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Going Dry Part V- Improve Fitness, Work Capacity, and Body Composition

Once a program has established a sound plan for establishing posture and torso stability, acquiring and strengthening full range of motion through the joints, and increasing strength of the propulsive muscles, work can be performed to improve fitness and work capacity.

While the temptation is to start with and focus on this type of work, I believe that this quality should only be addressed once a sufficient plan to develop the other fitness components has been created. However, as we’ll see below, these plans can often work in concert when designed correctly. Developing torso stability, full range of motion, and adequate strength will make work capacity training more effective as more work will be possible and there will be less risk of injury.


As addressed in the introductory article, the purpose of dryland training is to take advantage of the effects of gravity. In the context of work capacity training, fitness training outside of the pool has the tendency to spike heart rates in a novel way not previously experienced in the pool. In addition, as swimmers must now lift the weight of the rib cage to breathe, training outside of the pool also creates a unique respiratory stress.

Because there is nowhere to hide from gravity, swimmers can’t fake it. As was once related to me by another coach, this is particularly effective for the best swimmers who are naturals at making swimming easy. They are unable to hide out of the pool. Lastly, work capacity activities on land tend to preferentially use the legs. As legs are the largest consumers of oxygen, they need to be fit for performance in the pool.

Work capacity training is particularly effective when used to simultaneously develop the previously described attributes of stability, mobility, and strength. When carefully thought out, work capacity training can allow swimmers to perform large amounts of work targeted at these qualities. This is the best-case scenario as multiple fitness qualities are being addressed at the same time. It is both efficient and effective. How to do so will be described below.

Why Not?

In the first place, swimmers should never get injured performing work that isn’t required for performance. Please understand the risk that goes with performing dryland exercises with high heart rates and increasing levels of muscular fatigue. Some swimmers have a very low exposure to this type of work. Ensure that this type of work is introduced progressively, swimmers are prepared for what they are asked to do, and there is a focus on technical execution.

The temptation is to do a lot of high impact movements to elevate the heart rate. In general, swimmers have a lower exposure to the muscular and joint demands that come with higher intensity land work. This lower exposure comes with reduced resiliency of muscle and joints.

Injuries during dryland are a product of poorly designed or implemented training programs performed by unprepared swimmers. It is a choice made by coaches. Be conservative, play it safe, and find a way to implement an effective program that minimizes any exposure to the risk of injury. Caution is warranted.


In what circumstances should work capacity training be employed? When are the optimal times to work on this area outside of the pool? By identifying when it makes most sense to perform work capacity training, we can better utilize the tool in harmony with the remainder of the training program.

Early Season

Fitness development training can be useful early in the season when time in the water is relatively low. It can give swimmers the opportunity to develop fitness while simultaneously reacclimating to the water. Often early season swim training is characterized by lighter training focused on skill development. Emphasizing work capacity out of the pool can improve fitness at the same time. Upon increasing the volume in the pool, swimmers will have already established a solid foundation of conditioning upon which to apply their skills.

Limited Pool Availability

For those teams who are limited in their pool availability, work capacity training can allow to better make use of the time that they do in the water. By addressing the general fitness needs of swimmers outside of the pool, coaches can then focus on the work that NEEDS to get done in the water. Beyond creating fitness adaptations, warm ups and warm downs can also be performed out of the pool to ensure swimmers ready to go once they enter the pool.


For injured swimmers unable to complete some aspects of the swimming program, work capacity training can provide an avenue to address these holes in the preparation. In addition, swimmers can use this opportunity to attack physical weaknesses. As with limited pool availability, injured swimmers need to make sure the swimming they are performing is the swimming training that is going to best prepare them for competition. As much as possible, coaches should strive accomplish aspects of training opportunity who are limited in some reps


For sprinters who don’t respond particularly well (mentally, physically, or spiritually) to high volumes in the pool, focusing on work capacity outside of the pool can be a sound option for maintaining or improving fitness related qualities. Sprinters can develop these qualities without negatively affecting their technique or speed in the pool. When done well, it can simultaneously enhance the qualities necessary for sprint success, namely total body strength and muscular conditioning.


What type of exercises are best suited for work capacity and fitness development? While creating high heart rates and metabolic stress are required, how you create this stress will influence which adaptations are established beyond improving basic fitness. This type of training is particularly effective when used strategically to address all of the training priorities discussed in previous articles (stability, mobility, strength). By choosing appropriate exercises, multiple goals can be accomplished at once.

Torso Exercises

As there are many different types of torso exercises, it is a sound strategy to address many of these movement planes while simultaneously developing work capacity. The exercises are the foundational piece of the dryland program and should be included as much as necessary.

Low Level Strength Exercises

Early in the season, low-level body weight strength training can serve to reintroduce swimmers to some form of strength training. As these exercises are relatively less challenging than typical strength work, they can be performed with high volume and while experiencing high heart rates. Beyond preparing the body for more intensive strength work to come, the volume of work can be a potent strength stimulus in and of itself.

For sprinters, this type of work can be continued throughout the season to provide additional volume and strength work that supports the more intensive work performed elsewhere. It can serve to enhance strength in a complementary nature.

Full-Body Range of Motion Exercises

Total body exercises performed through a large range of motion can continue the process of establishing full range of motion. This is particularly true when considering the hips and the spine, which may be of lower priority than the ankles and shoulders. This work not only encourages the development of full range of motion, it does against resistance in a manner that elevates the heart rate


Traditional calisthenics are an effective way to elevate the heart rate with added benefits. Compared to traditional cardiovascular equipment, much larger ranges of motions are used, more joints are involved, and more coordination is required. In addition, many calisthenics include low-amplitude bounces which can prepare the lower-body joints for intensive jumping activities to come later in a program. In addition, these same exercises can strengthen and stabilize the ankles.

Cardiovascular Equipment

Particularly for those missing a significant aerobic component in their training, cycling, running, or using cardiovascular machines can be an effective training strategy. These modes of exercises are quite effective at conditioning the legs and creating physiological stress. The main issue is that they are only addressing these components of total fitness. In addition, swimmers are locked into performing an unaccustomed movement pattern for high volumes, creating a new injury risk.

Safe Selection

Above all, choose exercises that can be executed safely while experiencing high heart rates and physiological stress. This will help to ensure that our #1 goal is accomplished, stay healthy! When in doubt, choose more basic exercises.


How should these exercises be sequenced to facilitate these adaptations? How can we address the musculature of the whole body while maintaining elevated physiological stress? 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, allowing for multiple fitness qualities to be addressed while the heart rate and metabolic cost remain high.


You can combine any of the exercise options listed above to create circuits that train a large portion of the body’s musculature in a very short time. One or two large circuits can be included in a session, or several smaller circuits could be used. It is up to the coach and what the goal of the training session is.

Any combination of exercises is plausible so long as the objectives of the training session are met. The focus is on performing a large amount of work in a very time with limited rest. The key to accomplishing this goal is to effectively move the stress around the whole body. This is done best by carefully considering how exercise selection and exercise order will affect the swimmers.

I tend to favor smaller circuits repeated for multiple rounds. This allows swimmers multiple exposures to each exercise. This provides more opportunities to address technical issues. In addition, I tend to favor the use of multiple smaller circuits. This helps swimmers focus on a smaller number of exercises and reduces the confusion that can come with many exercises and moving parts. I found the logistics to be much simpler with this approach. In many cases, the logistical execution of a training program will determine whether it effective or not.

The examples below are not an exclusive list. Any combination is plausible, so long as the outcomes are in line with the goals of the training program. Consider what types of work need to be included, then decide how to package the work together with appropriate exercises to develop fitness, as well as the other components of the dryland program.

Torso Circuits

Torso circuits are particularly effective for developing torso posture and stability while simultaneously developing work capacity. The key to doing so is moving the work around the torso and consistently changing the contraction types to allow for work to be sustained. This can get a lot of your torso training requirements out of the way.

Antagonist Circuits

This type of circuit pairs two dissimilar types of movements. For instance, torso exercises could be paired with full range of motion lower body exercises. In this instance, while one part of the body is exercised, the other part recovers to some extent, all while keeping the heart rate elevated.

Total Body Circuits

In these circuits, 1 exercise is included for each area of the body, ensuring that the entire body is trained. Swimmers would rotate through the exercises, exercising the entire body within a brief amount of time.

Big Circuits

Fairly extensive circuits consisting of all types of exercises can be used with large groups. The key difference between total body circuits and big circuits is the total number of exercises that are included. With big circuits many exercises are used whereas only a handful are used during total body circuits.

Active Rest Circuits

In this type of circuit, the exercise selection is secondary to the physiological effect that occurs. Swimmers should alternate between exercises that cause a very high heart rate response with exercises that have a low heart rate response. This can be particularly effective when the secondary exercise has a technical or postural component. Swimmers must learn to execute their skills under physiological pressure. For instance, swimmers could perform a series of jump rope followed immediately by a lower level torso exercise.

Cardiovascular/Strength Circuits

For individuals who need to achieve a significant cardiovascular stimulus due to missed water time, creating circuits that pair cardiovascular work (run, bike, elliptical, etc.) with any type of bodyweight strength work (torso training, full range of motion medicine ball work, low level strength work, etc.) can be a very effective way to create a very large physiological stimulus while simultaneously focusing on building the entire structure of the body.

Calisthenics/Strength Circuits

This type of circuit is very similar to the type of circuit included above, the only difference being the use of calisthenics as opposed to locomotive exercises. This is more practical for programs with essentially no access to equipment and/or limited space.

Practical Applications

As you see, the potential impacts are much more considered than ‘getting fit’ or ‘improving endurance’. Our goals need to be a lot more specific than that if our aim is to positively impact performance in the pool. Coaches should make the following considerations when designing an effective program to address work capacity.

  • Why you are including work capacity training? Is it necessary? Is it optimal? What outcomes are desired and how can they best be accomplished?

  • Understand what needs to be avoided during work capacity training. What are the potential problems that might occur and how can they be avoided?

  • When is work capacity training most appropriate and which individuals will benefit the most?

  • Know what type of exercises are most conducive to achieving your objectives. How can you accomplish as many objectives as possible with as few exercises as possible?

  • How will exercises be logistically organized to create a training session that flows easily?

When you can answer and defend all of these questions with a well-reasoned response, feel free to get after it and get on it. When done well work capacity training on land can have a huge impact on total fitness levels.

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