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Going Dry IV- Strengthen the Muscles Required for Propulsion

Having developed a stable torso position and established appropriate range of motion through the joints, it’s time to create force.

As with all locomotive sports, success in swimming is determined by the ability to effectively create and sustain forces that move the body forward at a high rate of speed. Increasing force production capabilities can lead to enhanced force application in the pool, which can directly lead to improvements in performance.

While training for increased propulsive force production can and should take place in the pool, creating a global base of strength is most effectively performed outside of the pool. Resistance training in the pool makes the most out of the force potential a swimmer has, whereas strength training on land works to create that potential. Gravity presents a much stronger adaptive signal than the fluid resistance of the water. This is a critical task of any dryland program.

The Prerequisites

Strength training for the propulsive muscles is what most coaches focus on during dryland, to the exclusion of other factors. It makes sense as this is an area that responds quickly to training and performance improvements are often realized quickly. However, the LONG-TERM effectiveness of any program will be dictated by the using addressing propulsive force production after certain prerequisites have been met.

There is a reason torso stability and effective range of motion were described prior to addressing training for force. They must come first. Torso stability is required for moving safely against large loads. As importantly, greater stability will allow for larger loads to be lifted in the long term. A house is only as strong as its foundation.

Range of motion is just as important. Strength training is a powerful tool. As described in the previous section, resistance loads can be used to increase active range of motion. If full range of motion is not present, and strength training is repeatedly performed through compromised ranges of motion, this will further exacerbate the problem, leading to even more compromised range of motion. It will get worse.

When coaches worry about swimmers becoming ‘muscle bound’, what they are seeing is not necessarily the issue of increased muscles tissue and strength, but the gradual loss of the required range of motion that is subsequent to poorly executed and implemented strength training programs. Beyond the direct performance consequences, gradual losses of range of motion is not a recipe for healthy joints. Active range of motion must be established first and great care must be taken to ensure it is retained.

Swimmers do not necessarily need to fully master torso stability and achieve full range of motion before starting any force enhancement training. However, they need to have the torso stability and range of motion required for whatever exercises will be performed, while ensuring that these qualities are continuing to improve to meet the demands of future strength training interventions. Know what is coming and stay ahead of where you need to be when you get ther.

Once these perquisites have been established to the required degree, enhancing force production in the propulsive muscles is a very effective performance-enhancement strategy.

Strength Training for Enhanced Propulsion

Please note that I used the term strength training as opposed to weight training. Weight training is often seen as the starting point whereas adding external load is actually the final destination. Strength training is any activity that increases the capacity to create force. There are many effective options that do not require external load; body weight alone can carry swimmers far. The goal of any strength training programming is to enhance each swimmer’s ability to control their bodyweight and effectively apply force through large ranges of motion.

Start with the basics and master body weight prior to using load. If swimmers can’t perform relative high volumes of push-ups with excellent technique, there is no need to be bench pressing. Similarly, if swimmers cannot perform pull-ups with clean technique, this is a goal that should be worked toward prior to using extensive weight training routines.

That being said, external loads can be effective for certain movements. It is not either/or, but the appropriate use of the appropriate tool. When bodyweight is no longer effective, the use of external loading is certainly the next progression. Use it when you need it.

As importantly, there are practical considerations. Any focus on weight training necessitates the use of specific training equipment. Many individuals, particularly in the club setting, do not have convenient or consistent access to the required facilities. Appreciate that other options exist and can be just as effective in the long-term. Strength can be built in many ways.

Upper Body Strength Training

The major propulsive upper body action for all strokes is a stronger adduction and extension of the shoulder joint. This action can be visualized as moving from a high elbow/open armpit position to a closed armpit position. Imagine you are trying to pop a balloon in your armpit. This action is powered by the strongest muscles of the upper body, latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major. The majority of upper body strength training should target these large muscles.

Body weight, elastic resistance, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, suspension straps, and partner resistance are all effective tools for increasing upper body strength. When considering that gymnasts possess incredibly strong upper bodies and perform little to no upper body weight training, swimmers should focus on mastering push-up, pull-up, and dip variations. These exercises will provide comprehensive upper body strength and control through full ranges of motion.

As with all strength training exercises, upper body training should be performed with aligned posture, a stable torso, and full range of motion. Failure to do so will eventually cause problems in the form of injuries or plateaus in performance.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi are the large muscles of the back often referred to as the ‘swimmer’s muscle’. Pulling actions that move the elbow from in front of the body to behind the body strengthen the lats. Due multiple fiber orientations present in the lats, it can be effective to train with multiple pulling angles to ensure that strength is developed through all ranges of motion.

The most effective exercise for long-term development is the pull-up and its variations. A long-term progression should be created to ensure that ALL swimmers are able to perform pull-ups through a full range of motion. When swimmers are strong enough, external load can and should be added to increase strength. Pull-ups should be the center piece of an upper body strength program and while other exercises for the lats can be useful, these exercises should serve a supplementary role in development. If pull-up numbers are improving, training is moving in the right direction.

If a swimmer can’t consistently perform pull-ups due to pain, it’s critical to find out why. This is a sign of upper body mechanical issues that are likely causing problems in the pool as well. While removing pull-ups from a training program can be a short-term solution, it’s critical to determine the underlying cause of this problem.

Pectoralis Major

While not quite as important as the lats, the pectorals contribute significantly to upper body propulsion. As such, they should be strengthened. Any pressing movement or movement in which the elbows move forward from behind the body will strengthen the pectorals. As with the lats, the pectorals are large muscle group with multiple fiber orientations. It can be useful to training pressing movements in different planes to ensure strength through a full range of motion and to avoid overuse.

The foundation of pressing strength for all swimmers should consist of push-ups and full dips. All swimmers should be able to perform multiple variations of push-ups and dips through full range of motion with excellent posture and torso stability. This is the starting point. Once these variants have been mastered, strength training with external load can become useful. If push-up and dipping numbers are improving, training is moving in the right direction.

Other Areas

What about the triceps, the forearms, the shoulders, the biceps, etc.? In the majority of cases, these areas to do not need to be directly addressed for several reasons. In the first case, these muscles are worked in a supportive role during training targeting the lats and pectorals. More work is not likely to provide much more return. Secondly, these muscles are already getting a lot of work in the pool as well. Continuing to overload these relatively smaller muscles can be problematic. Most importantly, there is a lot of work to do in and out of the pool in a comprehensive training program. More work here might help, but other work (swimming, torso training, etc.) is likely to help MORE. It is a matter of priority.

The caveat. These areas can and should be addressed when range of motion issues exist. Further these muscles may need to be addressed when considering the ‘anti-specificity’ needs of a program, more on that below. However, rarely will these muscles need to be strengthened for the purpose of creating greater levels of propulsion.

Lower Body Strength Training

Starts and turns are critical to performance, particularly during short course swimming. This component of the race can be directly impacted by improving vertical jumping abilities. In addition, lower body strength can positively impact kicking performance. This is particularly true of breaststroke kicking, where larger forces are present.

To enhance jumping performance, the muscles of the hips and thighs (gluteals, hamstrings, and quadriceps) should be emphasized. Squatting, lunging, hinging, and jumping movements should form the foundation of a dryland program targeting the lower body. Any variation of the above can be effective, and multiple variations should be used over time to fully develop the entire musculature. As with all exercises, these movements should be performed with excellent posture and full range of motion.

The legs can become quite strong using bodyweight leg exercises, particularly when these exercises are performed with high velocity or single-leg movements. Jumps and movements with fast reversal rate requires high levels of force; they provide a significant strength stimulus. In particular, large forces are required for almost most jumping exercises.

While lower body weight training does provide a significant stimulus, it’s use should be limited until necessary. Loaded squatting movements and exercises such as Olympic lift variations can be useful. However, swimmers should master the basic movements patterns with bodyweight and/or medicine balls/dumbbells at high velocity prior to considering these options. When finally implemented, the more advanced options will be more effective.

With lower body strength training, the program should be oriented toward improving vertical jump. If this number is increasing over time, training is moving in the right direction. Please note that lower body training can be performed for other purposes (see following article on work capacity). However, when STRENGTH is the goal, the vertical jump is moving forward, the program is likely effective.

Anti-Specificity Training

In many cases, training will need to be conducted to ‘undo’ the effects of specific swimming training, as well as strength training that reinforces this specificity. 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.

  • For the shoulders, small volumes of directed work can help to balance out the work that is done in the pool. Training the shoulders through every plane of motion can be effective.

  • As the primary propulsive action in swimming is to forcefully pull down and back, creating strength in raising the arms overhead can help to balance out strength around the shoulder. While this action should already be addressed when acquiring full range of motion, conceptualizing this additional consideration can help establish a more global perspective of how to train the shoulders.

  • Much of swimming occurs with the arms moving out in front of the body with the shoulders relatively protracted. Exercises that focus on scapular retraction with pulling actions where the elbows are equal to or above the shoulders can help to balance these habitual patterns.

  • When setting the catching and pulling back, swimmers are internally rotating the shoulder, over and over. To counter this increase in strength, performing movements that involve external rotation of the should can help to balance the joint. It does not take much work, and this work does not need to consist exclusively of isolated movements.

  • As the quadriceps and hip flexors are more heavily involved in the kicking action that the hamstrings and hip extensors, extra work for the hamstrings can be beneficial. Not only can this directly impact jumping performance, it can help to balance out the kick, improving the upkick and enhancing the total output from the legs.

Loading Considerations

Strength training is a long-term process. When working with developmental swimmers, the initial focus should be on establishing torso stability and achieving control of full range of motion. Small amounts of strength training can be included at this stage. As swimmers mature and establish foundational fitness, true strength training can be introduced and continue to grow in emphasis.

Throughout the process, the focus should on improving technical execution and loading should move in step with the ability to execute strength training exercises with proper technique.

In terms of volume, it does not take much work. The focus should be on quality and consistency. It is a long-term investment; patience, repetition, and maturity will take care of improvement. As swimmers are already performing a high volume of work, the strength training stimulus should be oriented toward intensity not volume. It does not take much work. It’s better to focus on low volume spread out over a week as opposed to high volumes in any one workout.

Progressions should be created for individuals to develop the ability to perform push-ups, pull-ups, or dips with control and excellent posture. Loading should be patient, progressive, and consistent. With diligence, swimmers can get quite strong. When these exercises have been mastered, external load can be added or swimmers can progress to weight training.

Any exercise that is consistently causing injury or excessive irritation should be substituted for a suitable alternative. While certain general movements should be included, NO specific exercises are required.

Summing It Up

  • When training for strength, ensure that adequate torso posture and stability, as well as adequate range of motion, are in place first.

  • The primary target for upper body strength training should be pressing and pulling movements through a full range of motion.

  • The primary target for lower body strength training should be centered around the musculature that is responsible for a large vertical jump.

  • The decision to employ particular training exercises should be based on the available equipment and current capabilities of your swimmers. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.

  • This portion of the dryland program is focused on strength. Quality should always take precedence over quantity.

  • Gaining strength is a long-term process guided by patience and technical mastery. Only so much strength development is possible within a given time frame and patience will get your there in good health. Going Dry IV- Strengthen the Muscles Required for Propulsion


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