“You have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” as Coach Dave Salo (Former University of California Men’s & Women’s Coach & 2010 American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame Inductee) would yell at my teammates and I at the end of a grueling practice as he watched us starting to slow down as if we were swimming in molasses. Huffing and puffing as we would come into the wall, as some of us watched our lunch from earlier in the day project out of our noses & mouth and into the gutter. This is a common theme for a competitive swimmer after indulging in an hour of intense strength & conditioning training (also known as dryland) followed by a challenging two hours of practice in the pool. Not to mention the two-hour practice that started at 5 am we had earlier that morning before the start of school.
Several aspects separate swimming from most other sports, such as (i) the prone position; (ii) simultaneous use of arms and legs for propulsion; (iii) water immersion (i.e., hydrostatic pressure on the thorax and controlled respiration); (iv) propulsive forces that are applied against a fluctuant element; and (v) minimal influence of equipment on performance. Competitive swimmers are suggested to have specific anthropometrical features compared with other athletes but depend on physiological adaptations to enhance their performance. Swimmers thus engage in large volumes of training in the pool and on dry land. Strength training of various forms is widely used, and the energetic systems are addressed by aerobic and anaerobic swimming training. (1)
Demands of Swimming
If you have tried swimming 25 yards all out? If you have, you probably learned quickly that swimming is a full-body sport requiring the coordinated activation of muscles in the legs, the core, and the upper body with every stroke. (2) A slight breakdown in any area can have a negative consequence, resulting in injury and poor performance. Strength training will help build core stability and develop coordination between the body segments that will help reduce drag while improving propulsion.
Because swimming is a non-weight-bearing sport, the legs do not take a pounding like they do in other sports. The repetitive nature of the swimming stroke can lead to overuse injuries, such as shoulder and knee injuries, which is familiar to a breaststroker (my bread & butter). Strength training can address strength and flexibility imbalances and help reduce the risk of injury.
Swimming places unique demands on the body’s core, unlike any land-based sport. It would be best to generate propulsion by pressing against a fluid surface. To do that, you must be even stronger and more stable through the core than other athletes. With strength training and specific exercises done in the water, you can improve your feel for the water and your stroking, kick power, and efficiency.
Importance of Strength & Conditioning for Swimmers
If you look around the world of competitive swimming, all top swimmers engage in some strength training. Even if you look around USA Swimming, most of the club’s teams, if not all of them, have implemented some strength & conditioning, starting with their age group swimmers (Ages 10 and under/11-13 years old) and up to their senior level swimmers (Typically Ages 14-18).
I started my strength & conditioning journey at the age of 10. It’s not what most would picture when thinking of “strength and conditioning.” This was a combination of Yoga & Pilates mixed in with some body weight, core, and resistance band training. Once I turned 13 years old, I began my actual strength journey, as I would meet with a personal trainer 2-3 times a week before my swim practice, which continued until I left for college. I witnessed firsthand the benefits of strength exercise outside the pool.
Two Main Reasons Strength & Conditioning Are Important for Swimmers
There are two main reasons coaches have implemented a strength & conditioning regimen into their program, starting at a young age. The first is that it can help prevent injuries. The most common injury you will see in swimming are shoulder injuries. The second reason is that it can help enhance performance. Swimming requires a combination of balance, endurance, and power. Strength training can help develop these attributes and improve your in-water performance. (2)
Efficiency is Key
The key ingredient to being a successful swimmer is “efficiency.” Swimming across the pool with the fastest stroke rate tempo but doing it in the least number of strokes, exerting the least amount of energy while doing this in the quickest time possible. I know it sounds like a lot because it is. This is ultimately the end-all-be-all-end goal you are trying to achieve & master as a competitive swimmer. Five key ingredients can help one achieve this master goal of competitive swimming. Unfortunately, one of them you don’t have much control of (aka #5- Body type & shape)
- Stroke Technique
- Strength, power, and flexibility
- Body position & streamlining in the water
- Level of fitness
- Body type & shape
The Kinetic Chain
What is “The Kinetic Chain”? The body is set up in a series of links called “The Kinetic Chain.” Most individuals think of the body as a set of induvial segments that do not interact or influence each other. Your shoulders generate propulsion during your pull; your legs help with the kick; the torso helps assist with the body rotation, and so on. These segments are linked together, like a chain link. One part of the body is influenced by what Is happening in the other parts of the body. (2)
The force you can generate from your pull is affected by your leg strength and the effectiveness of your kick. This can directly affect your core stability, the ability to maintain a streamlined body position, and the strength in the upper back muscles that helps stabilize the shoulder blades. With a solid kinetic chain, the forces are shared among the various muscle groups throughout the body, and power can flow from one segment to another. (2)
Any weakness in the kinetic chain can place significant stress on the other body parts and can quickly lead to injury. Generally, someone develops tendinitis in their shoulders due to their weak rotator cuff, having poor core stability, or having an asymmetry in their stroke that requires the injured shoulder to do more work than it should. (2)
Simple Guideline to Keep In-Mind
There is one crucial thing to remember when trying to design a strength program outside of the pool that can help make you become a better swimmer in the water. It’s easy to go into the weight room and focus on only doing bicep curls and bench press. As much as we want to make our chest and arms look bigger and better in a T-shirt, little value is gained toward swimming success. It’s essential to emphasize those muscles involved explicitly in moving the body through the water and should be trained for increased strength. When training, a simple guideline is to lift or move weights like those movements performed during swimming.
Each of the four strokes (Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke, Freestyle) involves different muscles and parts of the body that will help you move through the water. Since Freestyle is the most common stroke, I’ve decided to minimize the exercises strictly to this stroke.
6 Exercises Outside the Pool to Make You a Stronger Swimmer
1. Shoulder Retraction w/ External Rotation
- With a light resistance band (If using Theraband, use yellow or red), stand tall feet hip-width distance apart (You can also do this exercise seated). Bend your elbows to 90 degrees by your sides, holding your resistance band slightly narrower than shoulder width. Hold the bar, so your thumbs are pointing up, keeping your wrist in line with your forearms so you’re not bending your wrist.
- Rotate your arms outwards by squeezing your shoulder blades together, keeping your abdominals engaged.
- Slowly and with control, return to the starting position.
- Keep Shoulder Blades squeezing/pinching together and down.
- Resist the band and return them slowly and in control.
- Keep elbows in at your sides, not letting elbows flare out.
2. Lunge w/ Rotation
- Start in a standing position with feet hip-width distance apart and arms bent at your side.
- Lunge forward with the right foot putting your weight in that right heel, making sure the knee stays behind the toes as the back leg is on the ball of the feet with the heel off the ground and the chest is up with the back being flat.
- Once in the lunge position, rotate to the right and left side with control.
- Once done rotating, press off the heel back to the standing position.
- Then repeat with the other leg.
3. Back Extension w/ Rotation
- Lie face down on a mat with hands beside the head.
- Engage core and lift.
- Twist one elbow to the ground and rotate the torso.
- Return to the center and twist to the opposite side. Repeat.
- Start by standing directly below a pull-up bar. Place your hands in an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) with your hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar from standing on the floor, you can place a box beneath you and stand on that. Once your hands are holding onto the bar, you’re in your starting position.
- Inhale, then exhale. Lift your feet from the floor or box so you’re hanging from the bar and engage your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Pull your shoulders back and down.
- Engaging the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and raise your upper body toward the bar until your chin is over the bar. You can imagine bringing your elbows toward your hips if that makes the movement easier. Avoid swinging your legs around or shrugging your shoulders up as you move. You want to ensure your shoulder blades remain back and down throughout the exercise.
- At the top of the movement, inhale. Then extend your elbows and lower your body to the starting position.
5. Reverse Fly
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells at your sides. Press the hips back in a hinge motion, bringing your chest forward and almost parallel to the floor. Let the weights hang straight down (palms facing each other) while maintaining a tight core, straight back, and slight knee bend.
- Raise both arms out to your side on an exhale.
- Keep a soft bend in your elbows. Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you pull them toward the spine.
- Lower the weight back to the start position as you inhale.
- Avoid hunching your shoulders, and keep your chin tucked to maintain a neutral spine during the exercise.
- Stand with feet a little wider than hip-width, toes facing front.
- Drive your hips back—bending at the knees and ankles and pressing your knees slightly open—as you…
- Sit in a squat position while keeping your heels and toes on the ground, chest up, and shoulders back.
- Strive to eventually reach parallel, meaning knees are bent to a 90-degree angle while ensuring your back stays straight, and the chest is up.
- Press into your heels and straighten your legs to return upright position.
Swimming is a full-body sport that relies on using your body’s mechanical kinetic chain. This is where parts of the body act as a system of chain links, whereby energy or force generated by one link (or part of the body) can be transferred successively to the following link. The coordination (timing) of these body segments and their movements will allow for the efficient transfer of energy and power through the body, moving from one body segment to the next. Each action in the sequence builds upon the previous motion. If these actions do not happen simultaneously, injuries can occur. Over my fifteen years of competitive swimming, I never once dealt with any shoulder, knee, or bodily injury. Even today, I continue to swim for exercise and can proudly say that I can swim pain-free.
(1) Exercise-Training Intervention Studies in Competitive Swimming, Journal, 2012. https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/11630760-000000000-00000 Accessed 21 November, 2022
(2) Complete Conditioning For Swimming, Book, 2008. Accessed 21 November, 2022