Swimmers need to follow a programme of exercises that replicate their actions in the water as closely as possible
To optimise strength and power, competitive swimmers need to supplement their pool training with land training in the gym. For best effect, swimmers need to follow a programme of exercises that replicate their actions in the water as closely as possible.
If we perform a basic analysis of the mechanics of the front crawl stroke, the main actions that produce forward propulsion through the water are:
l. the ‘arm pull down’ through the water, which propels the swimmer forward and
2. the ‘leg kick’, which alternates hip flexion and extension of the legs.
In addition, competitive swimming involves:
The ‘dive start and push off turn’, which involves dynamic ankle, knee and hip extension
When designing your strength programme, you should focus mainly on exercises related to these movements. Other exercises may use the same muscles as those involved in swimming, but only exercises which use the right muscles in a related mechanical movement will provide optimum training benefit.
A limitation of land training with weights for swimming is that the type of resistance you encounter when moving in the water is different from the resistance occurring when you move a weight through the air. In the water, the faster you pull or kick the greater the resistance applied back by the water; on land, a given weight requires a constant force to move it, regardless of the speed of movement.
Hydraulic-type resistance equipment that mimics aquatic resistance is expensive and not widely available. The best compromise when using regular equipment is to try to mimic the speed and nature of the swimming stroke. To this end, you should aim to perform the strength exercises with a smooth and constant force and select weights which allow the movement to be performed at a swimming-related speed. For example, the leg-kicking motion during front crawl is quite fast, so hip flexion and extension exercises which can be performed at a good speed would be best.
The following exercises are related to the mechanics of the front crawl stroke. For each component, the relevant exercises are described and their mechanical relationship to the stroke explained.
Arm pull down exercises
1. Cable rotational front and back pulls
Front pull. This is the mechanical equivalent to the pulling-through-the-water action in front crawl, as the hand comes diagonally across the body as it pulls down. For this exercise you need a high pulley machine with a simple handle grip.
Kneel down on one knee to the side of the machine. Take the hand nearest the pulley and grasp the handle with the hand high and slightly out to your side. Before you start the exercise make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are wide and your chin is tucked in. Pull the handle down and lower your arm across your body in a rotational movement until your hand is next to the opposite hip. Smoothly return the bar to the start position and continue, performing sets of 5-8 reps for maximum strength or 12-15 for strength endurance.
Try to keep your posture solid throughout the movement. Maintain a slight bend in the elbow as you pull, but focus your effort on the shoulder muscles only.
Rear pull. This exercise involves the opposite movement to the front pull and is useful for promoting a balanced strength about the shoulder joint. Specifically, the front pull trains the internal rotator cuff muscles and the rear pull trains the external muscles. To avoid shoulder injuries a balanced rotator cuff strength is important. For this exercise you need a low pulley machine with the simple handle grip.
Stand to the side of the machine and grasp the handle with the opposite hand. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders wide and your chin tucked in. Start with your hand by the inside hip and fix a slight bend in the elbow. Pull the handle up and away from your body, rotating the arm up and out. Finish with the handle high and out to the side, with the palm of the hand facing forwards. Smoothly return the handle back and across to the opposite hip and continue. Again go for sets of 5-8 reps for maximum strength or 12-15 for strength endurance.
Keeping your posture solid during this exercise is quite difficult, as it is tempting to use your trunk muscles to help the rotation movement. However, you can train your core stability skills by keeping your navel pulled into your spine and relaxing your upper body so there are no additional movements apart from the arm raise and rotation.
In combination, the front and rear diagonal pull train almost every muscle in the shoulder joint and shoulder girdle. This makes them very useful exercises for any sport.
2. Medicine ball single arm overhead throw
This exercise develops the power of the latissimus and pectoral muscles in a functional manner for swimmers, involving a movement similar to the front crawl stroke. The aim of the throw is to improve the rate of force development in the shoulder by accelerating the arm hard to throw the ball. For this exercise you need a partner and 2-4kg ball. The small rubber ones are best as they can be held in one hand.
Because the ball is quite heavy for one hand you will not be able to throw it far or move the arm very fast. This makes it ideal for swimming as the pull stroke is not that fast.The training effect comes from your attempts to accelerate the arm movement as fast as you can, thereby improving the power of the pull.
Lie on your back on the floor, with knees bent slightly so your lower back is comfortable. Grasp the ball in one hand with your arm up and behind your head, slightly bent at the elbow. Vigorously pull the arm up and down across your body, throwing the ball over the opposite knee. Get your partner to return the ball, and perform sets of 8-12 repetitions with each arm in turn.
Do not lift your head or pull up from the stomach as you throw. Focus on producing the power from the shoulder and pulling across the body as you do in front crawl.
3. Swiss ball body pulls
This is a ‘closed kinetic chain’ movement, where the moving limbs remain in contact with a fixed object – in this case the hands with the floor. Such movements are thought to be particularly functional for sports performance, so offering greater training benefits.
This exercise is performed in a horizontal prone position, with the arms pulling down under the body, matching the position and action of a swimmer in the pool.
Position yourself face down, with your lower legs on the Swiss ball and your hands on the floor supporting your weight, body parallel to the floor. This is the equivalent of a press-up position with your feet up. Slowly roll the ball up your legs while your arms extend out in front of you until you achieve a stretched position, with a straight line through your arms, shoulders, back, hips and legs. At this point your body will make a shallow angle with the floor and the ball will be positioned on your thighs. Then, keeping this perfect alignment of your body, push down through your hands into the floor and pull yourself back to the press-up position. The ball should roll back down your legs as you do this. Perform sets of 8-12 repetitions.
The difficult part of the exercise is the pull back up. At this point you must use your stomach muscles to support your spine and focus on using a strong pull of the shoulder muscles to raise your body back to the parallel position. This exercise is not easy, but it is very beneficial for many sports, helping to develop core and shoulder strength.
Leg kick exercises: hip extension and flexion kick
These exercises mimic the upwards and downwards phases of the swimmer’s kick action, where the glutes and hamstrings extend and the hip flexors flex the leg at the hip. For these exercises you need a low pulley machine with an ankle strap attachment. Each leg is worked independently to increase the specificity for swimming, and the weights used should be relatively light so you can kick with good speed, as in the pool.
Hip extension. Stand facing the low pulley machine, with the ankle strap attached to one leg. Lift this leg off the floor, taking up the slack of the cable, and place your balance solidly on the other leg. Hold onto the machine’s frame with your hands to stabilise your upper body and check that your back is straight, with shoulders relaxed.
Pull the cable back dynamically by extending the leg backwards until you feel you need to lean forwards, then bring it back in a controlled manner to the start position, retaining good posture. Continue pulling the leg back, focusing on the gluteals and hamstrings to kick back powerfully.
Hip flexion. Stand with your back to the low pulley machine, with the ankle strap attached to one leg. Lift this leg off the floor, taking up the slack of the cable, and place your balance solidly on the other leg. Use a stick to support yourself, and check that your back is straight with your shoulders relaxed.
Pull the cable dynamically by kicking the leg forwards. Pull the weight, using your hip flexor muscles at the top and front of the thigh, until your leg reaches an angle of about 30û or you start to lean back. Smoothly return your leg to the start position, retaining good posture, and continue.
Perform sets of 10 reps at a fast speed and build up to sets of 20 or 30 for power endurance of this movement.
‘Dive start and push-off turn’ exercise: barbell squat jumps
This exercise involves dynamic extension of the ankle, knee and hip joints and trains the calf, quadriceps and gluteal muscles to improve vertical jump performance. The vertical jump is mechanically related to the dive start and push-off turns involved in swimming: with the dive or turn, the ankle, knee and hip extension propels you forwards in the horizontal plane, while with the jump the leg extension propels you upwards in the vertical plane. Essentially, it’s the same movement rotated by 90û!
The point of using a barbell to add weight to the squat is to help you to generate peak power. If you perform the jump squat with body weight only, the jump will be very fast and high. With the addition of a moderate weight (about 30-40% of the 1 repetition max weight for the squat exercise), the jump will not be as high or fast, but the muscular power required to leave the ground will be maximal. This is based on the knowledge that peak power is achieved when the force used is about one third of the maximum force for that movement. Again, your goal is to attempt to achieve the fastest extension of the legs to maximise power production and training benefit. If you use 30-40% of 1 RM weight, I recommend 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions.
Stand with the barbell across the back of your shoulders. Squat down, bending at the hips and knee, making sure the weight goes down through the back half of your foot. When you reach the half squat position, drive up dynamically, rapidly extending your legs so that you leave the floor briefly. Absorb the landing with soft knees, then go smoothly into the squat again. Continue for 5 repetitions.
The bottom line
Strength and power training is essential for ³lite swimming performance.
To optimise the benefit of land-based training, you must select exercises with mechanical relevance to the swimming action, particularly those movements which propel the swimmer through the water, such as the arm pull and leg kick.
As the resistance in the water is different from the resistance provided by weight equipment on land, unless you have special hydraulic equipment, you must also focus on mimicking the speed and smooth movement of the swimming stroke when performing land-based exercises.
Various exercises for the arm pull, leg kick, dive and turn movements are suggested, all with a good functional relationship to the swimming action. While this is not a definitive or exhaustive selection of exercises, especially as it focuses solely on front crawl, it involves highly specific swimming movements in terms of mechanics, positions and speed. When you design strength programmes for swimming performance or any other sport, be sure to think about each exercise in terms of its relevance to performance.