by Bret Contreras August 27, 2012
Today’s guest post is from John Mullen. I don’t know much about training swimmers so it’s nice to have a guest post on this topic from a coach who is well-versed in training swimmers and swimming research. At the bottom of the post you’ll find a link to his blog.
Despite their notoriety for being klutzes on land (Michael Phelps breaks wrist getting out of car door), swimmers do require strength and conditioning for success. These unique amphibians typically endure unimaginable hours in the pool for sporting success. Many outside of the sport consider this atrocious time in the pool a form of dogmatic overtraining, but in a sport driven by “feel,” countless laps staring at a black line are essential. “Feel” is an ancient term used by swimmers describing motor control. All sports require high neural demands, but swimming is an especially different beast.
Water is a unique medium when compared to the rigid, stable ground. Swimming also requires a high volume of overhead movements. In fact, there are a staggeringly large number of overhead movements in swimming when compared to baseball or tennis. Additionally, there is no limit, or stroke count, to protect the shoulders of a swimmer like there is for baseball pitchers. According to Wilk, swimmers perform approximately sixteen times the volume of overhead movements when compared to baseball pitchers (Wilk, 2008). This conundrum is unsettling at first, but considered essential to developing sport-specific “feel” in an unnatural medium, which is a necessity for competitive swimmers.
Consider a runner who takes a break from their sport. If a track star misses a few days, they are able to hop on the starting blocks and perform best times. If a swimmer misses a few days, they will hit the water like a wet noodle and be far from their best times. This difference is due to high the neural input required in swimming, specific to the unnatural medium of water.
This unnatural sport requires higher neural demands as humans are not born with the capability to swim. In what other aerobic sport do you constantly use a motion that is completely unnatural? Throw any kid in a pool without instruction and they will drown. It may be sad, but that’s the truth. Swimming forces athletes to move through an unstable medium that is unfamiliar to humans. To develop elite skills, manipulation of this different medium requires long hours of staring at a black line. High-volume swimming is essential to turn this unnatural mode of transportation into a fluid, effortless movement.
Therefore, the best mode for swimming improvement is … swimming! However, strength and conditioning is essential for every competitive swimmer.
Swimming and strength training have a unique relationship compared to other sports. In fact, the swimming community broadly calls all forms of strength training “dry-land”. This blanket term suggests the unfamiliarity with strength training which is noted in many “dry-land” programs across the globe. If you want to cringe, head to your local swim team and watch countless hours of band exercises, sit-ups, swim bench, or push-ups.
The swim bench is a “swimming-specific” device which forces an athlete to lie on their stomach and perform repeated internal rotation. The view on this device is to continually develop the arms, as they are the largest contributor to force production in swimming, but this shoulder isolated movement is not sport-specific as it inhibits body rotation, results in a different energetic response (Sexsmith 1992) and over-stresses vulnerable shoulders. More importantly, it increases the risk of overuse injuries.
These forms of “dry-land” training were introduced to the swimming community as swim coaches are weary of strength training and not without reason. Many studies suggest out of water strength does not correlate with swimming success (Costill 1983; Tanaka 1993; Crowe 1999). Even more discouraging, many studies have studied the effects of resistance training with swimmers and found minimal improvement (Crosser 1999; Cronin 2007; Bulgakova 1987; Tanaka 1993; Breed 2000). However, strength training is suggested to correlate with sprint swimming (25 and 50 distances … aka one lap!) (Carl 2010; Sharp 1982; Hsu 1997). Moreover, more up-to-date training programs may positively influence the few ground-based movements (start and turn) in swimming (Kilduff 2011; West 2011; Potdevin 2011) It is hard to argue these studies as many of you reading this is likely able to squat twice their body weight, but are unlikely to finish one lap of butterfly! However, strength training is more than just improving strength, especially in sports where the neural demands and biomechanics are the driving factor for success. Strength training for swimming must prevent injuries, muscular imbalances, improve speed, enhance recovery, increase force production, and address any impairments impeding success. Here are five things to consider when training swimmers.
Five Considerations when Training Swimmers
1. Don’t be too specific:
A lot of emphasis is put on “sport-specific” movements (swim bench, cable crossovers, straight arm pulldowns, etc.). Unfortunately, the transference of these movements is uncertain and likely minimal to the sports of swimming. Every land exercise you create is far from the demands in the pool. Despite visual similarities, every swimmer uses unique yet imperceptible microadjustments in their strokes to optimize balance, force, and deceleration. It is impossible to replicate these movements on land and attempting to be too “sport specific” may lead to confused motor programming (McGuff 2009). Therefore, stay away from specificity to prevent motor program confusion and returning to these resisted patterns when fatigue occurs in the pool. Instead, building motor control and learning the big movements (squats, partial deadlifts, bench press) is ideal. Moreover, performing the similar movements outside of the pool increases the chance of overuse injuries and time away from the most specific form of training…swimming (Stiff 2000; Vermeil 2004).
2. Respiratory Training:
The relationship between breathing and swimming is unique in the sport world, as land-based sports do not require breath holding. Swimming in adolescence is even believed to enhance lung volumes (Courteix 1997). Moreover, inspiratory muscle fatigue is noted as a cause of fatigue at the end of a swimming race (Cruichshank 2007; Jakovljevic 2009). Many studies have suggested inspiratory muscle strengthening is beneficial in endurance underwater (Ray 2008; Ray 2010; Wylegala 2007). If you are able to improve their inspiratory muscle endurance, you can prevent muscle fatigue and enhance their swimming performance, the ultimate end game, not maximal pull-up number. Lastly, understanding the intricate role of breathing and shoulder health is essential for preventing and improving the high volume of shoulder injuries in the sport.
A few novel methods for inspiratory training include:
Cat Vomit (maximal expiratory exercise):
Kazoo Abs (coordinating abdominal contraction and breathing):
Another method for improving breathing is repeated maximal inhalations and breath holds. For example:
30 seconds of normal breathing with 10 second exhalations
30 seconds of holding your breath
60 seconds of normal breathing with 10 second exhalations
60 seconds of holding your breath
90 seconds of normal breathing with 10 second exhalations
90 seconds of holding your breath
120 seconds of normal breathing with 10 second exhalations
120 seconds of holding your breath
3. Keep Them Healthy:
Like all athletes, keeping them in their arena and out of the training room is quintessential. Too often overzealous strength coaches throw swimmers in the weight room, only to be injured. In fact, dry-land was the most common ground for injuries in freshmen swimmers (Wolf 2009)! Just because you are working with a National level swimmer doesn’t mean they are a good athlete in the weight room! If they are a novice, treat them like one, take some time and teach them proper form on the basic lifts (bench, deadlift, squat). Make sure these uncoordinated athletes are safe, with proper biomechanics, and loads. Also, don’t make them overly sore during weights, as this impairs their “feel” or motor control in the pool, potentially increasing their risk of injury. Remember, many swim programs perform high volume training, 20 hours of swimming a week is not uncommon, make sure you are not burning the candle on both ends and increasing the likelihood of overtraining.
4. Improve Weak Points:
Even though many people idolize a swimmer’s body, many weak points are evident. Like all strength programs, screening swimmers is essential. When I’m screening swimmers, I am taking a close look at their shoulders, low-back, knees, and respiration. Relating to point #3, keeping them healthy is essential and overuse is the most common reason for shoulder injury, but guess what, this isn’t going to change! Therefore, finding their weak points and addressing and improving them with proper preventative care are essential! Don’t neglect the core when you see six-pack abs! These internal rotation excessive creatures need instruction for shoulder stability and differentiation between the cervical spine, shoulder stabilizer muscles.
Shoulders: self soft tissue to the infraspinatus and shoulder blade stabilization
L-spine and knees: self soft tissue to the quadratus lumborum and core stability, RKC plank
5. Don’t Neglect Synergy:
Many novice swimmers suffer in the pool due to an inability to synchronize their movements. For example, if you hop in the pool and flex every body part, you’re going to sink. Elite swimmers make this difficult task simple by timing the correct muscles for the movement pattern. Therefore, learning the task of turning on and off muscles is essential in this sport where sensory input is essential. Teaching proper neck, shoulder, core, and hip differentiation helps these athletes improve motor control with the goal of improving the ease of biomechaincal corrections in the pool. Make sure you’re a valuable asset to their improvement in the water! One great exercise for improving glenohumeral range of motion deficits and coordinating the cervical musculature is the “gangsta driver”.
Swimmers are a unique breed, but strength and conditioning or ‘dry-land’ is as important as any other sport. Make sure to consider these 5 areas when beginning your quest to become a green hair, chlorine scented swimmer.
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