How to Maximize Propulsion with Coupling Motions

While nearly all of the forces that create propulsion come from the hands and feet, there are certain other movements that we can do with our bodies that will increase the amount of propulsion coming from the pull and kick. We call those coupling motions.

I have written extensively in the past about the importance of coupling motions, but for those that missed reading them, let me explain. A coupling motion is a motion of some part of our body that by itself produces no propulsion, yet, when coupled with the propulsive forces, will make them stronger. Since we live in what is called an open system in nature, where the energy from one part of our moving body affects other parts of our body, using coupling motions are a powerful way to swim faster.

The coupling motions of swimming are very important; like putting a fuel additive into your gas tank. Any serious discussion of propulsion in swimming would be remiss without mentioning the coupling motions.

The following are important coupling motions in all four strokes and in the start and the propulsive forces they are coupling with.

  • Freestyle: Rotation of the body (including the head after the breath) and the recovery of the arms (pull and kick)
  • Backstroke: Rotation of the body and recovery of the arms (pull and kick)
  • Breaststroke: Elevation of the upper body (pull) and pressing down of the upper body and head (sometimes the arms, depending on the technique) (kick)
  • Butterfly: Recovery of the arms, snapping down of the head on the front breath (second down kick)
  • Start: Elevation of the head, motion of the arms, elevation of the back leg (feet or feet and arms, depending on the technique)


The keys to making the coupling motions effective are precise timing and more energy. The coupling motion is most effective when the maximum kinetic energy of the motion is timed precisely with the maximum propulsion. For example, if the coupling motion ends before the propulsive force begins, it has no effect at all. A good example is in breaststroke, perhaps the most timing-sensitive stroke of all, where if the body pressing forward reaches the water much before the feet begin to push backward, the benefit of all that work is lost. For that reason, the kicking cycle of breaststroke needs to be lightning fast to work well with the coupling motions of the upper body.

The kinetic energy of coupling motions in swimming can increase in the following ways: rotating faster, lengthening (straightening) the arms, pressing the body forward harder or snapping down the head faster. There is a price to pay, however, and it is called work.

It is much easier to swim without using these high-energy coupling motions. I call that technique survival stroke, which utilizes less energy to get through a workout. If you get accustomed to swimming with survival stroke technique that is the way you will likely swim in the competition. You may invest less energy in the race, but you probably won’t swim as fast and likely won’t win.

At the Race Club we take coupling motions very seriously. Coupling motions are one of the main reasons that swimmers that do not appear to be very strong can swim faster and with more power than bigger, stronger swimmers. We have designed many drills that will help you with the energy and timing of your coupling motions. Come to Islamorada or Coronado and let us show you them!

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


12 Responses to How to Maximize Propulsion with Coupling Motions

  1. Tamara Cole

    As a coach I would love to see the drills that would help in this coupling the movement. How could I get the drills for my swimmers. I know you would give them at your camp, but I would like to learn.

    • garyhallsr

      Hi Tamara,

      One of our favorite ways of drilling the coupling motions for fly and breaststroke, is by using freestyle kick with fins. Really emphasize the coupling motions I mention above with the strong kick.
      For back and free we like to use a series of body rotation drills, snapping the body from one side to the other, and the six kick one stroke drill, emphasizing the aggressive throw down of the recovering arms.

  2. Denis Senkubuge

    Am an elite swimmer in Uganda..i do indepent training since swim clubs are for the rich these ends..i have read your post and its very hard for me to get to your there any other way I can get access to your drills everyday??

    • garyhallsr

      Beginning next year we will be offering a subscription service with a new teaching video and articles every week. The cost will likely be around $10 per month…very affordable with lots of great information.
      We have been helping many swimmers in Nigeria. If we should come there for a camp someday, I hope you will join us.

  3. Jukka Shemeikka

    Good article! It seems that when we at OTC Rovaniemi talk about connection, we talk about the same thing. Lets talk more and share ideas in June at Islamorada camp. See you then.

    • garyhallsr

      Coaches have used the term ‘connection’ for years and it is one that many swimmers relate to. The connection is really occurring because of the coupling motions augmenting the propulsion.

  4. Chris Copeland

    Hi Gary,
    > I am an older coach so had the pleasure of watching you and other great swimmers in years past. My coaching is more specific for high school and age groupers. The breaststroke I was taught as a kid is certainly a lot different than the numerous varieties that we see today. My question is regarding the idea of not breathing every stroke especially for those who bring their shoulders high out of the water on every breath…it seems that perhaps the swimmer could have a quicker turnover in stroke during the non-breathing strokes?
    > I appreciate your wisdom on this idea.

    • garyhallsr

      Hi Chris, Since the velocity in breaststroke goes to near zero, when the legs are drawn forward, frontal drag is of less concern prior to the kick. So we encourage high elevation of the shoulders to increase the coupling energy for the kick propulsion.
      Adam Peaty maintained a stroke rate of near 60 for the entire 100 M in Rio, with extremely high elevation, so the stroke rate can be high with a breath on every stroke (which is needed to minimize lactate production). The stroke rates in the 50 can approach 70 for the elite breaststrokers. To achieve these rates, the kick cycle must be extremely fast, regardless of the breath.

  5. SwimmerAustin

    Hi Coach Gary!

    For the breaststroke, I am starting to see less and less olympians going with their hands out of the water.
    A little history for me, I have been swimming for three years and I started out first swimming with a 1:28 in the 100 SCY breast. After about two years, I swam to a 1:00 in the 100 Breast, pulling with my hands underwater. After a couple of months, I stopped dropping time and decided to switch to the hands out of the water method and swam to a :58 in the 100 Breast. I was wandering what you thought about the hands coming out in the breaststroke.


    • garyhallsr

      It makes sense to bring the hands out of the water as they are moving forward on the recovery, in order to reduce frontal drag. Some, like Rebecca Soni, maintain high elbows on the pull and bring a part of the forearm out of the water on the recovery, also. Most of the elite breaststrokers I observe are bringing the hands forward above the water. Not sure who you are seeing with the hands under the water…but not what I am seeing.

      • swimmeraustin

        Got it! Like the breaststroke with the added coupling motions, will the hands coming out of the water take more energy in an event like the 2br lcm?

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