Step-By-Step Guide to Dryland Periodization for Swimmers

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Dryland periodization is never a simple topic, and I’d be doing my profession a disservice to try to sum up such a complicated topic in a short 1000 words.  This post could easily turn into a 100,000 word book and create more questions than answers.  But what I can do is try to explain periodization of strength training in a simple enough manner that a swim coach, without access to a Strength and Conditioning program can give their athlete a weight training regimen to coincide with the rigorous in-water training the swimmers are already doing. In fact, many argue the efficacy of strength training for swimmers:

4 Types of Dryland Periodization

1. Conjugate Method Dryland Periodization

For purposes of full-disclosure, I’m very biased to the American-Conjugate style training system popularized by Westside Barbell (as I write this, I’m actually on a training trip at Westside).  This is a system that has been modified from the old Bulgarian System for Powerlifting, as opposed to Olympic Weightlifting as in the original module.  This consists of a Max Effort session, which involves working up to 100% of a 1 rep-max on a given lift, once per week, in addition to a Dynamic Effort session, consisting of lifting weights in between 40-70% of a 1RM for maximum speed over several reps and sets.  This of course is on the basis of the physics equation: Force = Mass x Acceleration.  In which acceleration is trained via the dynamic method, and mass being manipulated via the maximum effort method.  The exercises are then rotated every 1-3 weeks to avoid overtraining/ adaptation to the exercises.  Barbell weight is then mixed with band tension, as well as chain weight (commonly referred to as accommodated resistance), and although this is not specific to this particular system, many would credit its popularity to it.

This is not a comprehensive look at the Conjugate system, just a quick introduction to a very complex sport system which has been constantly evolving over the past 25 years.  And as I stated earlier, I’m rather biased to this, and that is simply because it works.  I use this system in my own personal training for my endeavors in powerlifting, and many of my athletes train under the same system; having said this, I do understand the complexity of the system, as well as its place in training athletes.  Only my most advanced clients and athletes use this system because of its frequent changes and high level of intensity, which may not be best for athletes which are also balancing a high sport-specific training load.

2. Linear Dryland Periodization

With a swimming population, the majority of the athletes are very young in weight training age.  This means that these athletes can follow a rather simple protocol and achieve some pretty spectacular results (commonly referred to as ‘beginner gains’ in gym lingo).  A very simple protocol which can be followed by this population is linear, or western periodization.  This is where the main strength exercises are followed and progress by a direct or ‘linear’ increase in a specific aspect of training, such as: repetitions (how do you even choose repetitions?), sets, volume, or most commonly, weight.  In this system, which is pre-planned, and leads up to a particular date, or event, the athlete will continue to make progress and peak at the time of competition.

3. Undulating Dryland Periodization

One of my favorite methods of periodization, though, is undulating.  In this method, percentages of an individuals 1RM on a particular exercise are varied throughout a particular period of time.  The idea behind this change in intensity being that, as the stimuli (intensity of 1RM) changes, so will the athlete’s adaptation to exercise, therefore the athlete will be able to continue to make progress, while someone on a linear module may have already reached a training plateau. 

4. Merging Dryland Periodization Philosophies

The introduction above to different periodization modules is just that—an introduction.  Sport scientists spend years trying to develop the perfect periodization plan for athletes, which compose dozens of different modules, but conjugate, linear, and undulating tend to be the most common camps in Strength and Conditioning (The Ultimate Dryland for Swimmers Guide)

So what is best for swimmers?  
A merged approach, taking the best qualities of each program and combining it to fit our needs tends to work best.  From linear periodization, we can take the regimented outlook which leads up to one meet, or series of meets where the athlete is the strongest.  We should also appreciate striving for improved strength in each subsequent workout, and although this may seem like an unlikely feat as an athlete enters a period of high volume in the pool, the athlete’s young weight training age tends to help accelerate strength gains even under periods of such duress in the season.

From an undulating approach, we can change rep ranges each week to decrease the possibility of stagnation, or a strength plateau.  A great way to do this is using the same exercise over a period of several weeks (generally referred to as a ‘mesocycle’), and having a starting rep pattern, say 3x6 on a given exercise with 100 lbs., then following it the next week with 3x8 at 100 lbs. (improving the athletes repetition-max), followed by a reduction in repetitions the following week, with an increase in weight, 3x6 again, but now with 110 lbs.

The conjugate method is also great for preventing plateaus in training.  Rotate the main strength exercises frequently enough, approximately every 4-8 weeks to create new stimuli.  The changes should not be too large, however.  Exercises should be changed but kept in the same movement pattern.  In the true conjugate fashion, barbells can be rotated through specialty bars such as cambered bars, buffalo bars, fat bars, etc..  But because many of these are not available, a good substitute can be back squat to front squat, or flat bench press to low incline bench press, and so on.  Again, this method popularized accommodating resistance tools such as chains and bands.  If you have the means to use these tools, please do.  These can greatly increase an athlete’s power output, while reducing deceleration as the bar passes a sticking point (with bands, the sticking point in a lift is reduced because of added tension on the bar as it is moved).

An approach such as this should only be taken for main exercises in a workout.  Because of the additional, sport-specific demands of the athlete, trying to progress weights on every exercise will be far too time consuming, as well as too tedious. 

Because of this I suggest an approach that looks something like this:

  • General Warm Up - consisting of soft-tissue work, mobility exercises, etc. 
  • Main Exercises – Here is where the periodization can come into effect, use big, compound exercises which work a major movement pattern such as: squats, hip hinges, presses, and pulls. 
  • Accessory/Corrective work – The weights here don’t necessarily need to be improved every week (try adding 5 lbs. to your triceps extension weight every week… Not going to happen).  Just make sure good form is being used.
  • Cool Down/ Movement Work – Time to cycle out some lactate from the blood, return the heart rate to resting, and engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest & digest part of the brain).  No need to progress anything here.

Dryland Periodization for Meets

This is going to vary much depending on circumstances, like meet importance, number of events, etc.. The first thing to dial back when tapering in a dryland program will be volume in accessory work.  This means that the additional exercises after the strength portion should be cut back in number of sets, and total exercises performed.  Around 14 days out from the meet, accessory work can be cut to a few basic corrective exercises, and the main strength component can be cut in intensity (reduction in total poundage, or percentage of 1RM lifted), while focusing on bar speed and acceleration.  About a week out from the meet, dryland can be dropped all together, or reduced to just focus on recovery, using tools such as breathing drills, foam rolling, mobility work, etc..Although pre-season dryland should be the most arduous, volume can be manipulated throughout the season to elicit a desired training effect, and should mirror the volume and intensity of in-pool training.  To increase the training volume, adding more sets of the strength component can be a great place to start.  To stem off of an earlier example, if you start off the season with 3x6 on a given exercise, you can have the athletes add another set the following week, and then yet another the week after this.  Volume can also be added to the accessory work, but this should never come at the cost of a reduction in strength, or swimming training.  Right before the last push in training prior to a taper is a great time to add more volume in the accessory exercises.  This will help preserve muscle mass, increase blood flow, and expedite recovery via increased blood flow to skeletal muscle.  REMEMBER: Just as you would be hesitant to add volume and intensity to a swimming program simultaneously, you should also be weary of doing so with dryland-based exercises.    

Dryland Periodization Wrap-Up

Periodization is a concept hard enough to make the most seasoned coaches frustrated and confused.  Just remember that 80% of your results will come from the first 20% of what you put in.  Always focus on compound lifts, and know that anything done in dryland training is not going to be swim-specific.  Strength training will create a better athlete through reduced risk of injury, improved tissue quality, increased force and power output, improved proprioception and heightened neural function.  Get a strong grasp on understanding dryland basics and you will have a much better athlete. Then you won't be wasting your time with just stretching...

If you're looking for a complete guide to setting up your team's dryland, checkout Dryland for Swimmers.

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 with inquiries.

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