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Slim & Darrel

(or Faster Flip Turns for the Masses)

Revised from an article which first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1990.

Possibly the most common area in which Masters swimmers can make major improvements is the freestyle flip turn. Understanding the mechanics of the flip turn can help you make drastic improvements in turning speed. See Tip 1

Meet Slim and Darrel

What we are attempting to accomplish is the rapid transition of body position from moving in one direction to moving in the opposite direction in a minimum amount of time, without loss of speed and while using the smallest amount of energy possible. To illustrate this I scratched out a couple of rudimentary drawings on a napkin and included them further down the page.

In Fig. 1a we see a swimmer (his name is Slim) approaching the wall an instant after having completed the final stroke in the length. Since Slim is a model swimmer he has done as his coach instructs and accelerated his last stroke into the wall. Slim's slower brother, Darrel (in Fig. 2a) also approaches the wall in the same manner except that he has been gliding for about five feet. See Tip 2

Critical Success Factor #1

In Figs.1b, 1c & 1d we see Slim executes a strong and nearly complete curved back pike (almost like doing a toe-touch sit-up). The speed of the turn will be determined by how strong and fast this pike is. Notice in 1c that, even though Slim’s upper body is three quarters finished with the turn, the lower body is still gliding toward the wall on the surface of the water and the feet have just barely started to rise from the surface. Darrel, on the other hand, does only a partial sit-up and uses his arms out to the sides to try to pull the body around. Unfortunately, as soon as he does this he changes the axis of rotation from the hips, near the center of gravity, to the shoulders, far away from the center of gravity.

Figure 1.
Figure 2.
Slim Darrel


Critical Success Factor #2

In Figs.1c, 1d & 1e we see that, as Slim’s hips are still moving toward the wall, he has picked up his heels by bending at the knees. This action of picking up his heels is the only large muscular movement he will use to get his legs over the top of the water. He does not “throw” his legs at the wall (as his slower brother Darrel does). Instead, he allows momentum to carry the legs over the surface. Think back to your high school physics. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and for every force there is an equal and opposite force. Darrel, instead of just picking up his heels, “throws” his legs up and over the surface at the wall using large, strong back muscles to exert enough force to open or extend his body at the hip joint. The equal and opposite reaction to throwing the legs over the surface is enough to push the upper body back down deeper into the water. The harder he throws his legs, the deeper his upper body sinks. Slim, by not forcing the legs over, has been able to maintain a good upper body position near to and almost parallel with the surface of the water.


In Fig.1f we see that Slim's feet are just about to enter the water. If you'll follow the line of motion of the feet from Fig.1e thru Fig.1g you will see that the feet are moving toward the wall faster than they are moving down toward the water surface. Now do the same with Darrel's turn. Who do you think will make the bigger splash?

Critical Success Factor #3

In Fig.1g Slim's feet have just contacted the wall. Note the position he is in: flat on his back, partially crouched position, upper body is fully streamlined with head firmly squeezed between his upper arms. A closer look will show that, at the moment of contact with the wall, he has already begun to extend his legs. Instead of firmly planting his feet on the wall and crouching while waiting for his upper body to drift back up from the depths of Mordor (as Darrel is doing at this point in Fig.2e) Slim is already “jumping” off of the wall (in fact the amount of time he spends on the wall is extremely short — on the order of 5 tenths of a second or less where Darrel may spend as much as 2 seconds in contact with the wall). See Tip3

In Fig.1h Slim has just exploded off the wall with complete confidence that he is heading in a straight line, 8" to 12" under the surface. Actually, when he pushes off the wall he twists his body slightly so that he will sort of “corkscrew” through the water and end up on his side/stomach as he takes his first stroke. A little later Darrel also pushes off the wall but, being poorly streamlined (because he was impatient to have a fast turn and pushed off before his upper body could drift back up all of the way), he will follow a decidedly circuitous route to the surface. SeeTip 4

Details to go with the Critical Success Factors

  • The completeness of the initial pike or “sit up” is determined by three things: 1) the force with which you apply the abdominal muscles to this motion, 2) the flexibility of your entire back and 3) the flexibility of your hamstrings (sit on the floor and touch your toes while keeping your legs flat on the floor — you will see why hamstring flexibility is important in the flip—turn).

  • The momentum that the legs have to roll over the top will be determined by body speed and acceleration of the last stroke.

  • One of the reasons that Slim's turn is so fast is that he can get his legs over the water much more quickly by rotating with his body parts much closer to the axis of rotation than Darrel does. Think of an ice skater that spins slowly with arms and one leg spread out. Then she pulls them in and wraps them tightly around her body as she begins to spin at two or three or more times her original speed. She doesn't exert any more rotational force — she just pulls in body parts closer to the axis of her turn.

  • Note that, in Slim's turn, the hips (and center of gravity) continue to travel toward the wall until the point of foot contact. In Darrel's turn the hips stop moving forward and begin to sink as soon as he puts his hands out to the side — 2b&c.

  • The amount of splash in Slim's turn is minimal. This is due to the feet and calves entering the water through a single hole while moving toward the wall faster than they are moving down. Some might say that it's just because Slim is so skinny that he couldn't make a splash if he wanted to. Not so! His other brother, Darell (not pictured) is huge and still has a picture perfect turn with virtually no splash. Next time you have to count a 1650 for someone renowned for tsunami turns, let him read this first.

  • After contact with the wall, many people make the mistake of crouching too deeply on the wall prior to pushing off. A good way to determine exactly how much knee bend you should have immediately prior to launching yourself is to stand up on dry land and pretend that you are about to jump up as high as you can, crouching down to what feels like the optimum take off point. Note the angle of your knee joints. Now crouch down as low as you can and then stand up forcefully from that position (if you can) and note that, from the low point up to your optimum point, you exert lots of energy but not much speed. From the optimum point on up you take off like a rocket. Apply this observation to your turns.

Once you have attained a high level of proficiency with this turn you can try a couple of variations that will speed up the turn even more. Try starting the curved back pike as, instead of after, you are finishing the final arm stroke. You will find this allows your legs to come over even more rapidly than before. Also, you can try a quarter twist of the body as the feet come over the surface (but only after the turn has been mastered and only to the extent that you do not carry more water over with them) so as to reduce the amount of “corkscrew” necessary upon exploding off the wall. Alas, most people try to put way too much twist in the turn and do it long before they’ve mastered a straight-over flip. If in doubt don’t add any twist at all.

A note about Darrel's turn: This is not the quintessential “bad turn.” I couldn't begin to include all of the nuances of poor turning technique with stick figures (which are just about the limit of my artistic ability). Darrel's turn has just some of the major flaws that are seen regularly at the walls.

Nearing the end

In conclusion, every coach will have a slightly different way he or she wants you to think about your turns but, suffice it to say that, if you are fighting the water, if your hips stop moving toward the wall before your feet hit, if you are using your hands out to the sides to help your body flip over, if there is much splash or you find yourself having to correct your line of flight right after leaving the wall, then you are straying from the original philosophy of rapid transition of body motion from one direction to the opposite direction in a minimum amount of time, without loss of speed while using the smallest amount of energy possible.

Get with your coach and get an analysis of your turn. v

Tip 1

You should be able to properly and smoothly execute a flip turn very slowly without “losing your balance” or sinking much deeper than your full speed turns — if not, chances are that you are fighting both the water and gravity and need to make changes.

Tip 2

Accelerating the last stroke into the flip turn will provide the extra momentum necessary to help the feet and legs snap over crisply to the wall with little or no effort on your part. Decelerating (gliding) into the turn will have the opposite effect.

Tip 3

The timing of an average, amateur flip turn can be described as “Flip - Plant (the feet) - Push.” There are three distinct parts to the turn and a definite time lag between when the feet touch the wall and when they leave it. The timing of a semi-professional flip turn can be described as “Fli-Push.” There is minimal contact time with the wall. There is no “planting” of the feet on the wall. The timing of a highly paid professional turn is more like “FLEXPLODE.” Elite swimmers appear to hit the wall and leave it at the same instant — like a golf ball bouncing on hard pavement. How would you describe your flip turn timing?

Tip 4

As the speed of your turn increases, the value of a good streamline position increases. Taking advantage of extra velocity off the wall by streamlining properly can allow you to glide longer at a speed greater than your swimming speed. The longer you can maintain this speed the more likely you are to take strokes off your lap. See the articles "Assume the Position" and "Passing the Oafs" and "Rowdyness & Ignominy" to learn more about reaping the full benefit of you new, faster flip turns.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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