Internal Program Review: Strength Training for an Elite Freshman Swimmer

John Matulevich Dryland, John Matulevich Leave a Comment

If you randomly sample 20 swim coaches and ask them what should be the purpose of dryland training, you'll likely get 20 answers. If you were to ask me that same question at 20 different points throughout the year, you'd also get 20 answers. Given this, my ability to answer hypotheticals surrounding dryland training for swimmers is a bit limited. But what I have done in the past for my own site is explain some of our programming, how and where a program fits into a particular training cycle, the basis for our exercise selection and so on...

Because these Internal Program Reviews that I've done for my company's site have been viewed so favourably, I wanted to extend this series to our audience at Swimming Science.

This particular program was designed for an elite-level, male, freshman high school swimmer. This sample day is Day 2 in a 3-day program, done concurrently with his off-season swim and/or baseball practice. Because this is only Day 2, there are obviously other elements of the program that are missing (including warm up and cool down details, some movement patterns, work done to correct movement deficiencies, etc.).

With all this said, let's get into the details of what makes this program so effective.

1. Primary Exercises Should Yield Primary Outcomes

The majority of clients, regardless of athletic background at Ruthless Performance undergo some box squat variant throughout their career with us. Earlier on in this athlete's training, he was doing still doing box squats, but with a dumbbell in the goblet position. As his training advanced, so did his need for more advanced exercise variations. Originally, with a Dumbbell Goblet Box Squat, we were trying to encourage the development of the hip hinge and posterior chain recruitment. Now--years later, we're using the box squat for overall power development as well as the original goal of posterior chain recruitment (think hams and glutes).

Throughout his years of training with us, we have spent time away from the box squat, but as with most of our clients (more than 80% of on-going trainees), the box squat is a staple of how we make athletes better. To avoid turning this into a "how-to" article, I suggest searching for Westside Barbell and using their box squat set up as a starting point, but with a slightly narrower stance.

Between sets of the box squat, this athlete is performing sets of turkish get-ups. Considering that I don't have the space to explain the box squat within this article, explaining the turkish get-up is completely out of the question. Suffice it to say, this is an extraordinarily complex exercise that we're adding in as an 'A2' exercise for a few reasons. The Turkish Get-Up helps develop proprioception (which can be thought of as general body awareness in space, or catch/feel in swimmer lingo), requires a significant amount of Central Nervous System input (which helps further ingrain the pattern of the box squat), ensures thoracic mobility for subsequent spinal loading and proper positioning.

2. Accessory Work Should be Well-Paced and Non-Competing

The Glute Ham Raise (GHR) is a tough exercise, it can be even too tough for some higher-level athletes. This being said, I still incorporated it into this athlete's program, but we modified it so that he would have some band assistance, lessening the total load throughout the exercise. With the GHR, one of the primary benefits is the stimulation of the hamstrings. Many believe that deadlifts, RDLs, and other hip hinges generally provide ample hamstring stimulation. These variations only emphasise the function of the hamstrings that extends the hips. By adding in the GHR, we are able to utilize the secondary function of the hamstrings more effectively. Though this athlete is not a breaststroker, he does regularly swim the IM. As many know, the breaststroke can cause lasting knee problems, what many don't know is that stronger hamstrings are a quick solution to this nagging problem. You can avoid the machine (and strength) requirements of this exercise by substituting in hamstring curls with a machine or band tension.

Much like with the Turkish Get-Ups as the A2, the Half-Kneeling Unilateral Overhead Press serves as a means of achieving the overhead position with more frequency and under more strain. Though this position is found at the beginning of each stroke, strengthening this position with weight-bearing exercise can help create lasting changes in the resting position of the shoulder (think about how swimmers tend to sit with their shoulders slumped forward, consider this the anti-venom to that terrible position). Better resting positions yield better shoulder kinematics and therefore improved stroke efficiency and more energy conservation.

You'll also notice how the rep range is rather high on these. Contrary to the text books and bodybuilding magazines, 6-8 reps isn't ideal for everything. As alluded to, the higher repetition count works well with the shoulder to ensure stimulation. Overhead range and strength are pretty good predictors of injury, pain, and dysfunction. Keeping the shoulder strong, and doing so by getting overhead frequently should be a primary goal of strength training for swimmers year-round.

Renegade Rows are a perfect example of maximizing our time spent strength training. The Renegade Row assists in back development while taxing the abs* substantially. These are a great option for coaches and swimmers without weight room access, as they can be completed with some dumbbells and flat ground.

3. Strategic Exercise Selection Should Keep Athletes Engaged

Let me take this out of order and skip ahead to the rower and work my way back to my ending rant on the monkey bar climbs... Because this swimmer is out of season, we constantly need energy system work. I've found that rowing machines are one of the best ways to help athletes achieve more extension (think opposite of sitting), while enhancing the capacities of the target energy system. If this was a complete view of the program from Day 1 to Day 3, you'd see more energy system work ranging from short bouts to a 5:00 Air Assault Bike Max-Distance ride. Energy system work is traditionally best left to the primary skills coach (in this case the swim coach), but strength training concurrently with cardiovascular (energy system) training seems to be the secret weapon against overtraining (an important point for swim coaches who avoid dryland throughout the season).

These rower repeats are short enough to ensure we're using a healthy dose of the Creatine-Phosphate System (short duration energy system), yet performed over the course of enough sets to illicit a very large heart-rate response.

Onto the monkey bar climbs... These are not something that I would've ever gone out of my way to add to a facility or would've even thought about for that matter. Although this athlete is highly skilled, he is still just a high school freshman after all. This means we need to keep as wide of a movement portfolio as possible. Including monkey bar climbs into this portfolio in hindsight, actually seems like a no-brainer.

The monkey bars do a few things: they enhance grip strength, thus enhancing an athletes ability to demonstrate and build up various components of athleticism, stimulate the rotator cuff (and so so with the shoulder well-outside of its resting position), lengthen the lats and pecs, and generally contribute to the well-being of the athlete.

Many of my thoughts and theories on maximizing performance come from my militantly evolution-based view of human biology. With this in mind, our primate ancestors would've spent considerably more time hang and swinging from tree to tree than they would've spent sitting at desks. Because of this it stands to reason that an athletes' range of motion, shoulder integrity, and spinal health are all best served by performing hangs from overhead as regularly as possible.

You can see some more Internal Program Reviews on RuthlessPerformance.com where I've covered sample days from other programs like a collegiate swimmer's off-season program or another high school swimmer's pre-season strength program.


*I refuse to use the term "core" because it has become mom-speak and muddied with various definitions ranging from any activity done involving the trunk (i.e. everything) to fitness magazines capitalizing on the SEO of "core training" but with the intent of promoting 6-pack abs. Now, guys like Jocko Willink, a Navy Seal, refers to Ab/Core/Midsection training as "Gut Work" to avoid the linguistic debacle completely.

About John Matulevich

John is the owner of Ruthless PerformancePreviously, John was a collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coach (NCAA D2) and record-holding powerlifter (4 WR’s/ 9 SR’s – RPS). John specializes in sports performance, exercise physiology, and injury prevention. He is regularly featured in various print and online publications including EliteFTSStack Media, and Muscle & Strength. John is the Strength & Conditioning expert contributor to Swimming Science where he works to bridge the gap between the fields of coaching and kinesiology. Through Ruthless Performance, John consults for various businesses, teams, and individuals ranging from adolescent through the professional level. John is also active in health policy, business administration, and throughout his local community.

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