Kickboards, hand paddles, pull buoys, and fins are just a few of the many tools swimmers go to when training. These tools will help emphasize upper and lower body swim mechanics or techniques to improve speed. In addition, enhanced muscular strength boosts faster swim times as well. However, it is arguably the buoyancy of water which takes the strain off muscles and skims the potential for in water muscle strength development.
How then should a swimmer go about using weights to train for faster swim times?
Not surprisingly swim coaches will often turn to so-called dry land workouts to address strength development. This need not be the case but depending on the type of weight training needed dry land may be the best option. Weight training generally falls into one of three categories: Foundational, Competitive and Prehabilitative. All of these weight training types will contribute to relatively better swim times.
Foundational Weight Training
Periodized training plans take advantage of the principles of progressive overload and muscle adaptation. Muscular strength develops as progressively heavier weights are lifted but rest periods must be included to allow the body time to recover and adapt. Before the start of a competitive season, athletes can prepare for more intense training by developing a foundational or base level of fitness.
Swimmers build muscular endurance in this phase of training through increasingly higher volumes of general conditioning work. Swimmers may work on core strength that will help them stabilize their bodies into a streamlined position while vigorously moving their limbs to generate speed. Body weight exercises such as planks will target the core. Start with holding a flat body position supported only by toes and forearms for 10-20 seconds. Gradually increase the number of set repetitions and length of the hold. More challenging planks are performed on an unstable surface (e.g. inflatable ball) for an alternative try side planks. Be sure to include abdominal crunches and back extensions.
Here are a few other foundational strength exercises using body weight:
· Squat / Lunge (with torso rotation)
· Push up
· Calf Raise / Leg Lifts
Using hand held weights (water bottle, medicine ball, or dumbbell):
· Curls / Triceps extension
· Dead lifts / Lat Raises
· Chest press
Using tubing or cords:
· Hip Abduction
· Ankle dorsiflexion
· Lat pull down
· Upright/Seated Row
· Flys/Reverse flys
Competitive Weight Training
Highly competitive and experienced swimmers might use a power tower. A power tower is a weight machine having adjustable weights (typically stacked plates) positioned at the end of a lane. The set of weights is attached to a line strung through an overhead pulley then down to a deck level pulley and ultimately connected to a belt worn around the waist of a swimmer.
During the competition phase of training swimmers will shift from building muscular endurance to developing strength and power to record faster times. This strength and conditioning work should be as stroke specific as possible. Power towers help swimmers condition and develop the specific muscles employed while performing their stroke of choice in water. One drawback, however, is while the swimmer attempts to swim away from the machine it may not be level with the surface of the water and thus pull the swimmer up or out of a streamlined position.
Power towers stationed on dry land provide an extra restraining force needed to counteract the resistance depriving effects of water buoyancy. The concept is to overload the muscles while performing specific swimming strokes. Ideally, this overload will not interfere with a swimmer’s streamlined body position. There are other less refined ways to create some restraining force such as tubing or cords attached to a starting block and to the swimmer with an ankle strap or hip belt. More portable resistance options are parachutes, buckets, running shoes, or clothing simply to increase drag.
Starts and flip-turns are brief yet important phases of a race in which a swimmer may find further improvement in their transition times and beat a competitor. An explosive send-away from either a block or a wall can impart significant racing momentum. Here is an opportunity to generate and carry speed through robust push-offs and underwater kicks into swimming strokes.
One way to develop explosive power for starts and flip turns is through body weight plyometric exercises done on dry land. Standing broad jumps, box jumps and streamline jumps (arms overhead squeezed tightly over your ears) are a few low to moderate intensity exercises. Holding a medicine ball while performing squat jumps gives a higher intensity workout.
In the water, swimmers can use sets of vertical dolphin kicks to try to elevate some body weight out of the water. Breaststroke swimmers can do a similar vertical kick exercise in water while holding a medicine ball or a water jug (water polo players do this weight exercise using an eggbeater kick).
Prehabilitative Weight Training
Swimmer’s shoulder is a term referring to pain experienced similar to a baseball pitcher’s shoulder. Both activities put the shoulder into an impingement position – arm fully extended overhead and shoulder is internally rotated. This position can pinch rotator cuff tendons and lead to injury. During an active rest period of training or taper an uninjured athlete may perform prehabilitative exercises. Below are a few of the exercises described by USA Swimming’s Sports Medicine Society that has been proven to be effective in improving shoulder function for swimmers
Rotator cuff External Rotation (resistance band)
Full Can Scaption (straight arm lateral lifts)
Arm Circles (tennis ball between wall and hand)
Prone Hitch Hiker (thumbs pointing to the ceiling lift straight arm sweep overhead)
If a swimmer experiences pain while doing an exercise, it is best to stop that exercise. Injured swimmers should seek medical advice on when to return to training or how they may modify their activity to accommodate healing. For example, a swimmer with a shoulder injury may not have to stop swimming altogether. It is possible to maintain some fitness and conditioning by just using the lower body.