muscles, joints, and ligaments. As such, the role of manual therapy in this context becomes pivotal, not just in enhancing performance but also in injury prevention. From a biomechanical perspective, manual therapy offers a multi-dimensional approach that addresses key aspects of a swimmer's physical condition.

This includes alleviating pain, augmenting flexibility, and addressing muscular imbalances. The following sections delve into the scientific rationale behind these interventions, highlighting their relevance and application in the context of freestyle swimming:

Alleviation of Pain and Restoration of Kinematics:

In freestyle swimming, repetitive movements often lead to strain and stiffness, especially in vulnerable areas like the shoulders, neck, and lower back. Manual therapy, focusing on biomechanics, can address these issues by relieving pain, reducing muscle tension, and restoring natural movement patterns. These interventions can enhance the swimmer's stroke efficiency and overall performance.

Enhancement of Flexibility and Joint Range of Motion:

The demands of freestyle swimming require significant flexibility and range of motion across the body's joints and soft tissues. Manual therapy can improve a swimmer's mobility and functionality by applying biomechanical techniques such as joint manipulation and soft tissue mobilization. These improvements can lead to more efficient strokes and a reduced risk of overuse injuries.

Image of Manual Therapy

Identification and Correction of Muscular Imbalances:

Muscular imbalances in freestyle swimming can negatively affect stroke technique and increase the risk of injury. From a biomechanical perspective, manual therapy can pinpoint and correct these imbalances, enhancing the swimmer's movement efficiency.

Techniques utilized include:

  • Myofascial Release: Targeting the connective tissue to improve mobility.

  • Joint Manipulation/Mobilization: Adjusting the joints to optimize alignment.

  • PNF Techniques: Enhancing neuromuscular function and coordination.

  • Therapeutic Exercise: Prescribing specific exercises to strengthen imbalances.

  • Postural Education: Providing guidance on proper posture to improve overall biomechanical function.

The integration of these methods can boost performance and minimize injury risk.

Now, let's delve into the specific anatomical structures, categorizing them into:

  • Arm Movements: A detailed examination of the muscles and joints responsible for propulsion.

  • Scapular Stabilizers: A focus on the muscles ensuring stability and coordination of shoulder movements.

  • Core Stabilizers: An exploration of the musculature that provides trunk stability and force transfer.

  • Lower Extremity Muscles: A look at the muscles involved in leg action, contributing to propulsion and balance in the water.

This tailored approach offers a comprehensive understanding of freestyle swimming's biomechanical intricacies, paving the way for precise therapeutic interventions.


Swimming Portion of Triathlon

Arm Movements and Associated Muscles

In freestyle swimming, the arms are the main propulsion engine, and their movement reflects a complex interplay of muscle coordination. Understanding these dynamics offers insights into performance optimization and potential therapeutic interventions:

Certainly! Here's the rewritten section, focusing on the structures involved and how their dysfunction might affect the stroke:

1. Entry and Stretch Phase:

  • Structures Involved: Serratus Anterior, Upper Trapezius.

  • Function: Enables the scapula's upward rotation as the hand enters the water, ensuring a streamlined stance.

  • Potential Dysfunction: Weakness or imbalance in these muscles can lead to an inefficient entry angle, reducing stroke effectiveness.

2. Catch Phase and Pull:

  • Structures Involved: Clavicular portion of the Pectoralis Major, Latissimus Dorsi.

  • Function: Collaboratively generates force for underwater propulsion, creating a powerful pull.

  • Potential Dysfunction: Dysfunction in these muscles might diminish pulling power, limiting propulsion and increasing fatigue.

3. Wrist Positioning:

  • Structures Involved: Flexor Carpi Ulnaris, Palmaris Longus.

  • Function: Maintains slight wrist flexion during propulsion, maximizing surface area for enhanced force.

  • Potential Dysfunction: Inflexibility or weakness may reduce force transmission, leading to an inefficient stroke.

4. Elbow Flexion and High Elbow Maintenance

  • Structures Involved: Biceps Brachii, Brachialis.

  • Function: Moves the elbow into optimal flexion (about 30 degrees), setting the angle for an efficient pull.

  • Potential Dysfunction: Dysfunction in these muscles may hinder the ability to maintain a high elbow position, affecting the angle and power of the pull.

5. Conclusion of Propulsive Phase:

  • Structures Involved: Triceps Brachii.

  • Function: Extends the elbow, pushing the hand backward and upward, initiating the arm's recovery phase.

  • Potential Dysfunction: Weakness or imbalance may slow the recovery phase, affecting the timing and rhythm of the stroke.

This breakdown encapsulates the biomechanical sophistication of the arm's movements in freestyle swimming, highlighting key muscles and their roles. It paves the way for manual therapy practitioners to understand, assess, and optimize these dynamics in both performance enhancement and injury prevention contexts.


Motion Specific Release (MSR)

MSR Treatment Demonstration Video

In this video, Dr. Abelson demostrates the application of Motion Specific Release (MSR) techniques to target and rectify restrictions or muscle imbalances in the upper extremity. Such imbalances, if unaddressed, may contribute to diminished performance and elevate the risk of injuries in freestyle swimming.


Freestyle Swimming Graphic

Conclusion - Freestyle Swimming Part 1

Freestyle swimming is a testament to the body's biomechanical capabilities, demanding precision and coordination. Manual therapy, including techniques like Motion Specific Release (MSR), plays a crucial role in supporting swimmers. By focusing on biomechanics, these therapies work to relieve pain, enhance joint movement, and correct muscular imbalances. With a clear understanding of the relevant anatomy, manual therapists apply their knowledge with humility, aiming to align therapeutic goals with the swimmer's needs for improved performance and reduced injury risk.

In practice, this means carefully examining arm movement, ensuring scapular and core stability, and optimizing the leg kick to support the swimmer's endeavor in the water. Our goal is not to overhaul the swimmer's technique but to make subtle adjustments that align with their physiological makeup. Each intervention is a step toward enabling swimmers to achieve their best, acknowledging the intricate balance of strength, flexibility, and technique required in this sport.



Photo of Dr. Brian Abelson

Dr. Abelson is committed to running an evidence-based practice (EBP) incorporating the most up-to-date research evidence. He combines his clinical expertise with each patient's specific values and needs to deliver effective, patient-centred personalized care.

As the Motion Specific Release (MSR) Treatment Systems developer, Dr. Abelson operates a clinical practice in Calgary, Alberta, under Kinetic Health. He has authored ten publications and continues offering online courses and his live programs to healthcare professionals seeking to expand their knowledge and skills in treating musculoskeletal conditions. By staying current with the latest research and offering innovative treatment options, Dr. Abelson is dedicated to helping his patients achieve optimal health and wellness.

Despite being in the field for over three decades, Dr. Abelson remains open to welcoming new patients at Kinetic Health, save for the periods he dedicates to teaching or enjoying travels with his cherished wife, Kamali. However, be forewarned, he will anticipate your commitment to carry out the prescribed exercises and punctuality for your appointments (smile). His dedication to your health is absolute, particularly in ensuring you can revel in life unimpeded. He genuinely delights in greeting new and familiar faces at the clinic (403-241-3772).


MSR Instructor Mike Burton Smiling

Join Us at Motion Specific Release

Enroll in our courses to master innovative soft-tissue and osseous techniques that seamlessly fit into your current clinical practice, providing your patients with substantial relief from pain and a renewed sense of functionality. Our curriculum masterfully integrates rigorous medical science with creative therapeutic paradigms, comprehensively understanding musculoskeletal diagnosis and treatment protocols.

Join MSR Pro and start tapping into the power of Motion Specific Release. Have access to:

  • Protocols: Over 250 clinical procedures with detailed video productions.

  • Examination Procedures: Over 70 orthopedic and neurological assessment videos and downloadable PDF examination forms for use in your clinical practice are coming soon.

  • Exercises: You can prescribe hundreds of Functional Exercises Videos to your patients through our downloadable prescription pads.

  • Article Library: Our Article Index Library with over 45+ of the most common MSK conditions we all see in clinical practice. This is a great opportunity to educate your patients on our processes. Each article covers basic condition information, diagnostic procedures, treatment methodologies, timelines, and exercise recommendations. All of this is in an easy-to-prescribe PDF format you can directly send to your patients.

  • Discounts: MSR Pro yearly memberships entitle you to a significant discount on our online and live courses.

Integrating MSR into your practice can significantly enhance your clinical practice. The benefits we mentioned are only a few reasons for joining our MSR team.



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  11. Leroyer, P., Seifert, L., Chollet, D., & Toussaint, H. (2013). Arm coordination, power, and swim efficiency in national and regional front crawl swimmers. Human Movement Science, 32(2), 324-341.

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  14. Psycharakis, S. G., Sanders, R. H., & McCabe, C. B. (2010). Stroke and turn performances of elite swimmers in the 200 m individual medley. Sports Biomechanics, 9(1), 48-58.

  15. Ristolainen, L., Heinonen, A., Waller, B., Kujala, U. M., & Kettunen, J. A. (2010). Gender differences in sport injury risk and types of injuries: a retrospective twelve-month study on cross-country skiers, swimmers, long-distance runners and soccer players. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 9(3), 441.

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