Dry Land Training for Swimmers
Jan. 4, 2006
Shanaka Henderson, MS, ATC, CSCS University of Maryland Sports Medicine
Swimming is a rigorous exercise that incorporates complex biomechanical movements. In order to swim efficiently; one must possess technical skill, coordination, muscular balance, and athletic ability. Swimming is unlike any other exercise because you have to use all of your large muscle groups simultaneously to propel you through the water. Due to its unique movement, the fitness training for swimming differs from most conventional land based sports.
Depending on the program, collegiate swimmers can swim more than 16,000 meters, daily. This is usually done in conjunction with dry land training. Dry land training is simply conditioning that a swimmer does out of the pool as a form of cross training. This includes cardiovascular, flexibility, and strength activities. The goal of dry land training is to condition, stretch and strengthen muscles that are used in swimming while building fitness and athleticism. The periodization for dry land training is very similar to land based sports, however, the equipment and focus of training is slightly different.
The first period of dry land training includes general conditioning that focuses on building an endurance base and increasing cardiovascular fitness. Coaches use running, jumping, rowing, and stair climbing. Good swimmers don't always make good runners, so choosing a cardiovascular activity that is effective without causing injury is essential. Different coaches have varying opinions on appropriate cardiovascular activities. Some coaches may utilize the versa climber more than other activities because it works both upper and lower muscle groups. Other coaches may implement stadium stair running because it makes the athlete lift their entire body with each step while significantly taxing their heart rate and oxygen utilization mechanisms. Weight training is minimal during this period and focuses on perfecting technique, fine muscle development and muscular endurance.
During the next period: the strength phase of a swimming program, the goal is to produce hypertrophy while maintaining flexibility and muscular balance. Weight lifting for swimmers includes very general multi joint, compound exercises. Coaches like to use lifts that incorporate the entire body because swimming is a whole body exercise. These include cleans, push press, squats, lat pull downs, seated row, and the bench press. Unlike land sports, swimmers typically do not practice specific, single joint exercises that focuses on one muscle group (i.e. bicep curls, leg extensions). Also, some feel that it is better to focus on functional, dynamic strength rather than isolated single lift power indexes. This could be because during weight lifting, one must start the lift and then stop, whereas the movement in swimming is continuous. Therefore, dynamic, continuous movements using the swimmers body weight is preferred. An example would be to use an Ab Dolly for prone lat pulls versus a lat pull performed on a machine. This allows the swimmer to attempt the streamline position while performing a fluid strength movement.
The goal of the power phase is to develop explosiveness and speed. In this phase, swimmers complete strength exercises as quickly as possible in conjunction with upper body plyometric drills. Swimmers should be able to complete 95% of their one rep max in this phase. This phase lasts one month and is followed by a tapering phase.
The goal of taper phase is to maintain fitness and to let muscles recover gradually. In the taper phase, the athlete lifts very little. During this period, some women swimmers lose fitness quicker than their male counterparts. In this phase some coaches will have women's swim teams complete 30 minutes of extra cardio three times per week in order to keep their muscular leanness and cardiovascular fitness.
Most coaches will agree that the medicine ball and physio ball are two pieces of equipment that are very useful in developing core and functional strength. Swimmers must have maximum core strength to stay streamline longer in the water. If their abdominal muscles fatigue, their hips will drop causing added resistance. For this reason swimmers should do core exercises daily. Physio ball programs add core work to basic strength movements (i.e. bench press, squats). When using the physio ball it's best to give swimmers exercises in which they have to either hold up or lift their own body weight. Both physio and medicine ball workouts allow the swimmer to maintain fluidity and momentum, which, once again, transfers to the water easier than pure weight training. It also adds a rotational component that is pertinent for proper swimming technique. Examples of exercises are listed below.
Most research conducted on dry land training has found that there is not much transfer from dry land training to the water. However, most swim coaches and swimmers practice some form of dry land training and praise its benefits. This allows them to not only swim better, but helps them dive and leave the block more effectively. However, when initiating dry land training remember that these individuals might not benefit from the same training as land based athletes. The key is to find the right balance of cardiovascular and strength training activities that will not aggravate chronic conditions or create new injuries. Try to pick activities that are not as aggressive on the lower limbed joints since swimmers do not put an axial load on their legs in the water. As a whole, dry land training should create fluidity, momentum and functional strength while maintaining cardiovascular fitness and flexibility.