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Take Home Points on Dry-land Mistake: CrossFit for Swimmers

  1. CrossFit is likely more injurious than other forms of dry-land.
  2. CrossFit increases soreness and biomechanics in swimming.
  3. CrossFit may impair work capacity and  anaerobic conditioning.

    When surveyed, dry-land was used in 83 – 93% of swimming programs (Krabak 2013). Unfortunately, providing safe, beneficial, and realistic dry-land is difficult as the fitness industry confuses it’s purpose and function . The fitness industry grossed an estimated $45.2 billion dollars in 2012 and is expended to increase 2.3% over the upcoming years, as obesity and obesity related diseases are extremely high in developed countries. This results in many people hopping from one exercise fad to the next. CrossFit is the latest fad sweeping the fitness industry gaining media attention from its overhead squatting pregnant women to rhabdomyolysis (an uncommon, but actual result from hazardous training).

    CrossFit is a popular exercise method utilizing high-intensity training of full body

    Olympic lifts. These specialized lifting techniques take years to master, yet many swim coaches feel adequate to instruct their swimmers in these complicated movements without education or specialization in resistance training biomechanics or loading. Moreover, enthusiastic fitness instructors hop from one fitness fad to the next, each time boosting they have the latest and greatest routine for the mother of two or Olympic swimmer. Unfortunately, any program which insists it benefits many, likely disservices many. one program fits all is a lie! The principle of individuality is a must from the pool to dry-land!

    The popularity of CrossFit is likely due to many reasons:
    1.    Non-swimmers: finding benefit from this form of training and incorrectly transferring it to the sport which they know nothing about (CrossFit does appear beneficial for fat loss, a seldom goal of swimmers) (Smith 2013). The lack of knowledge in swimming has plagued the sport for years, especially in college as ground-based strength coaches prescribe unrealistic and unnecessary training for many college swim teams. Unfortunately, in a sport where dry-land is beneficial, many of the benefits are confounded and coaches feel they provide inadequate programs if grueling dry-land is not prescribed. In college, trainers for other sports and general trainers don’t know the first thing about the transference of on-land training to swimming. There are no courses (that I’m aware of) on this subject, yet strength coaches for other sports and general trainers have the audacity to make sales pitches to swim coaches, telling them they know how to improve their swimmers. Remember, the principle of specificity is king and many on-land activities are likely no more than an expensive placebo.
    2.    Marketing and viral promotion: As someone in the fitness industry and rehabilitation world, I have a unique view on popular or trendy training methods. Simply put, the fitness industry is a massive market which is only growing. Now, this industry has many benefits, some which include building community, friendships, and preventing obesity/cardiovascular problems. Unfortunately, these benefits don’t truly apply to swimmers, yet many swimmers are craving CrossFit, just like they crave soda. Marketing influences all of our decisions ranging from exercise regiments to soda. CrossFit isn’t the only program using marketing as you could replace CrossFit with numerous exercise fads throughout the years. Just like food, the products with the most marketing and labels screaming their health benefits are likely the degrading your health! I mean, when the last time you saw a healthy label on a vegetable was! Make sure you look at the research on any exercise fad, then use common sense in combination of your knowledge of physiology, psychology, and biomechanics.  

    3.    Strength is cool: Hard bodies, 6-pack abs, and out-of-water strength are commonly sought by many (especially men). Unfortunately, the correlation of these and swimming success is unwarranted. Sure, if a swimmer has a “good” body, they may become more self-confident and perform better, but if a swimmer is taught proper mental training and self-confidence, they will not fall into this trap and instead benefit from realistic and healthy dry-land methodology.

    Now, at a glance one may not see the harm or mistake of performing CrossFit for dry-land, but as you will see these reasons for CrossFit being a mistake must be considered for all swimmers. Remember, use the literature, personal knowledge, and common sense.
    1.    CrossFit is injurious: The number one rule for coaches is “do no harm.” Just as

    health care professionals swear upon the solemn Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, coaches have an unspoken professional responsibility to their athletes’ well-being. When polled, coaches listed injury prevention as one of the main purposes of dry-land (Krabak 2013). Quite simply, an injured athlete will not train up to his or her full potential. This is why I created with Swimmer’s Shoulder SystemSwimmers have improved and will continue improve under many types of programs: high volume, low volume, linear periodization, undulating periodization, and several other variations. There are many different ways to improve because each swimmer is unique. But there is one guaranteed way to fail, and that is through lost training due to injury.  A 2009 study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at injury patterns in Division I swimming, analyzing a single program from 2002-2007 (Wolf 2009). Notable findings: 

    a.   Dry-land training and non-training incidents out of the water caused injuries in 38% of the team.
    b.   Freshmen were more likely injured than upperclassmen.
    These results were very similar to a study from more than ten years earlier (MacFarland 1996). This study included only female collegiate swimmers. Notable findings:
    a.   On this team, 44% suffered dry-land injuries.
    b.   Another 11% suffered injuries out of the pool.
    c.    Most dry-land injuries were from lower body training. Pool injuries were upper body.  
    Here are two studies over ten years apart with data showing the same thing: lots of swimmers are getting hurt outside the water during dry-land training. Whether improvement in upperclassmen injury rates resulted from freshmen adapting to the program or leaving altogether is unclear. This injury risk is likely higher when using CrossFit for dry-land, as the one study analyzing CrossFit resulted in 21% of the participants injured in only 10-weeks (Smith 2013)! Now, this may sound like a leap, but the possible injury mechanism is two-fold:
    a.   A high injury risk doing complicated multi-joint movements.
    b.   High-intensity dry-land likely results in a higher degree of soreness. Increased soreness likely impair biomechanics, which may increase injury risk in the water.
    As one can see, the literature and common sense make a strong case against the use of CrossFit.
    2.    CrossFit Impairs Swimming Biomechanics: Many swim coaches are unfamiliar with proper resistance training to maximize relative strength and power. Strength coaches don’t appreciate “feel” or joint biomechanics of the water and the demands of swimming workouts. One study suggested performing barbell squats greatly impaired joint biomechanics of the body weight squat (Hooper 2013). Excessively hard dry-land programs (not just CrossFit) result in sore swimmers feeling like wet noodles in the water. Soreness also will impair biomechanics and likely prevent improving biomechaincs, the main determinant of swimming success (Lätt 2012). If one is continually sore, it is unlikely they are able to make the biomechanical adjustments in the water and cause motor learning. Don’t make your swimmers overly sore during weights, as this impairs their “feel” or motor control, substrate utilization in the pool potentially increasing their risk of injury and corrupts their technique.
    3.    CrossFit Impairs, Doesn’t Improve, Conditioning: Another goal of CrossFit and

    other high-intensity dry-land is sneaking in conditioning outside of the pool. Conditioning outside of the pool likely only helps swimmers with poorly designed swimming programs. Also, if a swimmer is continually sore, it is unlikely they can swim at a high enough intensity to illicit the oxidative type II muscle fibers. If a swimmer was able to perform CrossFit and high-intensity swimming, it is more likely they will become overtrained, increasing the likelihood of becoming sick (Morgado 2012). Another concern with overtraining is the potential of impairing skeletal muscle growth (Xiao 2012). Lastly, overtraining increases the physiological and psychological burden of the athlete, a common corollary with burnout for the season, or worse their entire career (Theriault 1997).

    Now, three items against CrossFit against may not seem like a lot, but these are arguably the three biggest impairments to a swimmer’s goals. Plus, these three items will hinder a swimmer, a true waste, as other forms of dry-land can help performance. Unfortunately, many swim coaches likely feel they can either instruct their own dry-land as good as trainers, since many strength coaches/trainers don’t know the first thing about swimming or are too costly. If a swimmer does end up hiring someone without the knowledge about the sport and carelessly fall for the pitfalls of the fitness industry and ground-based sports, often times performing group programs, which benefit a small sample. Luckily, there are other options.
    First, individualized dry-land programs for each swimmer are an essential component for optimal swimming performance. Individualized programs are commonly formed via screening techniques or troubleshooting the swimmers in water and out of water impairments. For this, Allan Phillips and I created the Troubleshooting System. As much as I support this product, troubleshooting is only one component of a comprehensive dry-land program. Now, I am working on a complete system for dry-land throughout a whole swimming career, but this massive project still won’t be a template for success individualized dry-lands are mandatory for elite success.

    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. doi: 10.1177/0363546509339364. 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. Lätt, E., Jürimäe, J., Mäestu, J., Purge, P., Rämson, R.,
    3. Keskinen, K. L., Haljaste, K., & Jürimäe, T. Biomechanics and bioenergetics of 100-m front crawl swimming in young male swimmers. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16-19, 2010. 
    4. Morgado JM, Rama L, Silva I, de Jesus Inácio M, Henriques A, Laranjeira P, Pedreiro S, Rosado F, Alves F, Gleeson M, Pais ML, Paiva A, Teixeira AM. Cytokine production by monocytes, neutrophils, and dendritic cells is hampered by long-term intensive training in elite swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Feb;112(2):471-82. 
    5. Xiao W, Chen P, Dong J. Effects of Overtraining on Skeletal Muscle Growth and Gene Expression. Int J Sports Med. 2012 May 16. 
    6. Theriault, D., Richard, D., Labrie, A., & Theriault, G. Physiological and psychological variables in swimmers during a competitive season in relation to the overtraining syndrome. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1997. 29(5), Supplement abstract 1237.
    7. Smith MM, Sommer AJ, Starkoff BE, Devor ST. Crossfit-based high intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Feb 22. [Epub ahead of print].
    8. Lätt E, Jürimäe J, Haljaste K, Cicchella A, Purge P, Jürimäe T. Physical development and swimming performance during biological maturation in young female swimmers. Coll Antropol. 2009 Mar;33(1):117-22.
      By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, 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.

      Dryland for Swimmers

      The Dryland for Swimmers ebook and video database is the most comprehensive dryland program and guide for swimmers. It includes a detailed dryland research analysis, club programming, and individual programming.

      Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
      1. September 24, 2013

        It’s hard to over-state the “strength is cool” problem. I think there is also a big problem with the depiction of hard work in advertisements – the idea that you’re not improving unless you’re gasping for air in a sweaty heap on the floor.

      2. September 24, 2013

        This article is filled with so many lies it makes me sick. Do your research people. This guy is trying to sell you something and in order to do that he needs to berate his biggest competition. CrossFit is AMAZINGLY beneficial for any swimmer as long as it’s done right. I’m swimming faster with fewer injuries in my 30s than I did in college. It works if you perform the exercises CORRECTLY with QUALIFIED trainers. Skip those parts and CrossFit (just like anything else) would be dangerous. I could go on, but do your own research. Educate yourself. This is a load of BS.

      3. September 24, 2013

        How do any of the exercizes have any cross over to swimming? Can you name or do you have evidence of any that does. In general John has a well resarched web site- you are right though and it does look like an infomercial, but if you take the emotional response to the negative reaction to cross fit it makes sense. Parkinsons law basicaly states the number of rational hypothesis is indefinate. Im glad that cross fit has helped you in your swimming. But are you just swimming less(with the cross fit) and training with more specific intent then you did at college? Could a specific dyland program and the same training potentally yeild even better results. John nabor went what 56 in the 100 back(sorry off top of my head)- it does not mean that training your althletes to push off on the surface with touch turns will yeild the same results. I think/hope that Johns web site aims to provide you with evidence based research of today and not old beliefs . But i have trained plenty of althletes with uw dol kick and turns who have not beaten nabors times- but I chose to provide them with the best current reasearch based techniques, maybe some would have improved with the old school turns…..and im sure some may improve with cross fit. But does it really make sense if you had an educated choice

      4. September 25, 2013

        “Berate his biggest competition?” Crossfit is more a referral source than competition for sports-minded PTs.

        Important to differentiate between competitive Crossfit (a sport unto itself) versus crossfit as supplementary training training. The 3x per week fitness exerciser or the dedicated CF athletes has different needs than the competitive swimmer or any athlete for whom gym training is supplemental. Any coach who forgets this is being irresponsible, CF or not. But if you aren’t doing the WOD and glorifying things like rhabadomyaisis, urinary incontinence, and dangerous technique then are you really doing Crossfit or are you just doing something else but trying to sound cool by calling it Crossfit?

        There are good CF coaches out there? Well a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if the Crossfit community refuses to partake in quality control, then it is only fair that good CF coaches are subject to the same criticism as the dangerous idiots since they all choose to fly the same flag. Instead of purging the dangerous coaches, “HQ” continues to allow irresponsible coaches into Level I certs. When under criticism they close ranks in the community with religious fervor, rather than ensuring quality stays uniformly
        high by tossing out the garbage. That says a lot about the priorities of the community.

        Of course there are bad coaches everywhere in many places but they don’t choose to unite under the same banner….

      5. September 25, 2013

        Explain to me how doing Olympic lifts at high rates of speed and repetition is good for a swimmer? Show me the correlation between doing those swinging “pull-ups” and a 100m butterfly success. A serious swimmer training twice a day already puts their body under enough stress, why crank up stress levels with crossfit unnecessarily?

      6. October 10, 2013

        This aticle is intriguing, then at the end comes out a sales pitch. The CF gym we belong to is run by a family of highly competive swimmers. One family member used CF as a compliment to his college swim training thus becoming a DIV II National Champion.
        My daughter excelled in her swimming her Senior year in HS and also would not have accomplished what she did if not for CF.
        The local HS boys team used it also as a tool and they all dropped their times. The list could go on.
        It is true if you hit CF hard 5-6 times a week, swim work outs will suffer. However if, you do it smart with proper technique/ coaching and do specific/non extreme WODs say 3xWK during swim season you will see drastic improvement and not the injuries mentioned in the artcle. Some common sense with Cross FIt training and any competitive sports can go a very long way!! Great things can happen!!

      7. October 10, 2013

        Thanks for the input, but some criticisms on these comment:
        1) How do you know your daughter would not have improved with CF? Were swimming biomechancis and physiology not involved.
        2) One expects 3 – 4% improvement during maturation (typically which includes high school boys).
        3) Being smart and using common sense are key and unfortunately it is hard to understand every CF (since they are all different). However, use common sense: 1) don’t perform excessive volume, don’t become overly sore, work on facilitating, not overtaking, swimming training, and perform it with proper biomechancis and safety measures.

        Thanks for the feedback, but even group performances which are not controlled must be highly questioned.

      8. October 10, 2013

        Thanks for the feedback. However, your case study is highly questionable and one must challenge your swimming in age-group and at this point in time.

        Lastly, swimming is injurious, like all sports! However, adding extra, excessive stimuli is likely to increase this injury risk.

      9. October 10, 2013

        Couldn’t agree more Erik.

      10. October 10, 2013

        Thanks for the input. Proper education is necessary, then everyone can make their choices. No one should think one size will fit all, like you state, different things have worked before and different things will work in the future. One thing to remember, research doesn’t prove anything, but hopefully this helps educate, to challenge beliefs and gain perspective.

      11. October 10, 2013

        Agreed, marketing is crazy and every high-school boy (and now more girls) want to “get big!”.

      12. October 15, 2013

        John put in better words then I could do:
        From a weekly e-mail list from Chris Carmichael, owner of Carmichael
        Training Systems (CTS) a company that provides coaching services to
        athletes of all abilities from olympian to weekend warrior. His focus
        is on endurance athletes and offers this advice on Crossfit:

        “Crossfit can be great or disastrous – it all depends on you.

        Crossfit is very popular right now and CTS Coaches are getting a lot of
        questions about its effectiveness and risks for endurance athletes. In
        principle there’s a conflict between Crossfit’s philosophy and that of
        an endurance athlete. You’re focused on achieving high performance in a
        specific sport. Crossfit’s philosophy focuses on a high level of
        generalized fitness. Hence, the mantra of “Outrun a lifter, out lift a
        runner.” On a more practical level, the exercises used in Crossfit are
        dynamic, full-body movements that incorporate speed, power, and balance,
        and since there’s no recovery between exercises there’s a sustained
        aerobic component to the workout after the first 5-10 minutes or so.
        So, as a supplement to endurance training it can be very beneficial. The
        HUGE caveat to that statement is that it all depends on you being a
        smart athlete. The environment and instruction are critical. Ballistic
        movements performed with improper technique and too much weight will
        cause injuries, so it’s important to work in an environment where
        technique is valued more than intensity and where the
        instructors/leaders know how to teach proper technique for Olympic lifts
        and ballistic movements. And if you choose to incorporate Crossfit just
        remember that peer pressure can be a powerful influence. You’re an
        endurance athlete using Crossfit to have some fun and supplement your
        sport-specific training. Don’t get sucked into matching or beating
        devoted Crossfit athletes in their primary sport.” – Chris Carmichael

        I do admit it is difficult sometimes to modify the daily WOD to fit my
        personal training/racing schedule and ignore the peer pressure to post a
        time on the white board. For those of us with a sport-specific goal,
        that personal training plan often takes priority. For me it is less O
        lifting and gymnastics in exchange for more cardio. Crossfit Games are
        fun to watch, but not where I’m headed. ~Dash

      13. November 24, 2013

        Good article, but I think it could use more pragmatic advice.

        I think the biggest reason why swimmers shouldn’t crossfit is the overtraining aspect. For those who were swimmers like myself, remember back to the days when you swam 6km in the morning, and then was doing a set of 10x150m (middle 50=kick) on short rest pace. Could you see yourself doing ‘Jackie’ the next day? What good would it do for you?

        I think the biggest reason why swimmers should LEARN about crossfit is because small volume olympic lifts are very valuable to helping the swimmer realize new neuromuscular pathways and to recruit new muscle fibres, and the variable programming helps this neuroplasticity.

      14. November 24, 2013

        Good comments, thank you!

        Overtraining is a main issue and one to take in mind for any swimmer doing any training.

        Variable programming can recruit new muscle fibers, but does this help neuromuscular pathways for swimming strokes?

        Personally, I feel variable programming is important, as it does recruit different muscles, help gain motor control with the possibility of improving motor control to fix strokes in the pool. However, the CF I’ve seen does not always incorporate safe biomechanics or volumes. After releasing this piece, I’ve come to learn CF is highly variable, which is brilliant, because then it is impossible to study and examine as one can always say “well we don’t do that at my CF”. Nonetheless, the same priniciples discussed in this article apply to any dry-land program, no matter what you call it.

      15. December 10, 2013

        1. You stole that image of the pregnant woman lifting. I know this because I know her and the photographer personally.

        2. I’ve done Crossfit with swimmers at the Rose Bowl Aquatics center. After a few months working with their water polo teams, they began to crush everyone because of their increased strength and endurance

        3. Crossfit is not inherently dangerous. Bad coaching is dangerous. You will find just as many, if not more, horrible coaches in any of the globo gyms around the country doing personal training.

      16. December 10, 2013

        the kipping pullup transfers perfectly to the muscular requirements of a swim stroke. Again, when done properly, these movements are safe. Just because there are some people out there who are not qualified to coach Crossfit does not mean that the program itself is bad. Never underestimate the importance of GPP.

      17. December 10, 2013

        1. Just found the picture online, I can take it down.

        2. Thanks for sharing your anecdotal exerpiece of water polo.

        3. Bad coaching is the most dangerous and this is performed by Crossfiters and other trainers.

      18. December 10, 2013

        Interesting thought and one I had when I first began training, but the activation pattern of a kipping pull-up does first the same muscles, but not the same movement patterns or motor planning, a big difference when learning highly technical skills likes swimming.

        GPP is important, but in a sport where biomechancis are the main determinant of success, allowing proper motor learning can likely provide the biggest benefit in the highly trained.

      19. December 10, 2013

        1. TGU could be a fine exercise is progressed properly and performed with the correct biomechanics. Often times swimmers are not taught these highly complicated movements correctly, ultimately increasing their risk of injury.

        Also, one could argue it is simply a good exercise for general strength, yes an essential, but unnecessary in many elite athletes.

        2. Many issues with the GHD, look at the amount of spinal extension, specifically low back mobility, necessary for the task. Spinal hypermobility is associated with an increased risk of LBP and this seems to feed into it.

        3. Hang power cleans, could be a good general strength exercise, but once again a highly complicated movement which takes many Olympic lifters years to master, is this truly necessary for a swimmer? Also, Dan McCarthy’s statement is purely anecdotal and should be taken as that.

        4. Thurster, a fine squatting exercise, but must be monitored closely as poor scapular strength (a commonality in swimmers) can increase the risk of shoulder injury. In fact, many strength coaches (anecdotal evidence) do not use overhead movements with their overhead athletes.

        5. See above.

        Thanks for the comments and opinions, however the use of CrossFit in a highly skilled sport still must be scrutinized. Now sure, it could be used in conjunction to build the GPP, as you state, but there many be safe and more simpler methods. You stated “bad coaching is dangerous” and others have stated similar things and I couldn’t agree more, but all these considerations must be taken into account for those considering using this for athletes. Just remember, extreme soreness does impair movement quality and motor learning and crossfit may be more dangerous than a general resistance training program. Lastly, the bulk of resistance training for swimming literature suggests high volume programs (simply 3×10) do not enhance performance, so could this high volume be simply a waste of time? Things we aren’t sure about, but must consider!

      20. April 24, 2014

        1. What makes you think the fact that you found the image online made it OK to use it? There are still images in this post that you don’t own the rights too

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