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

Using Feldenkrais rolling patterns to assess and improve long axis swimming rotational efficiency

What can Moshe Feldenkrais teach us about swimming? Quite a lot, as a matter of fact. Feldenkrais is best known for his contributions to the field of somatic reeducation in a therapeutic setting, but he also drew inspiration from his work as a physicist and as a pioneer in the practices of judo and jiu jitsu. His legacy exists in the modern athletic rehabilitation and performance fields in part through the practice of body rolling.

Rolling is fundamental to human movement, as the ability to roll comes before quadupedal movement (crawling) and all forms of bipedal movement (walking, jogging, running). Long axis swimming (freestyle and backstroke) is basically an applied body roll. As swimmers, we can improve our rotational ability in the water by first re-engaging with rolling patterns on land. We can define an authentic body roll as the natural rolling pattern executed by babies on a normal development progression before their movement abilities get corrupted by factors such as ineffective exercise habits, poor posture, or inactivity.

Below is a video demonstrating one basic rolling progression. Although the video contains only the right side, you should roll to both sides in practice. On each side of the body we’ll go through four variations (not necessarily in this order): arm leading while supine, arm leading while prone, leg leading while supine, leg leading while prone. An authentic roll consists of a gentle, eye, neck, head and torso rotation that pulls the rest of the body along. Babies perform an authentic roll without any conscious thought, but adults often require reeducation to perform this movement efficiently.

By observing rolling patterns on land, we can learn a great deal about rotational ability in the water. One characteristic of many dysfunctional rolling patterns is when the student lifts the head to power through the roll. We might also observe a breakdown in the grounded arm or leg as it tries to assist. Hmmm…head out of position, arms and legs breaking form….we’ve heard that around the pool before haven’t we? If you observe dysfunctional rolling in others or if you have dysfunction yourself, you’ll soon learn that many of the visual stroke flaws related to head, arm, or leg position are caused by something more fundamental than simply “poor technique.” If a swimmer has trouble rolling on land, we really can’t expect the rolling pattern to improve when we throw the swimmer in the water, remove oxygen at various intervals, and impose high levels of cardiovascular and muscular distress. However, some swimmers will have mastered the basic land-based roll but will still have persistent stroke flaws.


An assessment of rolling patterns on land is something the coach can use to determine whether stroke flaws are rooted in fundamental movement dysfunction or in sport specific motor learning. Unfortunately though, many swimmers will plateau because they treat certain stroke flaws as sport specific motor learning issues instead of fundamental movement issues. Although we are more likely to see adult swimmers disengaged from authentic rolling ability, kids also need assessment. Even kids who spend hours training in the pool can lose touch with the authentic rolling patterns they once owned as infants. The current generation lacks the “unstructured play” of previous generations and specializes in one sport at a much earlier age. The loss of movement ability comes largely from those aspects of everyday life such as poor posture at desks, hours in front of the TV, and many miles in the car that bastardize quality movement. Good swim coaches already possess a radar to detect obvious hormonal changes that occur through puberty. Fundamental movement assessments deserve the same vigilance.

One way that we (re)train rolling patterns work by giving your body a neuromuscular problem to solve. For the basic roll shown above, we put you on your back or stomach and it is up to you to figure out how to accomplish the roll efficiently. Improvement comes by training the movement pattern as whole, not by training the abs or the back through general “core” exercises. There is certainly a time for power core exercises, but until mastering a basic rolling pattern, adding power to rotation simply makes for more powerful inefficiency. As a baby, you earned the right to crawl only after mastering the roll and subsequently earned the right to walk only after learning how to crawl. Layering power core exercises like crunches or medicine ball throws on top of an ineffective fundamental rolling pattern is like painting the interior of your house by throwing buckets of paint against the wall. You’ll probably cover all the surface area of the wall, but you’ll use a lot more paint than you need and the end result can be quite messy.

Does this mean we need to back off swimming and intense training until mastering the roll? Of course not. Great rolling means little if you lose the basic feel for the water and the aerobic conditioning needed to support your stroke technique. However, until we reengage the patterns that we once owned as a baby, there is no reason to feed a dysfunctional pattern with power. Dryland conditioning should be used to restore the quality of the movement, not to add power to inefficiency.


Feldenkrais and Swimming

Thanks for this post, for a fun look at rolling, please look at Baby Liv if you haven't before. Todd Hargorve posted this sometime ago.

Baby Liv

@Stacy...Thank you.  The Baby Liv video is great, but I had forgotten his name.  Thanks for the reminder and glad you like the post.  

That really help us in my

That really help us in my training and on warm ups. It is the best exercise that I've encountered in my whole years in training. I've seen such in every boxing training just like marquez vs pacquiao as expected.

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