The importance of Strength training (Physical preparation) in Swimming.

by May 1, 2015Blog, Strength and Conditioning

Here’s a guest post by our resident Swimming and Triathlon performance coach. Andy is an ex Elite swimmer himself and many of you will know him for his role as Storm’s massage therapist too. Here he goes over some of the reasons why his athletes are winning races, enjoy!

Firstly I thought I would give a little background on some of the Swimmers I have worked with over the last 10 years, this is not to brag but to emphasize that what I do as a Performance Swim coach is actually backed up with results;

Barry Murhphy – European Bronze Medalist

George Du Rand – Former World Record holder

Jonas Persson – European Champion

Andrew Bree – European Silver Medalist

Over 100 National Age group (11-14 years) and Youth Swimmers (15-18 years) Medalists spanning from three different countries – America, South Africa & Great Britain.

Veteran International Triathletes and Ironman competitors.

I get asked the question on a daily basis by both the swimmers I coach and the Triathletes/Endurance runners clients I work with; ‘Coach, I think I need to get Stronger to go faster’.

I will then ask the swimmer or triathlete; ‘Does absolute strength correlate with improvement in performance?’ My answer would be that
absolute out-of-water
strength does not
correlate with swimming
success, and I would even argue that it has minimal affect on overall performance of an Endurance runner or a Triathletes running and cycling.

Before we continue, let’s get on the same page with a few definitions:

Relative strength: Ratio of strength considers size. Think of ants, very strong for their size. Elite male sprinters only have a peak force of 50 – 80 pounds and on average 20 – 31 pounds of resultant force, a fraction compared to land athletes
(Havrulik 2013, personal communications).

Absolute strength: Total strength, think elephants.

Motor control: Ability to coordinate body movements.

Impairments: Any physical limitation preventing ideal movement.

Principal of specificity: Performing a specific movement is only enhanced by
performing that movement.

Dry-land = Physical preparation outside the water (soft tissue work, mobility, postural strength, nutrition, etc)

The specificity of movement isn’t a novel thought and has tricked many coaches into mimicking swimming movements outside the water (I’ve fallen for this in the past). This was likely the rationale behind the swim bench – this is a crazy device that was invented to try and mimic the underwater pull in swimming. Ironically this shoulder-isolated movement is not sport-specific as it inhibits body rotation (limiting the biomechanical transfer), resulting in a different energetic response and over-stresses vulnerable shoulders (Sexsmith 1992). This stress increases the risk of overuse injuries and time away from the most specific form of training…swimming (Stiff 2000; Vermeil 2004). In short Swimmers and triathletes don’t waste your money on this contraption!

The transference of any movement on land is far from the demands in the pool. Despite visual similarities, every swimmer uses unique yet imperceptible micro adjustments in their strokes to optimize balance, force, and deceleration. It is impossible to replicate these movements on land and attempting to be too “sport specific” may lead to confused motor programming (McGuff 2009). Also, similar strength training could impair swimming skill via interference, a phenomenon where one form of training interferes with acquisition of another skill (Reed 2013). This makes dryland extremely difficult for swimming dryland, as nearly every other sport can simply mimic the sports activities on dryland and limit interference. Stay away from specificity to prevent motor program confusion and returning to these resisted patterns when fatigue occurs in the pool.

Now, the lack of correlation between out-of-water strength and swimming does not suggest dryland is not important. Instead, taking a thorough evaluation of the swimmer keeping their short- and long-term goals in mind helps guides a needs assessment for swimmers. Remember, dryland training is more than just improving strength, especially in sports where the biomechanics are the driving factor for success. Dryland should improve swimming potential by addressing weaknesses such as range of motion of joints, specifically the shoulder, posture & stability to name a few common areas.

Remember, swimming is a unique sport for many reasons, some including:

1. Prone body orientation
2. Arm and legs used simultaneous
3. Water immersion
4. Unstable medium of water
5. Minimal equipment use
6. Swimmers have brief periods of hypoxia
7. Highly dependent on biomechanics
8. The pool is the avenue for most energy system training

9. Brief breaks during turns
10.Water cools the body
11.Many more

Understanding these subtleties makes swimming vastly different and in need of a different approach. Dry land should enhance a swimmer’s potential. Dry land is the soil from which the flower grows, but the seed (swimming training) is where the flower comes from! Swimming success is the end game of swimming training, not land based.

Again, I am not saying dry land based exercises are not important, they are, and can help enhance a swimmers/triathletes performance, if they are used in the correct manner and supplement the water training (Skills, techniques and physiological conditioning).

My next post will go into a few modalities that I currently use with all the swimmers and triathletes that I work with.

If you want to know more and interested in getting Swim specific strong get in touch.


Swimming & Triathlete Performance Coach.

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