Dryland Mistake: Exercise Progressions and Regressions

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Push-ups, planks, and squats are a few of the most common exercises utilized in dry-land. Everyone has their own philosophy and belief pertaining to dry-land and swimming, but almost everyone agrees appropriate exercises (proper form, volume, rationale) on land can benefit swimmers. For a team to prescribe safe and appropriate exercises (whether for injury prevention or swimming enhancement), progressions and regressions are mandatory. Unfortunately, I’ve visited too many swim programs where improper progressions and regressions are provided, especially on these common exercises. Who hasn’t walked on deck and seen a group of swimmers doing “butt-ups” or performing a plank with their hips scraping the floor? What irony to see coaches nitpick the smallest swimming detail, only to permit atrocious dry-land exercise technique! This form of training is neither beneficial or safe.

A few studies on dry-land suggest dry-land is the most common mode of injury for college swimmers (estimated between 38-44%). Injuries are going to happen, but it is the role of the coach (swimming and dry-land) to keep the swimmer safe during dry-land. If they are increasing their risk of injury, the program was likely inappropriate for the swimmer.

Many elite swimmers are novices on land, making dry-land activities a risk for injury if proper form is not maintained. This makes the importance of finding exercises appropriate for each swimmer important, especially in a large group. Volume is also an issue on many teams. It is all too common to see a swimmer perform 2 perfect form push-ups, followed by 50 bad push-ups. If you can only perform 2 push-ups, start there and perform multiple sets of 2 repetitions! Some think doing excessive volumes help build “mental toughness”, but this must outcome must not put the swimmer at risk for injury inside or outside of the pool.

I’ve seen too many clubs have 8-year olds perform push-ups where 1% of them are doing it properly! Push-ups (in my opinion) are a great exercise for developing shoulder strength, IF DONE PROPERLY! Unfortunately, swim coaches have not been provided, or don’t care to learn, the proper education for progressing and regressing exercises. Simply put, giving an ectomorphic 8-year old a 50 push-ups is like having them do 200s fly, you’re only going to make them hate it and perform it improperly. Moreover, if a few talented kids get away with doing something, doesn’t make it appropriate for the whole group.


To combat this atrocity in the sport, it is essential to not be overconfident, but be realistic in your knowledge base and skills. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, take courses, get help, and refer swimmers to other professionals. I know this thought is disconcerting as many coaches like being control freaks (this is a good trait, it shows you care), but finding a support staff to help enhance your team is essential (read 6 Reasons Why your Team Needs a Strength Coach). If you do not know a simple 5-step progression for each exercise you're suggesting, then it is likely your dry-land is not ideal for the majority of your swimmers. It might mean more work in the short term to find progressions for every exercise, but fewer injuries and more confident swimmers will make the investment worthwhile. Your athletes (and their parents!) will thank you!

References:
  1. Wolf BR, Ebinger AE, Lawler MP, Britton CL. Injury patterns in Division I collegiate swimming. Am J Sports Med. 2009 Oct;37(10):2037-42. Epub 2009 Jul 24.
  2. McFarland EG, Wasik M. Injuries in female collegiate swimmers due to swimming and cross training. Clin J Sport Med. 1996 Jul;6(3):178-82.
By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.
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