Take Home Points on Dry-land Mistake: CrossFit for Swimmers
- CrossFit is likely more injurious than other forms of dry-land.
- CrossFit increases soreness and biomechanics in swimming.
- 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 System. Swimmers 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.
- 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.
- 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.,
- 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.
- 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.
- Xiao W, Chen P, Dong J. Effects of Overtraining on Skeletal Muscle Growth and Gene Expression. Int J Sports Med. 2012 May 16.
- 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.
- 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].
- 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.
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