Take Home Points on Strength and Conditioning Programming Considerations for Competitive Swimmers
A quick search on the web for strength and conditioning for swimming reveals generous results; however, very little actionable information. This is because unfortunately, the majority of the swimming industry is stuck in the past . Many in this community feel that traditional strength and conditioning programs have little to no transfer to the water, and that swimmers are too “uncoordinated” and can get hurt from such program —this mindset, unfortunately, is holding back many athletes from achieving their full potential.
Not only does this lack of information ward off well-meaning strength and conditioning coaches with more traditional contact sports-based backgrounds from learning more about this segment of their athletes, but it directly perpetuates long-held ideas about “swimmer coordination”, driving an entire athletic population to avoid extremely beneficial land-based training.
Although, as a Strength and Conditioning professional, you may already understand the relationship between weight training and high performance, but your potential clients may not. Below I’ve listed what I’ve found to be some of the most important considerations for exercise prescription for swimmers.
1. Kill the Stereotypes
One of the most important things you can do as a coach to increase buy-in from your swimming clients is to immediately dispel any and all myths that they’ve heard about strength training as it relates to swimming. These can included, but are not limited to: swimmers being too uncoordinated to the point of ‘hurting themselves’, extra muscle mass making them sink, weight training making them slower, etc..
2. Fix Alignment
Because of the nature of this sport, alignment plays a huge roll in performance
A certain amount of APT or PPT can be brushed off a little easier with other populations, but here when poor alignment directly correlates to reduced hydrodynamics and in turn, more drag, we need to address this as a top priority.
3. Rethink your Myofascial Release
Right now foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and rumble rollers are the ‘in’ thing. I’m not here to say that foam rolling is a waste of time because it’s not. I’ve personally noticed awesome changes from myofascial release in dozens of athletes, but generally not in swimmers.
The problem with mixing swimmers and foam rollers is that swimmers already display too much congenial laxity (hypermobility) at most joints. So hitting foam rollers, especially before a workout tends to have performance reducing effects. Notice I said at most joints; some areas are relatively free game for rolling. Problem areas for swimmers tend to be the IT Band, Glute Medius, Pec Minor, and Calves, but even these, I prefer to put in a cool down segment. That way, we can hit a few more areas that may be troubling the athlete on a day-to-day basis, without compromising joint stability before a workout [editor note, after discussion both parties agree infraspinatus SMR is beneficial for swimmers].
This point comes directly out of the last one. We cannot confuse mobility (moving through an active ROM) and flexibility (moving through a passive ROM). While swimmers may have some mobility issues to be addressed with foam rolling, they rarely, if ever, have flexibility issues. In fact, swimmers are so flexible, that they love to stretch. But this can be a huge problem for a swimmer’s athletic career, as well as us as coaches. We need to encourage strengthening these swimmers through their existing range of motion before we allow even more ROM with poor body awareness.
The easiest way to ensure this is to prevent stretching while the athlete is at our facility. If/when a swimmer begins to stretch between sets, use this as a teachable moment to explain why they don’t need any additional passive ROM.
5. Focus on the Neglected
Again, the last point isn’t to be confused with mobility, especially in the hips. Because swimmers rarely get past 30 degrees of hip flexion/ hyperextension, (and no abduction unless a breaststroker) they become prone to injuries outside of their normal ROM. As S&C professionals, we need to expand this active ROM to prevent injury.
This is also a very sagittal and transverse plane dominant sport. In training, we need to focus on incorporating more frontal plane work. Just like with many other populations, the glutes become dormant without sufficient activation. There is an existing train of thought in the world of swimming which states that we should avoid strengthening the glutes because they increase hydrodynamic drag—adding turbines to a jet increases drag as well, but we still put them there so the plane can travel at its top speeds; the glues are no different. Sure we may be a little more hydrodynamic, but in neglecting these, we are also limiting the most powerful hip extensors in the body!
While the glutes are often neglected, so are the trapezius group and rhomboids. Although they receive stimulation while swimming, these are a huge performance group and should be trained in all three movement patterns (elevation, depression, retraction). This will ensure that no weak links exist that would hinder scapular mechanics in the pool, and therefore performance.
6. Avoid Energy System Training (EST)
Many strength and conditioning coaches who do not have much experience with swimmers love to throw them into a pool to make workouts ‘sport specific’. Not only do swimmers already spend enough time in the pool, but you probably don’t know what swimming mechanics should look like, and may be doing more harm than good.
Similarly, in an attempt to be ‘sport specific’ S&C coaches love to time swimmers and do energy system work to replicate race times. This again is a bad idea. Leave this work to the swim coach. These athletes are constantly getting bombarded with energy system training and need to slow down and focus on quality as well as, at most times, getting sufficient recovery to perform well on each exercise.
7. Bear in Mind Training Age
Although you may be working with a college population, swimmers generally have very little real weight training experience, so be sure to account for this while developing your program. Focus on ingraining good motor patterns through a controlled ROM. Add volume and load, only once a pattern is demonstrated with sufficient form. Again, keep in mind that many of these technique problems can be soft-tissue restrictions, so monitor these athletes closely to see what may be reducing their active ROM.
Generally swimmers aren’t like American Football players which are usually encouraged to be in a gym since the freshman year of high school, so no need to get fancy. Pull out the basics and ride them out until you see progress begin to stall, then it might be a better time to start programming some more advanced exercise progressions.
8. Address Nutritional Concerns
Swimmers eat like shit, there is no way around it. You’ve seen the articles in the mainstream media showing the unbelievable amount of poor quality food that Michael Phelps supposedly ate every day during his training, your swimmers have seen that too, and your swimmers think they can get away with that—they can’t.
Many male swimmers have the dreaded ‘skinny fat’ syndrome caused by their food choices & hormonal profile. Be sure to encourage a balanced diet and educate them on its benefits.
While too much of the wrong thing is generally the problem for the guys, too little is generally the problem for female swimmers, which are one of the most at-risk groups for falling into the female athlete triad. Again, explain the implications of this disordered eating on their performance & life. When necessary, seek a qualified nutritionist/ sports psychologist to help mitigate the situation.
9. Keep Communication Lines Open
Although this is rather general, and can be applied to most sports, this is critical with swimming. Most swim programs vary intensity drastically, maintain contact with the coach to know when it’s okay to push and when to back off. Because this sport is so different than the demands of other sports, S&C coaches may at times become confused with some swim lingo or phrases used. Accept your knowledge limitations and reach out for help and education from the coaches and athletes-- they will be appreciative to know you care enough to check, which will help change the current dynamic between swim coaches and S&C professionals.
Similarly, keep communication open with the athletes. Are they sore from their last practice? What is their psychological profile? Have they just won/ lost a big meet? These are the kind of concerns that fluctuate and change training preparedness in the world of swimming on a daily basis. Assess the situation as soon as you see them to get an idea for their readiness. If you’ve kept communication lines closed, swimmers may be hesitant to let you know or express why their training has been lacking, this may leave you scratching your head wondering what the problem is with your perfectly programmed workout. Keep the communication open to get into the minds of the swimmers.
10. Alignment, Alignment, and more Alignment
Posture is everything in swimming, and after a hard day of practice, swimmers tend to rely on passive restraints rather than active muscle tension for support. Reinforce good posture whenever an opportunity presents itself. You may only have these athletes for an hour a day, but the problem of course, is the other 23.
If we can get swimmers to develop some proprioception, or sense of awareness in space, they will be more likely to exhibit better posture, thereby increasing blood flow to the body and improving breathing patterns, which will allow the body to switch easier between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, allowing them to train harder, and recover better.
Go Out and Make the World Faster
Now that you have a better understanding of strength and conditioning for swimming, make sure you act. If you don’t have any swimmers who train at your facility, maybe try to cater to some. The market for swimming strength and conditioning is completely open. These are an awesome group of athletes chasing greatness just like everyone else. Many groups of coaches, parents, and athletes still hold outdated notions of strength training making them poorer athletes or adding too much muscle mass. Let’s make it our mission to change their minds one person a time.
Written by John Matulevich a powerlifting world record holder in multiple lifts and weight classes, as well as a Head D-2 Strength Coach, and previously a nationally ranked college athlete. His concentrations are in sports performance, powerlifting, and weight training for swimming. To learn more about how John trains his athletes, check his Twitter page: @John_Matulevich. He can also be reached at MuscleEmporium@gmail.com with inquiries.