Strength & Conditioning for Swimmers

underwater weightsNot too long ago I wrote about Mount Stupid (you can read it here), and how I and so many other coaches apparently.  Well this year I climbed partway down from Mount Stupid and decided to ask a real strength and conditioning expert to handle what I’d been so confidently messing up for years.

Wow, what a difference!

Now, I should point out that prior to this year I thought I had the experience, first-hand knowledge and obvious intelligence to handle something as simple as S&C. I had a long swimming career, decades of being an athlete, and years of previous experience with coaching. I knew this stuff inside and out, right?

In other words, I was sitting smugly and happily at the very top of Mount Stupid.

So what has changed now that we have a real program?  Just about everything.

  • We got rid of swim cords.  We do enough swimming as it is.  More of the same movements isn’t going to make us stronger overall, and probably just increases the chance of injury.
  • We started strengthening our backs. Swimmers are notorious for hunched shoulders, and that’s a huge problem if you want to have a strong core and back.
  • We started increasing our effective Range of Motion for important joints.
  • And most importantly, we focussed on major body movements: squats, hip hinges, Romanian deadlifts, presses, etc.

Now keep in mind, that most of our athletes are performing these exercises with just body weight.  Only after some monitoring and testing have we added relatively light weights – in the form of sand bells – for swimmers who have demonstrated consistent and acceptable technique.  This is clearly going to be a long term process involving years of development and monitoring.

So is it worth it?

Well, we ran a small 7-week S&C camp for some of our swimmers over the summer.   Just twice a week for one hour, and it basically involved learning the movements.  Then, two weeks after we returned to swimming, one of our swimmers who attended the summer S&C camp, and who took the summer off swimming, did a 200 Free PB in practice, with a push off. (It was at this point that I was feeling like a permanent resident of Mount Stupid).

There was an even bigger surprise for us, though. Our emphasis on proper hip hinges has resulted in an incredible improvement in breaststroke for everybody.  So much so, that just before doing any breaststroke work I have the swimmers stand in the shallow end, bend over, and do 10 fast breaststroke pull cycles with a fast and flat hip hinge during the recovery. It’s amazing to watch the results when they swim.

Overall, the improvement in our program is well worth the marginally higher cost of bringing in an expert, and long overdue. And it just further highlighted for me how much I had fooled myself into thinking I knew what I was doing.


8 thoughts on “Strength & Conditioning for Swimmers

  1. Hey Rick,

    I can relate. I did a course with one of the top S&C coaches here int he UK as I am now running our club’s Dryland training. As you say back and range of motion are so important. Every 9 weeks a run a fitness test to measure their progress. So far it’s been all body-weight stuff. They all started stiff limited. There are evident improvements in just 9 weeks – in the pool and out.

    1. Great idea, Richard. And I love the phrase “stiff limited”. I’m amazed how unflexible some (most?) young kids are. Perhaps its due to a less active life than in the past??? In any case, we only have a few kids doing anything but body weight, and most of those are using very light sand bells for specific movements. I view this as a multi-year program to improve the basic level of physical literacy.

      1. Check Games-Gimmicks-Challenges for Swmming Coaches (pg 234) dry land chapter for SR and AG ideas coaches use. Score something or everything, every session for MO! 1) Record reps on sheet with all names listed at station 2) Each swimmer records on personal card reps, 3) Assign points to numbers of reps and swimmers get a score, 4) Create teams and total # reps for each to have a winning team. Boys vs Girls is great using different resistances!,
        Not scoring is like swim training without a clock, every swimmers best friend.
        Bob Steele

      2. Great idea, Bob! Oh, and I meant to thank you for writing that fantastic book. I bought it years ago and it’s filled with great ideas.

        I should mention though that much of initial S&C involves technique work, and that individuals can progress at vastly different speeds. That really has to be mastered before competitions should probably be considered.

  2. 200 free hug may have had maturational improvement? To me the most important the in dry land; tubing, weights, body wt, vasa… is monitoring improvement, changing monthly, accuracy of movement and stroke specifics, all dependent on age!
    Bob Steele

  3. Wow very interesting post will definitely take pointers from here if i start coaching bigger kids (13 – 21 year old) of competitive adults. Could you please give me some advise on how i can go about doing S&C for younger 7 – 13 year old kids.

    1. I can give you very good advice about coaching little ones. Contact a S&C expert and work with them. We’ve started S&C with our Novice swimmers. All body weight, obviously, and all basic movements. That plus we try to keep it fun.

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