Swimmers vs. Bodybuilders

Swimmers vs. Bodybuilders

admin Dr. John Mullen, Dryland, Latest&Greatest 1 Comment

I’m going to share a secret with all of you…the best method to gain strength is to EAT. This means eating anything and everything. The bigger one is the more mass he can move. Eating more will increase your muscle cross sectional area, increase the amount of muscle cross-bridges and increase force production. Unfortunately, in swimming and many other sports, too much mass can yield high water resistance, this is why bodybuilder’s aren’t typically on the pool deck (Just because they wear Speedos, doesn’t mean they can swim).
Many swimmers need to build relative strength. Relative strength is an athlete’s ability to produce a maximum amount of force for their size. As most of you know, I’m not a big guy, approximately 5 feet 10 inches in height and 160 pounds. I’ll never forget the looks I received while working with NHL and NBA players when I lived in Los Angles. I know everyone wondered why these elite athletes were taking orders from a “scrawny” white kid who showed up suited and booted for training. I even know other personal trainers from various backgrounds look down on me for my size, but I strive for similar goals with my athletes — relative strength.

Hell, head to the DMV and you will find many individuals which are bigger than me because they eat and get bigger (most likely have cardiovascular disease or type II diabetes, but that’s erroneous in this case). However, you often times do not see a little guy performing immaculate feats of strength on a regular basis. Who doesn’t remember Gil Stovall making the Olympics? This 5’8″ Olympian would be passed by everyone, even swimmers with no acknowledgement of his athletic talent. At COR, we strive to achieve athletic greatness for athletes of all sizes, realizing the importance of being strong for a specific weight.

As a relative strength athlete and with this my focus, I have been fortunate enough to have an enlightened perspective on the nutritional and athletic needs for these types of athletes, without adding non-functional mass (however, this is mandatory in some instances).

Unfortunately, many strength coaches and personal trainers get into training to improve absolute strength. This leads to mass confusion about which forms of training are best for absolute strength athletes. I remember being in college and reluctant to training designed for athletes with an entirely different need, this happens far too often and is inhibiting elite athletes from reaching their swimming optimization. How many strength coaches know a lick about swimming? How can they design programs surrounding the needs of swimmers if their main goal is to get as big as possible or help a football player add 50 pounds on the offensive line….

To help debunk these absolute strength coaches and confused minds, I have put together a top five lie list associated with relative strength training. These principles have been practiced to help athletes break through plateaus in training and reach for the next level.

Lie Number 1: Weight Lifting will Put on Mass

This old adage will never die! This has plagued the swimming community as long as instructing swimmers to do an “S-Curved” catch (the S-curve is relative to body rotation, it doesn’t need to be stressed…a topic for another day). Improving relative strength is essential and resistance training with various repetition training needs to be utilized to improve muscular imbalances, prevent injuries and optimize performance. This will be achieved with various rep ranges.

Some people feel performing low volume on every exercise with maximal load will not put on mass, others feel doing high repetitions with low load will not put on mass. These thoughts are both incorrect as one needs to implement variable loads. One wouldn’t do 2 reps on a prevention exercise! Also, lifting heavy weights for a few repetitions help many athletes, since swimming requires different stressors.

Lie Number 2: Weight Change is All the Same

Many athletes eat terrible, simple carbohydrate and excessive diet soda, leading to extra blubber. Though it may be true whales utilize blubber to float, swimmers need to strive for improvements in body composition. Just a few days ago, I was on deck with one of my older swimmers and he joked that him and I had lower body fat percentage than the rest of the team and performed much less volume. I chalk this solely up to dietary alterations and being able to utilize high muscle mass to burn fat mass. Also, the blubber is probably not making you a better athlete (mile swimmers and open water athletes may benefit from a little extra blubber, but not as much as everyone thinks). I discussed body composition in an earlier post, discussing the confusion and ignorance of society and actual body fat percentage, this happens in the swim community as well.

Everyone claims to have approximately 3% body fat, but this is highly untrue and perpetuate from ignorant trainers at the gym. To have a true body fat percentage reading a DEXA scan is mandatory. If I had to estimate I’d say the majority of your male swimmers have approximately 12-15% body fat and your females are closer to 20%. I’m not trying to shatter your confidence, I’m being honest, we all have work to do on body composition. All male swimmers should be striving for 8-10% body fat and females between 13-17%. Not to puff my own chest, but I’ve always had an extremely lean and defined physique and the lowest I have ever been on the DEXA is 9%, so I doubt your male athletes are walking around with sub 5%!

Lie Number 3: Weight Lifting is Dangerous

A weight lifting program with proper instruction and monitoring is no more dangerous than hours in the pool, simply put. This is why swim coaches need to get their ass in gear and become familiar with proper lifting techniques or reach out to a qualified professional when necessary. I mean I don’t mind working with swimmers and injuries, but it’s sad to hear the horror stories of injuries which could have been easily prevented. While I’m ranting, how is the United States ranked 12th in the world for broadband connection speed…ridiculous!

Anyway, weight lifting should be a must for all athletes and especially swimmers. Swimmers have highly developed areas of their body (shoulder internal rotators, hip flexors, etc.) which can become more balanced outside of the pool in the weight room.

I’m also going to break a bit of bad news to all your high school and collegiate coaches, half of your female swimmers have a devastating, life altering disease which you can help reverse….Osteopenia (pre-osteoporosis). Everyone has heard of the older adults falling down, breaking their hip and dying soon in the hospital. If you are not using resistance training with your team, you might as well write them a prescription for Boniva in 2020 and tell them to work on their balance. If you think I’m over reacting, look an extract from a recent study:“Study demonstrated more discouraging results as the collegiate female swimmers had lower bone mineral density (BMD) during the preseason by 10-15% compared to all other sports with the largest difference in the lower body, pelvis and spine mineral density. In fact, their total body BMD of 1.121 g/cm2 puts them more than two standard deviations from the mean for their age, indicating a risk for osteoporosis”

Put this on top of any eating disorders your females may have…help them by getting them in the weight room. Don’t perpetuate the problem, help stop it in the tracks, remember as coaches we must improve our swimmers health in the present and future.

Lie Number 4: You Have to Starve YourselfSome swimmers (mostly females…not to point fingers) have the misconception that strict dietary restrictions are necessary to prevent large mass gains. This is far from the truth, dangerous and impedes performance. Relative strength athletes’ consumption is far more important than their absolute strength counterparts. If a swimmer does not eat adequately, their body will run on fumes and will be forced to use gluconeogenesis to form glucose (energy) by degrading amino acids. This outcome is disastrous for performance and health. Building lean body mass (muscle) is essential for optimal performance and maintaining correct fat mass. Lean body mass is the most metabolic form of mass in the body, this is why large muscle bound individuals can consume more calories, they need to feed the beast!

Instead of volume restrictions, nutrient timing and food selection are healthier and beneficial options. Some swimmers will not eat during workouts, to avoid putting on more mass. These swimmers also feel that workout drinks like Surge are a bad idea and lead to weight gain. This is far from the truth and I feel these skinny minnies need Surge and similar drinks more than their bigger counterparts. Small athletes can typically go for a while, and then they suddenly hit a wall. Sometimes an extra boost is needed to scale this wall, preventing increased levels in cortisol and skeletal muscle catabolism. These two physiological results are the reason why skinny jean guys feel like Muammar Gaddafi after a tough workout. Don’t exercise on fumes, fuel the fire.Being able to maintain a higher training frequency is essential for swimmers. No matter if your program is more yardage based like Gregg Troy or analytical like Dave Salo, frequency is the key for these athletes. Think about it, neural drive is a huge component in swimming; this is why a swimmer can miss only 1-2 days of swimming and feel like a wet noodle when they return to the pool. This is also why weak individuals on land can be so good in the water; they have the neural drive and “feel” for the water. Frequency is the key, no coach will deny this. Provide yourself with the tools to handle the frequency and recover.

Lie Number 5: Eccentrics/Negatives Build Mass

This statement does not apply to many swim coaches, because unfortunately many swim coaches do not know what eccentric means. Let’s break down the three phases of muscle contraction: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. To illustrate the differences lets use a bicep curl (you know curls for the girls!)

  • Concentric: This is the common action associated with muscle contraction. In the bicep curl, when you lift the weight towards your upper arm you are performing a concentric contraction.
  • Isometric: Isometric literally means zero movement. When you hold the weight at the top of your bicep curl you are performing an isometric hold
  • Eccentric: As you lower the weight, the muscle fibers are stretched and ripped apart. This highly damages the muscle and causes increased soreness (have you ever been sore 24-48 hours after performing an exercise, you are experiencing DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness secondary to the eccentric phase of the motion).

Despite the belief of eccentrics or negatives making an athlete huge, these forms of movement can be beneficial in the following ways:

  1. Improve tendinopathies. If you’ve read any of my pieces, you will know that every athlete’s body is messed up. Every swim team has swimmers with tendinopathies and labral tears left and right. Eccentric movements help strength and heal tendinopathies, specifically tendinosis.
  2. Improved connective tissue health. If you are performing longer eccentric exercises, then the time under tension (TUT) is increased. This is valuable in connective tissue health.
  3. Improve strength. Using supramaximal lifts can help an athlete gain confidence holding a weight. Moreover, it can help build tendon strength. This should be used sparingly, but must be used during specific phases of training.


I hope this article cleared up some items about resistance training and swimming. There are many benefits for resistance training and swimming, if you don’t perform resistance training you are behind the ball. However, make sure a proper individualized program is performed. Many swim coaches do not know the basics of resistance training, so you may have to look elsewhere for training (not a knock, many strength coaches don’t know what they’re doing either).

If you don’t resistance train as you feel it will make you too big or you were told by your coach it won’t help, it is time to start erasing the lies. Don’t spread the lies any further, begin passing along the truth today!

  • Carbuhn A, Fernandez T, Bragg A, Green J, Crouse S. Sport and training influence bone and body composition in women collegiate athletes. J Strength Cond Res. Jul 2010;24(7):1710-1717.
  • Cressey, E. Relative Strength Myths. T Nation. 
  • Guadalupe-Grau A, Fuentes T, Guerra B, Calbet J. Exercise and bone mass in adults.Sports Med. 2009;39(6):439-468.
  • Hallström H, Melhus H, Glynn A, Lind L, Syvänen A, Michaëlsson K. Coffee consumption and CYP1A2 genotype in relation to bone mineral density of the proximal femur in elderly men and women: a cohort study. Nutr Metab (Lond).2010;7:12.
  • Mudd L, Fornetti W, Pivarnik J. Bone mineral density in collegiate female athletes: comparisons among sports. J Athl Train. 2007 Jul-Sep 2007;42(3):403-408.
  • Velez N, Zhang A, Stone B, Perera S, Miller M, Greenspan S. The effect of moderate impact exercise on skeletal integrity in master athletes. Osteoporos Int. Oct 2008;19(10):1457-1464.
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. 
Originally written on January 2012.

Comments 1

  1. This is an older article. While mostly still true the science of strength training has evolved greatly in the past 10+ years especially when it comes to training strength and power for various sports like swimming and running long distance.
    Power training using explosive movements, low reps and low to moderate weight is essential.
    Strength training is primarily neurological and neuromuscular focused. Therefore high weight, low reps to recruit more neural fibers and neuromuscular junctions without gaining any additional muscle mass.

    Protein for recovery…1gram per body weight. Consume 35-40 grams protein per meal, snack, or shake to ensure 3g leucine to initiate muscle protein synthesis.

    Carbs are for replenishing muscle glycogen and energy. Eat more carbs if you feel tired and sluggish or die at the end of your races.

    There are a number of ergogenic supplements that can provide a huge advantage for swimmers by either buffering lactic acid, helping to recycle ATP quicker, enhance muscle recovery or increase blood flow to working muscles to deliver more oxygen and nutrients.
    Beta-alanine, bi-carbonates
    Creatine, malic acid,
    Dextrose, BCAAs, protein
    L-citrulline, nitrates,
    There are also other supplements that can enhance mental acuity and focus.

    I’m a former college professor and researcher in exercise physiology and sports nutrition. I consult with athletes and coaches about training, nutrition and supplement use to maximize athletic performance.

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