Plyometrics and Swimming

We’ve covered plyometrics for swimmers several times on this site, but it’s a topic worth revisiting as many teams are in the early season, and ready to install new programming if they haven’t already done so.  With images of Ryan Lochte’s epic training routines shown across the globe during the Olympics, it’s natural that more want to copy the world’s best (but keep in mind Lochte is a former varsity basketball player with some natural “hops”…)

A common belief is that plyometrics aid starts and turns in swimming.  Multiple studies have shown that plyometrics may improve block starts (Bishop 2009, Potdevin 2011).  However, plyometrics aren’t the only way to improve starts and may adversely affect in-pool training, so we must keep all results in context.  It makes logical sense that plyometrics would improve turns, but so far the evidence on both sides has been limited.  Cossor 1999 found no effect of plyos compared to in-water training, but that study was with youth swimmers training 3x per week. 

With sound evidence that plyometrics may help swimming, the real challenge is blending it into a training program safely and effectively.   Traditionally thinking has required a 2x body weight squat before using lower body plyometrics.  But with looser definitions of plyometrics now in vogue, that requirement is probably too restrictive.  For example, old-school kinesiology aficionados might exclude skipping and bounding from the definitions.  However, modern lexicon has expanded to include locomotive skills like bounding, hopping, skipping, and jump rope as plyometrics.   An expanded definition doesn’t mean people with crappy squats get to do four foot depth drops, but you need not squat huge numbers just to skip across a grass field. 




The choice to include plyometrics for swimmers in a dryland program can include four considerations…

1)  Swimmer – What limitations and attributes does the swimmer bring?  Do they have any prior injuries?  Any current injuries (often surprising how many ignore that one…)?  Proper mechanics in basic lifts and movement patterns are crucial prerequisites at any age.   Do they have any experience as a land athlete or any prior dryland training?  Sprinter or distance?

2)  Choice of exercise – What asked to describe “plyometric training” one person may think jump rope or unstructured playtime, while another may think repeated depth drops and squat jumps.  Maybe it’s cool to say “our team does plyos” but it’s important to find the most appropriate ones. 

Height off the ground, weight of the individual (along with external resistance), and volume of reps are all factors to consider with each exercise.  These all operate on a continuum.  You can do high reps if your plyometrics is jumping rope.  If you’re doing four foot depth drops, probably lower reps are in order, with room for adjustment in the middle of the continuum.

Despite these risks, plyometrics also be valuable for rehabilitation, particularly with the upper body.  Swanik (2002) found that an upper body plyometric program throwing medicine balls against a trampoline resulted in improved proprioception and kinesthesia compared to a control group doing only resistance training.  Still, a shoulder stability foundation is necessary before undertaking such a program.

3)  Training plan – It’s one thing to program plyometrics for a third string wide receiver who rides the bench or a recreational gym goer for whom the plyometrics are the most exhaustive thing they’ll do each week.  It’s quite different to demand high load and high skilled moves for swimmers before or after three hour practices in the middle of twenty hour training weeks (many of whom are clumsy on land to begin with).   No matter how great plyometrics may be, ask carefully whether a high skill and high load dryland move fits into the swimming plan at that moment.

4)  Environment – It’s awfully grating to see coaches having swimmers (or any athletes/clients) perform difficult plyometrics with poor footwear on inappropriate surfaces like stadium bleachers and concrete.  Obviously not everyone has a perfect soft turf field to perform their exercises, but rarely does the benefit of any dryland training justify increasing injury risk by neglecting basic safety protocol.  Remember, most injuries occur when you meet the ground, not when you are going up!

Conclusion

Plyometrics are a potential asset to any dryland program.  Always consider the swimmer, exercise, training plan, and environment to make informed choices on how to fit them into your training.

References

  1. Potdevin FJAlberty MEChevutschi APelayo PSidney MC.  Effects of a 6-week plyometric training program on performances in pubescent swimmers.  J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):80-6.
  2. Bishop DC, Smith RJ, Smith MF, Rigby HE Effect of plyometric training on swimming block start performance in adolescents. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2137-4. 
  3. Cossor JMBlanksby BAElliott BC.  The influence of plyometric training on the freestyle tumble turn. J Sci Med Sport. 1999 Jun;2(2):106-16.
  4. Swanik KA, Lephart SM, Swanik CB, Lephart SP, Stone DA, Fu FH. The effects of shoulder plyometric training on proprioception and selected muscle performance characteristics. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2002 Nov-Dec;11(6):579-86.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Ankle Range of Motion in Swimming and Plyometrics

Take home points:
  1. Vertical leap and size supposedly does not influence flutter kick speed
  2. Plyometric training is highly beneficial in adolescents and should be implemented, however this must be done under strict supervision and on appropriate surfaces. Future studies must compare plyometric training to equal volume of swimming training.
The University of Connecticut looked at factors that influence flutter kick speed. They compared recreational swimmers to NCAA athletes and discovered some obvious swimming news to anyone in the swimming community:
  • Plantar flexion (pointing your toes) positively influences flutter kick capability.


Ankle Range of Motion in Swimming and Plyometrics


The study did not find a positive correlation with the athlete's size or their vertical jump power, and more embarrassing is that the recreational swimmers had a higher vertical jump then the NCAA athletes (8 inches)! Another note, the NCAA swimmers mean 50 meter time was 32.1 seconds.

The vertical leap test measures the ability to assess power, explosive strength and the use of strength. Future studies should look at vertical leap between sprint swimmers vs. distance swimmers. One would expect sprinters to have a higher vertical leap due to their higher concentration in type II muscle fibers.

The second relevant article was done in the UK and studied how a 8 week plyometric training program influenced swimming start variables. This plyometric program was closely monitored, progressive, and used proper (high) intensities to have maximum changes. On a safety note, plyometric training can be dangerous if used too aggressively too soon or on improper surfaces. The plyometric training enhanced the swimmer's time from start to head entrance, distance off start and 5.5 meter time. 5.5 meters was used, because in their pre-findings this distance was before children had influences from kicking and breakout. The children averaged a decrease by .59 seconds in 5.5 meters! This is a 15% improvement. The habitual training group also improved, but only .12 seconds. This .49 second difference would easily influence any race in swimming.

The only variable that was unaffected was angle of entrance from the dive. I would have guessed this angle would have changed too, but if only velocity was increased then it makes sense that no significant changes were noted.

References:
  1. McCullough AS, Kraemer WJ, JS, Solomon-Hill GF Jr, Hatfield DL, Vingren JL, Ho JY,Fragala MS, Thomas GA, H√§kkinen K, Maresh CM. Factors affecting flutter kicking speed in women who are competitive and recreational swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2130-6.
  2. Bishop DC, Smith RJ, Smith MF, Rigby HE. Effect of plyometric training on swimming block start performance in adolescents. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2137-4.
By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, Swimming World Magazine Columnist, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.