The Balance-Streamline-Propel (BSP) Pyramid is about as a close to a unifying icon that the Total Immersion school of swim coaching has in its repertoire. Terry Laughlin, the founder of Total Immersion Swimming, referred to the elements of the pyramid for over 30 years. When he created the icon several years ago, he gave coaches like me an invaluable teaching tool to help our swimmers make massive improvements in their swimming.
When you grasp the meaning of the pyramid, you can mentally create a strategic road map to becoming a better swimmer in 2020 and in the years beyond. The icon helps you put all the complexity of swimming technique into a small number of buckets to make it easier to understand. Let’s look the BSP pyramid in more detail.
BSP Pyramid – Layers
The BSP Pyramid represents an integrated, whole body approach to analyzing stroke mechanics. Rather than analyzing technique by looking at what the arms and legs are doing, BSP looks at three key sequential skills: Balance, Active Streamlining, and Propulsion. The layers of the Pyramid can be applied to all four competitive strokes, but we’ll define them for the freestyle or front crawl stroke below:
- BALANCE: Is the body horizontal from fingertips toes or are the legs sunk down and the body uphill? Is the posture a straight line or is it curved like a banana? The wider the tube that the body swims through the more drag you experience.
- STREAMLINE: Does the body reach full extension in a long, tall line or is the swimmer flat? Does the swimmer spend more time in tall, sleek postures and cut through a small hole in the water? Flatter, wider swimmers plow through the water like a barge and create excess drag.
- PROPEL: How much force can the swimmer generate using the arms and legs to propel the body forward? Does the swimmer time and coordinate these impulses to maximize propulsion? Poor shaping and overuse of the arms and legs can tire you out while generating minimal propulsion.
Understanding the individual layers is important, but there is a reason behind why the layers are ordered the way that they are. We look at the sequence next.
BSP Pyramid – Sequence
The order of the layers in the BSP Pyramid tells a coach or a swimmer much about which skills are most important and fundamental to stroke mechanics.
BALANCE: Balance is the non-negotiable skill of swimming technique. The first things I do as a coach is get the body into a balanced position. If the body is not level and supported by the water, the other two layers are rendered useless. For example, if a freestyle swimmer allows the legs to sink below the body line, she will not be able to fully extend and reach a long, sleek posture. Any propulsion created by the arms and legs will be used to push the body up rather than send the body forward. When breathing, the swimmer will always be fighting the sinking feeling and will get a poor breath that interrupts the stroke.
- STREAMLINE: If the body is flat and the not reaching full, streamlined extension, much of the propulsive force generated the pull and kick will be wasted fighting drag and resistance from the water. To simulate this situation, go to the pool and get into water slightly deeper than your waist. Walk straight forward and feel the resistance. Turn to the side, and walk side to side. You should feel the resistance drop when you turn to the side and move in sleeker body profile.
- PROPEL: While Propulsion is one of the essential three swimming skills, it’s at the top of the pyramid because the other two layers must be in place before focusing on this skill. The main reason is that the relationship between speed and drag is a “square” one. In other words, if you double your speed, resistance goes up by a factor of four; triple your speed and drag goes up by a factor of nine. We can see this effect when redoing our “pool walking” example from above. This time run straight forward and then turn to the side. You’ll still feel more resistance from the side but you will see a huge difference from the frontal approach; this exercise will help you feel the need to shape your vessel as you increase speed and propulsion. Managing and conserving energy is critical whether you are racing a 200 yard freestyle from a block, swimming an Olympic distance triathlon, or just finishing a half mile swim on your own. Make sure when you rev the engine, your car doesn’t have four flat tires and the hood up.
We now know how the different layers relate to one another. Our last step is to see how much improvements in each layer factor into efficiency and speed.
BSP Pyramid – Proportions
Finally, you can use the BSP Pyramid to understand what proportion each layer contributes to your stroke length, or how far you travel on each stroke. When we talk about a swimmer’s efficiency, we are really talking about is Stroke Length. For a given speed (slow, medium, or fast), a longer stroke length demonstrates that you are moving more efficiently through the water. Generally, swimmers with greater stroke length will swim faster than those with less efficient strokes. Returning to the layers of the pyramid, we can see how the proportions fall into place.
DRAG REDUCING SKILLS (Balance and Streamline): When you work on and improve your Balance and Streamlining skills, you are reducing the amount of drag that you experience in the water. As the legendary swim coach, Richard Quick, once quipped, “You travel further and faster by slowing down less on every stroke.”
- ENERGY CREATING SKILLS (Propel): Force generated using the arm pull or the kick obviously contribute to the distance traveled on each stroke. No force, no movement. The better you can shape your arm stroke, the more power you can generate on your kick, the better you time your propulsion, the further you will travel.
While Drag Reducing and Energy Creating Skills both contribute stroke length, it’s the proportion that you need to keep in mind. Biomechanics expert, Bill Boomer, estimates that 70% of Stroke Length improvements come from the Reducing Skills and only 30% from the Creating Skills. If you are new swimmer looking to improve your stroke and efficiency, where should you spend most of your time? Reducing Skills. If you are a strong swimmer looking to drop your time, work on maintaining your Reducing Skills at faster speeds or longer distances as you add more propulsion and energy.
Takeaways for the Improvement-Minded Swimmer
Here are three things you can take away when trying to improve you stroke(s) in 2020 and beyond:
- Start at the Foundation with Balance: Make sure you are balanced when swimming and maintain balance when you breathe. Have a coach or a friend videotape you underwater so you can see what you balance looks like. Fix this skill first. If you are getting exhausted when you swim, odds are you out of balance and are fighting the tendency for your body to sink or tip in the water.
- Work on Timing Your Movements: Building a stronger and more effective arm stroke or your kick can take years. First start by working on timing and coordinating the movements of your arms, body, legs, and breathing. Taking whatever strength or fitness you have but timing the propulsion to when you are in a low drag position can make massive improvements in your time and enjoyment of swimming. As you work more on your arm stroke and your kick, you will be doing so in the context of correctly coordinated movements.
- Count Your Strokes: While stroke counting isn’t a perfect indicator of efficiency, it’s a pretty good one. Freestylers and Backstrokers should count every time a hand enters the water; Butterflyers and Breaststrokers should count every time every the arms return to the front. In a 25 yard pool with a 5 yard push off, an efficient freestyle swimmer between 5′ and 5’8″ tall should take between 16-20 strokes and taller swimmers should take between 14-18 strokes, depending on the speed. If your count is higher than this range, don’t try to get it down in one week with strain and gliding. Work on two things: consistency and trend. Be consistent within your practice by 2-3 strokes or better. Work on your technique to lower the count over time.
You can get lost these days looking for advice or strategy on the Internet. The BSP Pyramid is a powerful tool to help you put all of this information in its place and prioritize the advice.