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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Contralateral Limb Assessment in Long Axis Swimming

Contralateral limb assessment is a useful tool for long axis swim strokes (freestyle and backstroke). The term "contralateral" simply refers to a limb on the opposing side of the body. The left ankle and hip work in concert with the right shoulder. Similarly, the right ankle and hip work in concert with the left arm and shoulder. Although we still look at the entire body when evaluating fundamental movement abilities of swimmers, contralateral limb assessments are a useful and quick method in a group setting. Most importantly, understanding these relationships can improve a swimmer’s self-assessment ability.

We begin by identifying any visual flaws (i.e, arm crossing over, elbow dropping, hand slipping, etc.). If a visual flaw exists in an upper body limb, we’ll then check the contralateral lower body limb. Right arm flaws often correlate with mobility limitations in the left hip and left ankle. A mobility limitation can refer to shortened tissue length (which itself may be a protective mechanism against a movement deficit elsewhere in the body) or a lack of upper body and lower body disassociation ability as reflected in the stroke kinematic sequence. At first glance, we can’t tell whether the remedy is to improve basic flexibility or if we need to address range of motion through better stroke timing.

The next question is whether the arm deficiency is the cause or an effect of the lower limb deficit. A visual flaw in the right arm might have evolved to compensate for a limitation in the left ankle. For instance, we might observe an unstable right lower trapezius muscle paired with a tight left hip and ankle. While the trap normally stabilizes the scapula, it might become unstable to compensate for immobility in the lower joints.

One way to view these contralateral limb connections is through the Sling-Theory taught by the Titleist Performance Institute. The body consists of four quadrants, or "slings", crossing from upper extremities to the lower extremities. Think of a sling as like the shoulder belt when you set in a car. The four slings of the torso are:

  1. Front of the right hip connecting to the front of the left shoulder
  2. Front of the left hip connecting to the front of the right shoulder
  3. Back of the right hip connecting to back of the left shoulder
  4. Back of the left hip connecting to back of the right shoulder.

You can’t change something at one end of a sling without affecting another part of the sling. Not only is the entire length of each sling interrelated, each sling is interrelated with the other slings, so that any deficit will have a global effect. Sling theory might sound complicated, but its greatest value is to help identify the body’s weakest link of movement from which most mechanical compensations develop.

Land Observations

These movement deficits often reflect a swimmer’s land-based movement patterns. It behooves us to use our time on dry land to ingrain sound movement patterns. If someone has a contralateral movement pattern dysfunction on land AND in the water, we can’t expect the pattern to automatically clean itself up in the water with less oxygen and a less stable medium for movement. Someone who crosses over with the right arm might do so because they have spent years subconsciously protecting their left ankle during the extension and rotation of the affected "sling." There are undoubtedly many swimmers who move horribly on land but move like a fish in the water. Effective assessment of these contralateral relationships can be the difference between a lasting stroke improvement and a stroke cue that the swimmer sticks with for only part of a practice before reverting back to what is most comfortable.

The Functional Movement Screen contains several opportunities to observe contralateral limb relationships on land in a fairly primitive movement setting. Although the FMS does not test rotation ability, it does test the ability to RESIST rotation. Those who lack ankle and hip mobility often try to "fake" their way to a greater range of motion in these screens by injecting a rotary component. We might call it "losing balance" when someone has difficulty getting a full range of motion these screens, but the underlying cause is a lack of functional mobility in these basic movement patterns. If we lack the ability to decelerate our rotation on land in a sterile land-based environment, it will be hard to master the deceleration skills needed to stop one stroke and powerfully initiate the subsequent stroke.

Making Corrections

Correcting sling deficits is a whole topic unto itself. However, there’s nothing magic to these corrections if we use proper vigilance. What we SHOULDN’T do is feed any dysfunctional pattern with any dryland practices that foster the sling deficit. Sling deficits often evolve for the body to protect itself and throwing a bunch of "cool" looking exercises at someone who hasn’t mastered movement basics will only exacerbate compensations.

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