EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR ENDURANCE ATHLETES

Swim-strength training: don’t be left high and dry!

James Marshall looks at strength training for swimmers, and explains why there’s more to it than meets the eye…

Most serious swimmers and triathletes follow highly detailed training plans for their swimming sessions. This includes common principles of training such as progression, recovery, adaptation and tapering for competitions. Unfortunately, in my experience, very few apply those same principles to ‘dry-land training’. Instead, a mixed bag of exercises and equipment is used, and transfer of any results to the water is often optimistic at best.

Dry-land training for swimmers is a catch-all term for any exercise that takes place out of the water. This covers a vast array of activities including: running, climbing, cycling, rowing, yoga and Pilates. It also covers a myriad of resistance-training methods and equipment including machine weights, free weights, medicine balls, resistance tubing and circuit training to name a few.

In this article we will look at some recent research highlighting what kinds of dry-land training can be performed, as well as review some best practice from swimming coaches who have implemented structured programmes. We’ll also investigate how much transfer takes place from dry-land to in-water performance, and how to maximise this transfer for maximum swimming gains!

Why dry-land training?

There are two main reasons why swimmers invest time and effort into dry-land training. The first is to work on areas that are difficult to improve upon in the pool. This includes fitness components such as leg power, maximal strength and flexibility. Also, swimming pool time is limited for many clubs, especially with junior swimmers. Dry-land training then is a practical and affordable way of doing more work.

Some swimming coaches prescribe other endurance activities such as running, rowing or cycling to improve their swimmers’ endurance. Whilst this has its place in an off-season programme to add variety, fun and a change of stimulus, adding it in season is a potential source of overtraining(1).

Unfortunately, the term ‘dry-land training’ has become so all-encompassing that when pencilled into the programme, it is often just written down as “dry-land training – 30 minutes”. This could mean any number of activities but a lack of clear purpose can leads to a lack of proper planning (see case study). Some swimmers and swimming coaches have described their dry-land training to me as “using medicine balls” or “kettlebell work”, but this is simply telling me what type of equipment they use, rather than a training methodology!

Case study: the need for targeted dry-land training

One facility that I worked with prided itself on its 50-metre pool and Olympic swimming coaches. However the dry-land training was not targeted at improving swimming performance. One 3-week period of dry-land training consisted of a 1-week where all the swimmers aged 13-18 ran 400m round a track, attempting to do 50 press ups, a process that was repeated for 30 minutes. The following week they were on the climbing wall, and the week after that they were sat on rowing machines for 30 minutes. The non-swimming injuries mounted up as this went on. This was in stark comparison to the Carmel Swim Club in the USA, where each age group has set modules of training, with swimming-specific exercises that are developed over time(2). The head coach has a good understanding of long-term athletic development, and has structured his dry-land training to reflect this.

Does dry-land training transfer to the water?

Swimming has some unique characteristics that separate it from most other sports. They are as follows:

  1. It is done in the prone position.
  2. There is simultaneous use of arms and legs for propulsion.
  3. There is water immersion, which creates hydrostatic pressure on thorax and controlled respiration.
  4. The propulsive forces are applied against a fluctuant element – ie the water against which you apply force is moving too.
  5. There is minimal influence of equipment on performance(3).

The result of these characteristics is that unless the dry-land training is very specific, it won’t transfer to performance gains in the water. Swimming is actually a very specialist activity, and transfer from dry-land to the water is less easy than transfer from running to football for example. What might look like swimming – eg lying on a bench using pulleys – is very different in terms of movement and muscle recruitment patterns from actual swimming. In particular, the sensory feel of the water, plus the fact that the water moves when pushed against, means that coordination activities on a bench have minimal transfer to the water(4).

So, if coordination (technique) training has little transfer, why should you do any dry-land training? Well, many swim coaches now realise that some swimmers are do not possess the necessary athletic readiness required to execute their techniques properly(2,5). In a study reviewing swimming injuries published last year, researchers described this lack of athletic readiness in the form of decreased shoulder strength, limited core endurance, lack of flexibility in the shoulders and pectoral (chest) muscles. They also concluded that just specialising in swimming led to higher injury rates(6).

It should be mentioned here that many of the injuries in this review were identified as overuse injuries, from either an excessive training load (elite swimmers age swimming 35,000 or more meters per week were 4 times more likely to have supraspinatus tendinopathy than swimmers completing less yardage) or too much time doing kicking drills using kickboards, with shoulders in a bad position(7).

This provides a good example of the limitations of dry-land training; shoulder pain and incorrect kickboard use has been identified as a problem for over 25 years, and is still a common occurrence in swimmers(8,9). Although dry-land training can improve resilience and athletic readiness, it is much easier and more effective to address the cause of kickboard-induced shoulder pain by correcting shoulder position in the water.

When it comes to performance enhancement such as speed, evidence does suggest that strength exercises using heavier weights may be helpful. One study found that 1-5 repetitions of maximal-effort cable pulldowns produced benefits(3). However, there has been limited research in this area, and some of the results from studies are hard to interpret due to the many different variants of exercise being used. But as we’ve stated, simply performing the same exercises used in other sports – eg squats, bench press and cleans – is unlikely to transfer to the water for the reasons given above.

Weighted pull ups are used by one successful swim coach, with a wide grip being preferred for breaststroke and butterfly, and a narrow grip for freestyle and backstroke(10). His rationale is that swimming is a ‘power-endurance’ sport, and most swimmers falter because they are unable to continue to produce force when tired. He also highlighted the force production differences between running and swimming; runners need a minimal contact time with the ground, while swimmers need much more contact time with the water.

This may explain why some studies have found better results when resisted swimming are used – ie the use of paddles or perforated bowls to help provide resistance to the stroke(11). The resistance used however must be enough to increase the time of the relative push and pull parts of the stroke, but without altering the form of the stroke.

Sample dry-land training plan for swimmers and triathletes 

This is a beginner-stage plan consisting of postural and strengthening work. The postural work can be done before every session while the strength training should be performed 2-3 times per week.

Postural exercises (to counter the repeated internal rotations experienced in swimming)

 *Warm Up: Bear crawl forward, backwards and sideways. Do 5 metres in each direction to start.

*Prone series (all done starting in the press up position):

  • Lift 1 leg, then the other, then 1 arm, then the other off the floor. Try to reach to an imaginary wall in front of you or behind you, whilst keeping an imaginary glass of water stable on your back. Do this twice each limb.
  • As you get more stable, lift opposite hand and foot off the floor simultaneously.
  • Touch your left foot with your right hand underneath your body then repeat on the other side. Do 5 times each side.
  • Arm reaches -lift the right hand off the floor and move under left arm, trying to place the right elbow just outside the left hand, repeat with left hand to the right. Do 5 times each side.
  • Reach 1 leg underneath the body at a right angle as far as possible – the side of the whole leg should be nearly touching the floor. Repeat on other side, and do 5 times each side.

 *Standing exercises

  • Pelvic tilts against the wall – stand with back, head and bum against a wall, feet about 10cm in front of the wall. Bring your elbows level with shoulders against the wall. Tilt your pelvis so that your lower back presses against the wall. The best way to learn this is with a partner who places their hand in the gap between the wall and your lower back. You then try and press their hand into the wall. Do 5 repeats (hard to do for many people when forced to keep everything against the wall!).
  • Progression – the same as above, but with hands directly above your head and pushing as far to the ceiling as you can.
  • Hanging twists – hang from a pull up bar, feet off the floor, knees slightly bent. Keeping knees together, rotate the knees as far to the right and then left as possible. Make sure you continue to fully hang from the bar; it is a common mistake to bend the arms slightly.
  • Single leg squats (good for promoting balance when on the start platform for dives) – stand on one leg and sit down as far as you can go whilst keeping whole foot on the floor and hips level. Progression for depth is dependent on the quality of the movement. Do 5 repeats for each leg.
  • Side sleeper stretch (can be done before training or afterwards) – lie on your right side with upper right arm at right angles to your body, right hand pointing to the ceiling. Use your left hand to gently pull the right forearm down towards the ground. Hold for 15-30 seconds, relax and repeat. Then repeat with the left arm.

Strength training (to be done less frequently, 2-3 times per week) (This will require some equipment, but a pull up bar, or roof girder should be simple to find.)

*Walking medicine ball exercises. Only use a light ball 2-3kg is plenty for developmental swimmers. Start with 5 reps each side then progress to 10 reps. Each exercise is done standing still first, then walking forwards for 10 metres and backwards for 10 metres.

  • Side to side – move the medicine ball as far to each side of the body as possible, while keeping level with your chest.
  • Loops – make as big as loop as you can with the ball moving from above your head to below your knees.
  • Figure of eights – start with the ball high above your left shoulder, bring it down to the outside of your right knee, then high above your right shoulder and then down to the outside of your left knee.

*Pull ups: Always done with an overhand grip and from a full hang. Beginners will find even one hard to do, so to start with, you can hang straps from the bar and do inverted rows.

  • Inverted rows (see figure 1) – keep both feet on the floor (or a stability ball), knees bent, with arms fully straight hanging from the straps. Keeping your body straight, pull up until your chest is touching your hands on the straps. Progression is to go from bent legs to straight legs. 5 reps to start, then progress up until you can do 3 sets of 20 reps.
  • Full pull ups: Getting the first one done correctly is the hardest, then progressing until you can do 10. Once you can do 10 with a full hang, you can start to add weight. This can be with either a weights vest a belt, or holding a med ball or dumbbell between your knees (see figure 2). Aim for 5 sets of 5 reps, with a 2-minute rest between sets. Use a wide grip for butterfly and breast stroke, narrow grip for freestyle/ back stroke. In the rest period you can do single leg squats, or postural exercises.

 

Figure 1: Inverted rows (straight legs)

Top image shows start position; bottom image shows finish. Swiss stability ball is used under the feet for added core muscle activation.

Figure 2: Weighted pull ups (wide grip)

 

 Putting it together

If you want the dry-land training to maximally improve your performance, it must be integrated into your swimming whole programme. Where possible, it is best to have a swim session immediately after the strength training, because this will help your muscles to apply the learning and coordination in the water(10). This swim session should be more technical, allowing you to feel the stroke, for example by using paddles.

The postural work and co-ordination dry-land training can be done before every other swim session, as long as the exercises are progressed over time. Just doing ‘circuits’ will only serve to make you tired, and will lead to a poorer quality swim sessions. Remember too that this programme is a starting point for you. Start off safely and progress from there.

References

  1. Counsilman, J.E. The Science of Swimming: Pelham Books: London (1972)
  2. ASCA Newsletter (Nov) p1-11 (2015)
  3. Sports Med. 42(6):527-43 (2012)
  4. Bosch, F. Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach.2010 Publishers: Rotterdam (2015)
  5. American Swimming Issue 1 p16-32 (2012)
  6. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation 24, p353 -362 (2015)
  7. Br J Sports Med. 44(2) p105–113 (2010)
  8. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 23(3) p371–377 (1991)
  9. Phys Sportsmed. 33(9) p27–35 (2005)
  10. Personal communication June 19th 2013 Nick Folker, Cal Golden Bears
  11. Inquiries in Sport & Physical Education Volume 8 (1) p91 – 98 (2010)

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