In the quest for performance, swimmers typically cover thousands of meters in the pool (and I've still not worked out why 4km in the pool is a sensible distance for shorter distance events) with nothing more interesting to do than look at the ceiling or bottom of the pool. But according I'm going to show you how a properly designed land-based strength and conditioning program is essential too, and simple circuits on the poolside are not enough…
Land work for swimmers is becoming increasingly popular, although it is by no means a new concept. Researchers and swim coaches have been expounding the virtues of ‘land based’ training since the late 1970’s (1,2,3,4,5,6 )However, many ‘land based’ training programmes that I come across simply don’t hit the mark when it comes producing a really positive impact on performance.
Most coaches pay lip service to strength training by simply ‘bolting on’ a circuit session at the end of one of their pool sessions. Although well intentioned, they try and cover everything from injury prevention and rehab through to power development in one 30-minute training session a week. This is better than nothing and can be a good starting point. However, the purpose of this article is to provide you with an overview of some of the key strength and power development strategies that coaches and swimmers can implement to get maximum bang for their buck.
Sport specific vs. transfer of training effect
Before we discuss the areas that can have the largest impact on swim performance, we need to clear a couple of points up. Sport specific work is the best way to get better at that sport; if you want to be a better swimmer, then swim! But how can you make additional gains when you have maximised your swim time? One way is to add ‘land based’ training. However, the big problem is that coaches often fall into the trap of being ‘sport specific’ when designing their strength training programmes.
The main problem with developing exercises that are really sport specific is that you may be in danger of harming the one thing that you want to improve – swimming technique and performance. For example, an ambitious young coach that I once worked with had developed some sport specific drills replicating the swim strokes in the gym – so much so that he even set a metronome to the exact stroke rate used by the swimmer in the pool to perform each repetition of the strength exercise!
But by getting so close to the actual movement pattern in the gym, you may actually start to interfere with the neural patterns being laid down during swim training and actually make the swim stroke worse. If you want swim specific strength therefore, do it in the pool. Research supports the use of resistance devices in the pool such as the use of a tether, or rope with a sponge attached etc(7). But just lying on a bench in a gym trying to replicate your freestyle stroke to the sound of a metronome is wasting time and effort. What you should actually be thinking about is the ‘transfer of training effect’ – ie what exercises can I perform that will have transfer over to improved performance in the pool?
Where can the strength coach make a difference in the pool?
Research shows that decreases in swimming speed throughout a race are the result of decreases in the power-producing capacity of the swimmer (fatigue) and swim performance(8). However, whilst this is an important area to consider when developing a swimming strength training programme, my experience working with elite swimmers indicates that there are two main areas that strength and conditioning coaches should focus on – starts and turns.
The training methodology here will not only improve your swimmers explosive power so that they can get off the blocks at the start of the race and explode off the wall at every turn, it will also have a positive impact on power production during the actual stroke, as well as injury prevention and rehabilitation. Research carried out in the former Soviet Eastern Block confirms that explosive strength is vital for the swimmers seeking a fast starting take-off, and strong push-offs with the legs on the turns(9).
(if you start right….)
How do we improve strength and explosive power?
Almost all muscles are used in swimming, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. This is exactly how you need to develop the strength and power required to get off the blocks and out of the turns as quickly as possible. Isolation exercises are a waste of time, because this is not how the body works. Box 1 below provides just four exercises that all help develop explosive starts and turns.
You will note that all of these lifts are bilateral. I’ve assumed that you will have already developed appropriate levels of unilateral strength before embarking on these more advanced techniques. If you adopt the increasingly fashionable track start for getting of the block then you will want to include several unilateral versions of the lifts described in this section to increase the transfer of training effect.
Squat (front or back, overhead)
While there are many variations, the basic squat is the foundation for nearly every functional movement involved in developing the all-important ‘triple extension’ required for fast starts and quick turns. Not only do you get all of the benefits of the more traditional back squat but you also start to train the recovery phase of the power clean (another core lift for developing explosive power).
Another great exercise for developing the strength needed to go from a ‘dead’ start, as well as being the start point for the key Olympic lifts such as the power clean. Deadlifts are a simple exercise really, made difficult by over-trying and over-thinking:
The jump squat is a great exercise in its own right, but can also be used with a conventional squat as part of a squat ‘complex’ or ‘superset’ (ie perform a set of squats then with minimal rest, perform a set of jumps squats). Using complexes allows you to develop the strength qualities of the lower body using the squat and then exploit the explosive properties of the lower limb using the explosive squat. You can use bodyweight or external loads (barbell/dumbbells), just make sure you don’t compromise technique for load.
This is an advanced lift and requires great hip/hamstring flexibility and the ability to maintain normal spinal curvature. It’s an excellent choice for developing the swimmers posterior chain.
We can’t talk about explosive power development for swimming without discussing the Olympic lifts. A lot has been said about the efficacy of the Olympic Lifts (clean, jerk and snatch), and whether or not they have a role to play in the development of sport specific power.
I like to use these lifts with swimmers, but they are advanced lifts. If you are not confident in the coaching of these advanced lifts you will still be able to develop power using the four lifts outlined earlier in. They are important lifts for developing triple extension but it is important to realise that they are not the be all and end all.
Simply having a collection of exercises that you can use as a coach to develop your swimmers strength and power is a bit like having a recipe and only knowing the ingredients. What you need to know is how to put it all together – how much of each ingredient should you use, in what order and for how long.
The key thing to remember when putting together a strength program for a swimmer is that it is not your job as the strength and conditioning coach to overload the swimmer with even higher volumes of training. Your swimmers’ strength programs should focus on developing strength and explosive power, which means, high intensity and low volume training. Box 2 (below) shows how these exercises can be combined:
Programme Design Principles
When developing strength and power, your swimmers should be working low reps, which means they will be able to use more sets. You should be looking at no more than 20 sets per training session, which limits swimmers to around 4-7 exercises per training session (that’s why you need to pick exercises that are whole body to give you maximum impact). Remember you are not ‘isolating’ muscles, so there should not be lots and lots of exercises in this type of programme.
Your swimmers will be working within the 1-8 rep range. If they are developing ‘absolute’ strength they will work at the top end of the rep range (between 5-8 reps). To improve their relative strength, they will need to be working at the bottom end of the rep range (between 1-4 reps). The total number of reps for a session will be between 12-100 reps.
Strength and power development is intense. The very nature of this type of training requires greater recovery periods for the musculoskeletal and neural systems. Anything from 2-5 minutes recovery between sets is acceptable.
Most programmes I see begin and end with the above three programming principles. A lot of coaches neglect the importance of lifting tempo. For muscles to develop strength, they need to spend time under tension (TUT). Tempo is simply a method that good coaches use to adjust the duration of the rep (ie TUT).
It is typically written as a three digit formula: Eccentric: Isometric pause: Concentric. When it comes to strength development the TUT for a lift may look like 2 0 1 (3 second lift with a longer eccentric phase, no pause and a quick concentric phase. If performing an explosive movement you may simply use an ‘X’ to indicate that the exercise is performed as quickly as possible.
Is the use of tempo necessary? Some will argue that it over complicates the programme, but my argument is that at the very least it informs the coach and swimmer how you want the reps to be completed. There is a huge difference in training effect if you complete a squat with an X 0 1 tempo compared to a 3 2 3 tempo. The first will develop explosive strength; the second will develop control and stability!
As a coach you need to start thinking about how dry land training can influence swim performance, decide on the exercises you are going to use to develop the appropriate strength and power qualities, before finally putting it all together using the training principles outlined in this article. Circuit based training sessions still have a place in the overall swimming programme, but you should be thinking about incorporating some of the lifts outlined in this article into a specific strength and power training session.
1. NSCA J; 1 (3): 8–11, 1979
2. NSCA J; 3 (5): 36–46, 1981
3. NSCA J; 2 (1): 24–26, 1980
4. NSCA J; 6 (2): 48–51, 1984
5. NSCA J; 9 (3): 38–41, 1987
6. J Strength Conditioning Research; 8 (4): 209–213, 1994
7. J Strength & Conditioning Research; 20 (3): 547–554, 2006
8. Med & Sci in Sports & Exer; Sept 38 (9). 1635-1642, 2006
9. NSCA J; 8 (2): 56–57, 1986