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Dryland Mistake: Squat Part II

In previous Dryland Mistake installments we’ve covered the bench press (part I and II), inverse row (part I and II, pushup, and squat).  In this post, we’ll break down common squat flaws and offer a few quick remedies (For other squat articles from the Swim Sci team, see Knee Stress during Squats, More on Squatting, Front Squat = Backstroke Start, Teaching a Squat, and Goblet Squat).

Despite its popularity, the squat is not always the best exercise choice for the lower body.   It’s often a convenient “because we gotta hit the legs” but for many swimmers who bring injuries or fatigue to weight room, other exercises may be more suitable at certain times.   Yes, all healthy swimmers should demonstrate proper bodyweight squat form, but whether a loaded squat is an appropriate exercise for an individual or team program will depend on circumstances. 

Nonetheless, if you’re gonna do squats you might as well do them right.  In fact, there are far too many individuals who prematurely omit squats from their routine or head to the leg press because squats cause them problems.  These folks remind me of the old Dan John (renowned strength coach) line about people who complain about knee or back pain while squatting: “Squats don’t cause you pain…whatever you just did caused you pain, but whatever you just showed me was not a squat!”

Before we get to the faults and fixes, remember, nothing substitutes individual screening for your athletes to prevent these flaws from arising.  However, we do recognize that coaches often must act “on the fly” in a group setting, even if preseason screening was performed, as movement patterns can change during a competitive season. 

Knee collapse – Knees should track in-line over the feet.  Knees collapsing inward will change muscle recruitment patterns, but more importantly will increase risk of knee, particularly upon the medial meniscus.  Though some might see the "bad" photo as resembling breaststroke mechanics, it makes little sense to load this pattern on land under heavy weight.  Keep the "sport specific" movement separate from the squat pattern.   

Quick fix – Knee abduction with band around the knees or thighs.  Isolated hip strengthening exercises may be useful for some individuals, but integrating corrections into the full squat movement with band resisted knee abduction is more advisable.  A verbal cue to “spread the floor” or “create space” may also work.   

Lost Pelvic Control – Many athletes will lose pelvic control at the bottom, either by "tucking under" or by increasing anterior tilt ("spilling forward").  Though a slight anterior tilt is natural and will protect the spine, too much tilting in either direction will increase injury risk.  

Quick fix – Box squats can help reinforce neuromuscular control at the bottom of the squat if the athlete loses pelvic control.  If it is not a control issue but instead a muscle length issue, consider addressing hamstring flexibility (see, How and When to Stretch Your Hamstring)

Torso Tilt forward – Torso tilts forward during the movement, most commonly during a back squat.  Some forward tilt is natural, but excess tilting should be corrected.

Quick fix – Front loaded squats such as a front squat or a goblet squat.  If you don’t counterbalance the weight with an upright posture, you fall on your face!   “Face the wall” squats without weight are another drill in which it is literally impossible to fall forward.  If you insist on loading a back squat (a less than optimal choice in our opinion due to shoulder stress), a reactive drill with bands is a viable corrective strategy.

Chicken neck – Head comes out of alignment, neck becomes un-packed.  Often results from an restricted thoracic spine. 

Quick fix – Cueing proper gaze may also correct this problem as the head and neck will follow the gaze.  Teach the athlete where their eyes should look during the movement (similar concept to training head position in the water).  If there is a thoracic spine restriction, perform thoracic spine mobility drills.    

Insufficient depth – Some athletes don’t cheat with any of the above listed flaws, but instead hit the brakes before their thighs reach parallel to the ground.  

Quick fix – Assisted squats by holding onto an object or a suspension trainer can help achieve depth. 

This is not an exhaustive list of faults and fixes, but does sample the most common errors.  Further, though heavy squats are not always appropriate within a dry-land program, the squat movement pattern does have relevance to starts and turns, thus rewarding sound mechanics on land.  Most importantly, these cues should aid one’s ability to spot flaws and deliver appropriate corrections on the spot.  Each of these corrective drills can substitute for regular squats during a workout and can help create the necessary individualization within a generalized team program.  

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Knee Stress During Different Squat Loads and Depths

The squat is a commonly prescribed exercise in many dry-land programs. This multi-joint and multi-muscle exercise remains under scrutiny as it targets many muscle groups, but may increase joint forces at the knee.

Studies have suggested increasing the squat depth results in increased gluteus maximus activation. Also, previous studies suggest knee laxity remains the same following a 8 week training program with thigh angle above parallel or below parallel squats.

However, conflicting studies exist on the amount of knee stress in squats of various depths. The aim of this study was to compare peak external knee flexion moments (pEKFM) during the squat with loads and depths that are often prescribed, including depth-specific 1-repetition maximum (1RM). Overall, the study looked to determine the amount of knee stress at different depths, specifically using depth-specific 1RM predictions which has yet to be studies exclusively.

What was done
Sixteen healthy, recreationally trained men performed nine different squat loads and depths while the pEKFM was measured. The three pre-determined squat depths were thigh being above parallel, thigh parallel, and below parallel to the ground. These three depths were performed unloaded, 50% 1RM, 85% 1RM. At the start of the investigation, depth-specific 1RM squat loads were determined.

The largest 1RM was found for the above parallel squat. Increases in either load or depth for the back squat significantly increased pEKFM.


This study found the typical decreases in squat load seen with increasing squat depth were not enough to offset the increases in pEKFM seen with increasing knee flexion.  One main reason previous studies may not have found differences in pEKFM is they did not use depth-specific 1-RM predictive values.

Practical Implication
This study suggests pEKFM increases with increasing load and depth during the back squat. For this reason, the dry-land coach or anyone working with a swimmer must take this into consideration when designing dry-land programs, especially while working with those at risk for breast injuries (breaststroke).

Related Reading

Cotter JA, Chaudhari AM, Jamison ST, Devor ST. Knee Joint Kinetics in Relation to Commonly Prescribed Squat Loads and Depths.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Oct 18. [Epub ahead of print]  

Swimming Science Research Review 

This is a piece of the Swimming Science Research Review. Read Swimming Science Research Review November 2012 for a complete list of the articles reviewed.

Sign-up here to receive this month's edition and all future publications for only $10/month. Each edition covers articles ranging from biomechaincs, physiology, rehabilitation, genetic, and much more! These reviews explain the latest sports science research in straightforward language.

This will help you apply knowledge in the review to the pool deck, separating yourself from your peers!

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A comparison of maximal squat strength and 5-, 10-, and 20-meter sprint times, in athletes and recreationally trained men

Sprint running performance is an important aspect of many sports. Various studies have studied the relationship between strength and sprinting performance and it appears maximal free weight squat strength and sprint performance are correlated in well-trained individuals.

This study looked to compare maximal back squat strength and 5-, 10-, and 20-m sprint performances and their relationships in well-trained athletes and recreationally trained individuals.

What was done
Twenty-four, professional, rugby league players and twenty recreationally trained individuals performed maximal squat strength and sprint performances on separate days. On the sprint day, participants performed three 20-m sprints, where 5, 10, and 20 m times were assessed.

There was not significantly significant different between the two groups in the 5-meter sprint, however there was statistically significant different times in the 10- and 20-meter times.

Statistically significant correlations were found between 5-m sprint times in both groups, however, in the 10- and 20- meter distances, only the recreational group had significant correlations with relative strength.

The lack of difference between times in the 5-meter run is potentially due to the innate properties involved in this short a distance. In the longer runs, the lack of correlation with relative strength in the well-trained group is potentially due to the stretch-shortening cycle, therefore reducing the relationship between maximal strength and sprint performance over longer distances.

Practical Implication
The correlation between maximal strength and swimming already lacks evidence. If running does not have a direct correlation with squat strength, then it is unlikely swimming has any correlation. Also, the only correlation was found in the 5-meter distance, a race much shorter than any swimming distance. 

This study also did not look at elite athletes, making the connection between these participants and elite swimmers likely minimally. However, it supports the notion that maximal squat strength does not appear to be relative for running and likely swimming.

Related Reading
Further evidence for the Principle of Specificity and the limited (to zero) applications of “cross training” for performance enhancement. 

Swimming Science Research Review 
This is a piece of the July Swimming Science Research Review. Read Swimming Science Research Review September 2012 for a complete list of the articles reviewed.

Sign-up here to receive this month's edition and all future publications for only $10/month. Each edition covers articles ranging from biomechaincs, physiology, rehabilitation, genetic, and much more! These reviews  explain the latest sports science research in straightforward language.
This will help you apply knowledge in the review to the pool deck, separating yourself from your peers!
And don’t worry, there’s no fixed commitment period, so if you don’t want to continue receiving the monthly publication, you can just cancel your payment whenever you want.


More on Squatting

Last week Dr. Mullen’s squat article (Dryland Mistake: Squat) raised some compelling discussion. Although written from an anecdotal voice, the recommendation is based on science, even if not expressly stated. In this follow up, I’ll address literature supporting that article’s conclusions and discuss more on squatting.

To be clear, there is no study saying “squats are more dangerous than other exercises.”  Yet science does not mean we exclude logic.  Personal observation carries less reliability than the various research layers, but research is particularly limited to test whether something causes injury.  Its one thing if there’s a large population that voluntarily injures themselves (distance runners are one example).  Quite different with predicting whether a particular exercise is harmfu
l, which gets into thorny ethical territory. 

One point overlooked is screening.  Check someone’s squat mechanics before loading up with a bar (and if their mechanics are suboptimal, don’t automatically run for the leg press machine, but that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion!)  If someone has good squat mechanics, a bilateral squat becomes a safer choice, subject to intelligent weight progressions and sound movement patterns under stress.  However, if someone squats poorly without weight, putting a weight on their back is unlikely to improve things.  Much better to find out what someone’s squat looks like with an unweighted squat than with a bar and some giant wheels on their back.  (See the COR Movement Screen for more on swim specific screening).

Butler (2010) explored biomechanical differences in lower extremity joints between different Functional Movement Screen deep squat classifications. A “3” in the FMS scoring is a pristine squat, “2” is satisfactory, and “1” is a faulty squat (“0” is pain, but not included in this study).  You don’t have to use the FMS scoring system or the FMS itself, but for sake of this research it does offer a mechanism to differentiate experimental groups.  Authors noted significant differences at the ankle, knee, and hip comparing each squat category, particularly when comparing 3’s to 1’s. 

A fundamentally sound squat requires particular ranges of motion at the key joints.  If mobility and stability don’t occur within those joints, those movements will come from someplace else, placing the body at risk.  But if joint doesn’t move properly in saggital plane, where is that movement coming from?  Your conscious mind doesn’t always get to choose where stress will be distributed, but certain compensations are predictable.  The picture below is revealing.      
If movement is not available in the saggital plane at the hip and ankle, the body may choose excess mobility in the frontal plane via knee valgus.  It may also lose control of the saggital plane with the knees moving forward or the back rounding.  

Macrum (2012) studied 30 healthy individuals in a bilateral (two legged) squat.  One group performed a squat as normal, the other group used a wedge under each foot to restrict ankle dorsiflexion.  Adding the wedge increased both peak knee valgus and median knee displacement.  Authors noted, “Altering ankle-dorsiflexion starting position during a double-leg squat resulted in increased knee valgus and MKD, as well as decreased quadriceps activation and increased soleus activation. These changes are similar to those seen in people with patellofemoral pain.”

One reason to sometimes prefer single leg work for squatting-type movements is that you simply can’t put as much weight on your back.  Even though you have two limbs to support a heavy weight, your body doesn’t always get to decide where the stress is distributed.  Asymmetries are well supported by the literature as a reliable predictor of injury.  They are more easily addressed in single leg environment. 

Muscle activation also differs between single leg versus bilateral work.  McCurdy (2010) studied female division I athletes and found higher muscle activation in the gluteus medius and hamstring in the single leg versus two legged squat, the latter of which showed more quadriceps activation. 

No one is suggesting you don’t squat.  As noted in the previous comment section, the squat is a fundamental movement pattern that all healthy individuals should train.  Its more about using the data to select the proper squat, whether it’s a single leg squat variation, split squat, Bulgarian squat, or a counterbalance squat (CBS) (weight held in front…a goblet squat is one example of a counterbalance squat).  Lynn (2012) compared the counterbalance squat to the regular squat and found the “CBS produces a more hip-dominant and less knee-dominant squat movement pattern and could be used in exercise programs aimed at producing more hip-dominant movement patterns.”

This latter study also raises the importance of understanding corrections.  Some coaches may know what a good squat looks like, but do they know how to fix it.  Thinking about good technique is a start but often an inadequate strategy.  Better to have a library of drill progressions to facilitate the learning process.   

The words of caution are not based on opinion alone.  Yes, it requires some extrapolation from related data, but there is scientific basis why a bilateral squat can be a provocateur for dryland injuries.  We can reach this conclusion via a research trail if not with a single study.  Most importantly, screen and assess mechanics first, correct any problems, and then place load on the system. 

  1. Macrum E, Bell DR, Boling M, Lewek M, Padua D.  Effect of limiting ankle-dorsiflexion range of motion on lower extremity kinematics and muscle-activation patterns during a squatJ Sport Rehabil. 2012 May;21(2):144-50.
  2. Lynn SK, Noffal GJ.  Lower extremity biomechanics during a regular and counterbalanced squat.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Sep;26(9):2417-25.
  3. McCurdy K, O'Kelley E, Kutz M, Langford G, Ernest J, Torres M.  Comparison of lower extremity EMG between the 2-leg squat and modified single-leg squat in female athletes.  J Sport Rehabil. 2010 Feb;19(1):57-70.
  4. Butler RJ, Plisky PJ, Southers C, Scoma C, Kiesel KB.  Biomechanical analysis of the different classifications of the Functional Movement Screen deep squat test. Sports Biomech. 2010 Nov;9(4):270-9.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Dryland Mistake: Squat

If you’re a frequent reader of this website, the headline “Dryland Mistake: Squat” may make you scratch your head. In the past, we have discussed teaching a squat and the front squats application to the backstroke start

The role of strength and conditioning in swimming is highly controversial, as it seems out-of-water strength doesn’t translate to swimming improvement in most events. However, a recent study from Portugal suggests handgrip strength correlated with 100-meter freestyle success in female age-group swimmers. This brings up a whole separate debate, as dry-land and swimming is highly complex. 

However, whether you agree athletes should perform heavy strength training is irrelevant as it is widely accepted general strength and exercise variation is key for youth development of motor control and strength, no matter what sport.

However, the squat poses a few problems despite its common use in sports and resistance training program, a question sparked by strength coach Mike Boyle and was further discussed in the “Strength of Evidence” podcast.

The main issue with squats (specifically heavy loaded squats) is the accompanied risk of injury. Now let’s be honest, all exercises have their associated injury risk, but when someone gets hurt in the weight room squats, deadlifts, and bench press are the common injurious exercises. For swimmers (and all athletes) the first priority of the strength coach is to keep the athletes healthy. This puts this exercise under scrutiny as injuries MUST NOT OCCUR IN DRY-LAND! Remember is the reward worth the risk?

This makes squatting (heavy loaded) a potential dry-land mistake, as it potentially increases injury risk. Moreover, alternative exercises exist which are potentially just, if not more, beneficial. The main exercise Mr. Boyle discussed was the Bulgarian Deadlift (BDL) also known as the rear foot elevated squat. This exercise is unilateral and likely puts less stress on the low back.  Moreover, the BDL increases the emphasis on the legs, which likely stresses the glutes and quads more than squats, but most importantly it may decrease the risk of injury as the spine remains vertical, even with heavy weights. It also uses reciprocal hip activation (front of one leg and back of the other), similar to long axis swimming kicking.  

To summarize, squats alone are not a dry-land mistake if performed properly, but heavy loaded squats are potentially more injurious than other, similarly effective exercises like the BDL. Heavy squats are an advanced strength training exercise, yet most swimmers (even elites) are actually novices on dry-land. Heavy squats are fine if you have worked your way through the progression, which actually takes years of daily practice and which most swimmers have not achieved, nor should they, spend the time in the pool!

We wouldn't have a novice swimmer do sets of 200 flys...its obvious to any swimmer and swim coach that getting there takes years of progression and daily training. So why would we take swimmers who are relative beginners in the gym and give them exercises (heavy squats) that are equivalent to giving novice swimmers 200 fly sets? Before any exercises are prescribed a systematic screen is necessary for finding weak areas, then these should be addressed for swimmers of all ages. Just remember, keep the exercises safe, effective, and efficient, not matter the deviation found.

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.