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Going Dry Part I- An Introduction

Land training for swimming is controversial. It’s under-emphasized, over-emphasized, or simply ignored.

While most coaches believe it has some merit, many don’t feel comfortable prescribing it. It feels too ‘out there’. Others believe designing an effective is easily done by anyone and any approach has merit. Neither perspective is accurate.

While dryland is not rocket science, it’s also NOT just pushups and sit-ups, although they could be appropriate tools!

In a series of articles, I’d like to try to simplify the process of putting together a productive dryland training program by accomplishing the following tasks-

  • Appreciate why dryland training may be necessary.

  • Identify the major goals of a comprehensive dryland program.

  • Identify the sub-components of each major goals.

  • Discuss how to put everything together.

In doing so, I will work on drilling down to the basic, inarguable principles. Once some basic principles have been established, I’ll work through the programming considerations that evolve from those basic principles. My hope is that by doing so, coaches can understand the principles behind dryland training design and their implications. With this understanding, they can more effectively problem solve for their own specific context, as opposed to resorting to copying what others are doing.


A quick note before we start. While I believe that land-based training can definitely enhance performance, a world-class dryland program will never correct for a poorly designed and executed swimming program.

Dryland is a performance-enhancer, not a performance-creator. While it is an opportunity to establish a competitive advantage, be assured that the inability to do so simply means you will need to look elsewhere for opportunities to win.

Because dryland is not a performance-creator and not strictly necessary for enhancing performance, the golden rule of dryland emerges-

No swimmer should ever be acutely injured during dryland training or acquire an overuse injury as a result of dryland training. EVER. The potential performance gains from dryland are never worth the performance losses that come with injury. EVER.

Be conservative. Having a great plan allows you to do be patient and let the process unfold. It takes time.

Why Should We Train Outside of the Pool?

At its simplest, training on land should be performed for the following reasons-

  • To accomplish what can’t be accomplished in the pool.

  • To accomplish what can’t get easily be accomplished in the pool.

  • To accomplish what you don’t accomplish in the pool due to circumstance or choice.

Dryland training complements swimming training by creating adaptations that cannot, or cannot easily, be accomplished in the pool. If you are performing dryland for any other reason, you are likely using time and energy in an unproductive manner.

What Can’t Be Accomplished in the Pool


The impact of gravity is greatly reduced in the water. This has consequences.

Gravity can do a lot of cool stuff to the human body when used intelligently. It can be used to create overload on any physiological systems of the body.

Simply, the training of training on land is to take advantage of the overload opportunities provided by gravity. THAT’S IT.

What Can’t Be Accomplished in the Pool, Easily

With enough creativity, most adaptations can be facilitated in the water. However, gravity can be harnessed to stimulate certain adaptions more easily. They are-

  • Create postural stability.

  • Achieve optimal range of motion.

  • Enhance force production through an optimal range of motion.

As far as the goals of a dryland program, that’s pretty much it. The main purpose of dryland is to accomplish the goals above.

It may seem simple because it is. That is the foundation of any dryland program. To be fair, once we tease these adaptations apart, it becomes more complicated. But at the core, dryland is about increasing range of motion and improving force production through that range of motion with appropriate posture.

One could probably accomplish these goals in the pool with enough creativity and ingenuity. If you HAD to make it happen, there’s a way, although it might not be particularly efficient or effective. But you don’t have to, so it’s silly to try. Use the best tool to do so, and that’s training on land.

What Isn’t Being Accomplished in the Pool Due to Circumstance or Choice

Some programs have limited pool time. However, they may still have opportunities to train outside of the pool. Additionally, a swimmer may have a pre-existing injury that limits their ability to perform a full training load in the pool, yet their injury allows them to perform certain types of training outside the pool. Finally, a coach may choose to limit the amount of swimming certain individuals perform (i.e. mature sprinters) for a variety of reasons, choosing to accomplish certain adaptations outside of the pool.

In these specific cases, the following land-based options can make sense-

  • Various forms of aerobic conditioning.

  • Various forms of muscular endurance training.

  • Simulated swimming training (i.e. VASA trainer or stretch cords).

In this case, dryland training is ‘option B’ training where you are making the best of a less than ideal situation to prepare swimmers for competition. In this case, the above options make great sense to ensure that required adaptations are taking place. However, if ample pool time is available, these adaptations are best pursued through specific training in the pool.

Moving Forward

To conclude this introductory article, we’ll take a brief look at the major groups of adaptive responses we’re looking to accomplish by effectively using gravity. These adaptations are listed in terms of priority for long-term development. While skipping steps can actually accelerate short-term progress, it can come at a long-term performance cost and increased exposure to the possibility of injury. In future articles, we’ll explore the desired adaptations, and how to best facilitate them during individual training sessions and throughout a training plan.

While these 4 categories may appear to be distinct categories, that is not the case. There is overlap between the different sections. A single exercise can, and ideally should, address multiple components at the same time. Further, these different training goals these do not need to trained in sequence. They can be pursued simultaneously. However, the relative emphasis should be placed with the initial priorities, with the emphasis changing as each swimmer progresses.

Postural Alignment and Stability

In swimming, the most critical skill is the ability to achieve and maintain stable and aligned posture in the water.

An aligned posture maximizes streamlining through the reduction of drag. This reduction of drag directly enhances speed in the water. The shape that each individual carries through the water will greatly impact the potential speed that can be generated. While the shape and structure of bones cannot be modified, how these bones are organized through muscular effort can be improved with training.

Importantly, attaining these positions is only the first stage. Individuals must possess the physical conditioning to sustain these positions under large doses of physiological stress. There must be postural stability. Not only does postural stability allow for the maintenance of streamlined positions, it creates the stable platform required for effective force production. If stability is not present, force may ‘leak’ through loss of body position.

Postural stability also tends to unlock mobility of the limbs. If there is a lack of postural stability, the limbs begin to work to create stability in the water, with this secondary task preventing the limbs from creating force through appropriate ranges of motion.

Acquire and Strengthen Required Ranges of Motion

With postural stability established, dryland training should ensure that swimmers actively control the range of motion of the necessary joints required to effectively execute their swimming skills.

Beyond this goal, swimmers should also possess ‘normal’ range of motion throughout all of their joints, regardless of whether this range of motion is specifically required for effective swimming. By ensuring that all joints have full movement capability, swimmers will have access to the full spectrum of movement possibilities.

In the first stage, swimmers must be able to achieve required positions passively, either using leverage to achieve these positions.

As an example, it is one thing to stretch your arm into a full overhead position, it is another to actively move that arm in position without assistance, and the final level is moving the arm into position against resistance.

Importantly, these stages should be addressed simultaneously, not sequentially while understanding that you can never achieve a higher stage without the necessary prerequisites.

It should be appreciated that different swimmers will be at different stages with different joints. Some will possess the required range of motion, but lack control. Some will have the control but lack the necessary strength. This can require slightly different strategies for progress. There are a several different tools available to accomplish this goal, the most appropriate tool being dependent on the specific context, which will be explored in further detail.

In many cases, training will need to be conducted to ‘undo’ the effects of specific swimming training. Following high volume swimming training, mobility can become restricted in certain movements and strength through certain movements can be compromised. To maintain strength through a full range of motion in all joints, a certain amount of ‘anti-specificity training’ should be conducted ‘reverse’ the effects of swimming training.

An added benefit when creating strength through full range of motion is that the soft tissues most susceptible to overuse injuries are progressively loaded to enhance tissue resilience.

Strengthen the Muscles Required for Propulsion

Following the acquisition of postural stability and strength throughout full range of motion of the joints, training can effectively target enhancing force production of the muscles responsible for propulsion.

The large muscles of the upper torso responsible for adduction and extension of the shoulder (pecs and lats) provide the majority of the propulsive force during upper body swimming actions. Any movement that requires these muscles to work against increased resistance will suffice to increase the capacity to produce force.

As the nature of the resistance use on land will necessarily be different from that which is experienced in the water, any resistance training exercise is GENERAL in nature. Thus, there are MANY options that coaches can use to effectively strengthen these muscles, provided overload is created in a progressive manner. Specific strength training can be conducted in the water to develop specific strength in the upper body.

As starts and turns compromise a significant portion of every race, the ability to create large forces through the legs while jumping should be specifically addressed. Improvements in this area can directly impact race performance. Beyond the specific effects on jumping performance, lower body strength work will also strengthen the legs in a general manner. This general strength can then be further enhanced in the pool through more specific work targeting the lower body’s contribution to propulsion.

Improve Fitness, Work Capacity, and Body Composition

A final training goal is using dryland training to target fitness, work capacity, and body composition. While all three of those terms are somewhat vague, I expect that at least one of them resonates or creates an understanding of what I am getting at.

This type of training can be particularly useful early in the season when water time is limited. It can allow swimmers to get a ‘head start’ without requiring large volumes in the water. In can also be used throughout the training season if swimmers must limit loads in the water due to injury, or to limit the potential for overuse injuries to develop. Land-based fitness training can be used when pool training volumes are limited because of pool availability. Lastly, it can be used to maintain or develop fitness in sprinters who strategically choose to limit aerobic volumes in the pool.

This type of training is particularly effective when used strategically to address all of the priorities (stability, mobility, strength) listed above. The key is to choose exercise variations that are conducive to higher volumes with minimal recoveries. By combining exercises in a circuit that shifts the work around the body, the heart rate can remain elevated while individual areas of the body are allowed to recover. This creates an environment where high quality movement can be sustained relatively continuously.

While I was initially rather skeptical about this type of work, I have seen the benefits. Importantly, swimmers can see and feel a difference over the course of 4-6 weeks.

A note. Coaches tend to skip right to this step. I believe that this is not a prudent choice. First, I believe that there is more to gain from the first three priorities as they can directly impact speed. Secondly, prior to aggressively pursuing increases in work capacity, swimmers should make an appropriate amount of progress in the first three priorities. Having full ROM and strengthen and stability with help individuals be more robust against the injury risk that comes with higher volumes and intensities that come with attempts to improve endurance qualities and body composition.

The potentially significantly pitfalls of a high-volume, work capacity-focused program will be explored in further detail later.


To recap, dryland training is performed to take advantage of gravity. By using gravity, we can create more easily an overload for certain training adaptations as compared to addressing these qualities in the pool. Through these adaptations, swimmers are better prepared for their specific pool training. As a swimmer’s physical resources can limit their ability to acquire and perform the skills necessary for fast swimming, enhanced preparedness can remove physical roadblocks to effective swimming.

We’ll explore the details of how to facilitate this process in future articles.

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