10 Tips for Eff ective Strength Training Programs for Swimming

This article was written by Dr. G John Mullen and cited with his permission.  Dr. Mullen was one of several guest speakers at the 2017 U. S. Masters Swimming National Coaches Clinic in San Mateo, California.

Dr. G. John Mullen, Physical Therapist and Strength Coach Dryland for the Masters Swimmers.  Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy at University of Southern California (USC) and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS).  At USC, he was a clinical research assistant performing research on adolescent diabetes, lung adaptations to swimming, and swimming biomechanics.  G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, and Swimmer Magazine.  He is currently the owner of COR, providing Physical Therapy, Personal Training, and Swim Lessons to swimmers and athletes of all skills and ages.  He is also the creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science, Swimming Science Research Review, Dryland for Swimmers, and the Swimming Troubleshooting System.

To become a better swimmer, training out of the pool is vital.  One important part of a successful swimmer’s training program is strength training.  Unfortunately, many strength training programs for swimming are out-dated or incorrect.  Swimmers who want to become stronger without influencing their body weight turn to strength training that improves muscle power, intensity, and focus when done properly.

Here are 10 tips that will make your swimming workouts more effective.

  1. Don’t put too much stress on your shoulders

Your arms and shoulders are essential for your swim, but improper technique and training can lead to shoulder injuries.  Strength training for swimming requires precise and targeted training.  Instead of doing a lot of overhead work or even Bench Presses, try exercises that improve shoulder stability and work the muscles in your back and posterior shoulder—exercises such as the 3-Point Y, 90/90 External Rotation and Cable/Heavy Band Face Pulls.

  1. Start light and gradually increase difficulty

You are not an Olympic lifter, so don’t try to pump out that kind of weight.  Athletes who begin new strength training programs for swimming must start out with light weights before gradually increasing weight.  For example, it’s best to perform a Bodyweight Squat and master technique before adding resistance of any kind.  Apply this strategy across the board.  Movement quality is always better than lifting lots of weight.

  1. Strength-train in phases

Work with a trainer to develop a strength training program for swimmers, in phases.  First, establish your goals and limitations.  Then progress through a training program, establishing resting points and focusing on the final phase for recovery before competing.

  1. Don’t do too many repetitions

Overloading with too much weight is dangerous, and so is doing too many repetitions.  Instead of doing the same number of repetitions as a weightlifter, you, as a swimmer, must modify each sequence.  Reducing the number of repetitions reduces stress and the potential for injury.  Remember, you get high volume in the pool; try something else out of the pool.

  1. Put down the weights before competition

The final phase of strength training for swimmers is to stop lifting right before competition.  Taking a break before a taper meet allows your muscles to recover and rebuild.

  1. Train in the off-season

The off-season may last only a few weeks, but it’s a great time to put in some serious swimming strength training.  Strength training during off-season allows swimmers to maintain muscle health and performance.  The off-season is a good time for strength training, because stiffness won’t affect performance.

  1. Use resistance for range of motion

Strength training for swimmers must involve movement through a range of motion.  Not only does resistance training improve range of motion, it allows swimmers to pull through the water more efficiently.

  1. Train with a purpose

Dry land exercises must be done with a purpose.  An effective dry land program includes targeted exercises that combine strength, flexibility and power.  Dry land exercises are important for all swimmers, from grade schoolers to elite level, but not all exercises are transferable.  Any weight training must directly translate to success in the pool.  That is not the case for a good many strength training workouts for swimming.  Swimmers should not just start doing Push-Ups and powering out Dumbbell Presses.  The risk for improper form with weight is too great.  Instead, swimmers should do variations of common strength training methods, mastering bodyweight training first.

  1. Don’t work harder, work smarter

This sounds like a phrase on an office cubicle wall but it truly applies.  Just because you are in a weight room doesn’t mean you have to go big for more power.  You will only end up hurting yourself.  Swimmers need to work with trainers who can guide them on form, appropriate weights, and injury-prevention methods.

  1. Target to build-up strength

Many swimmers shy away from weight training because of its potential to increase body mass.  This does not have to be the case with a well-designed strength training program.  A carefully constructed strength training program for swimmers will increase power and muscle efficiency without “bulking up” and increasing body weight.

Is strength training safe for swimmers?

This is a question that comes up a lot.  Is strength training for swimmers safe?  Yes, if you follow these tips and have a dedicated support system, it is safe.  When a swimmer takes his or her training out of the pool and starts a dry land program, he or she must have a purpose and a goal.  If coaches and swimmers are concerned about safety, soreness and exhaustion, they should seek professional advice and training.  Swimmers cannot tackle strength training on their own. This only leads to injury and exhaustion.

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