CARLILE COACHES' FORUM
Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 2, Number 2: March 23, 1995
MODERN CONCEPTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR WEIGHT TRAINING IN SWIMMING
- Not all great swimming champions have lifted or lift weights (e.g., Mark Spitz, Rowdy Gaines, Keiren Perkins). Could it be a weak ineffectual form of training and greatness is achieved by others DESPITE doing weight training?
- How strong does a swimmer have to be? If he/she is too strong the water will be "ripped" ("cavitation"). Swimmers only need a certain level of strength and no more.
- There is a basic level of functional strength that allows a swimmer to hold the correct athletic posture (body and leg positions) and to stabilize the segments of the body upon which power-developing muscles must work. To exceed that level may be an unnecessary accomplishment.
- When a swimmer is quite weak, and modern day's societal distancing from physical activity produces weaker and more obese successive generations, it most probably is likely that some form of strengthening during growth is needed to substitute for the deprivation. Maturing swimmers, and in particular girls, need some form of overall strength/power development.
- Functional strength needs to be developed in the total body, not just in the focused working muscles. Overall development will avoid injury and have carry-over value to many of life's other activities.
- Excessive strength training now is recognized as being unnecessary and even injury provoking. A large number of sporting injuries occur through the excessive strain and amounts of isolated weight training activities.
- Top sportspersons are turning from specific weight activities to more general activities such as gymnastic and conditioning exercises. The problem with weights and improvements not transferring to the sport is that exercising isolated muscle groups individually does not produce the same kind of specific stimulation as occurs in a whole-body activity. Thus, exercises which produce loading in several segments of the body while the rest of the body has to work to produce a stable base, have the potential to stimulate a general body function and awareness of how to create the bases for
movement. This is important for young people who have a need for overall strength development to achieve a satisfactory level of function.
- Research shows that specific strength gains in land-based activities are not associated with swimming improvements. An occasional study surfaces to say that there is such a relationship but there are many more which show that developed land strength is not associated with in-water improvements.
- For weight training effects to generalize (transfer) to actual swimming, the exercises have to fulfill the following criteria: (a) they must mimic the speed of movement of the intended activity; (b) they must mimic the path of movement of the activity; (c) they must mimic the type of contraction of the activity; and (d) they must be performed in the same postural orientation as the activity. Any deviation from any of these criteria DRASTICALLY reduces the value of strength training.
- The only form of strength training that could be useful involves isotonic contractions. Isometric contractions rarely, and isokinetic contractions never, occur in dynamic sporting performances that involve force production.
- The amount of basic strength training that needs to be done to produce changes is quite extensive. Three to four times a week when performing basic training in the sport can produce strength changes in underdeveloped individuals (this is called "change" training). However, when a desirable level of functional strength is achieved, the number of training sessions that needs to be performed to maintain that level ("maintenance" training) is quite few (less than once per week).
- Change training for strength should only occur during the basic preparatory phase of training, the period when technique is not a major consideration. The strength that is changed will only be incorporated into the sport technique once technique learning starts. Athletes will not transfer strength gains into an established or new technique if they occur together. Each will develop and improve independently.
- Strength gained slowly will be retained much longer than strength which is gained quickly. Thus, hurried and intense strength training programs produce transitory gains while slower change programs "grow" a much longer lasting form of strength capacity.
- Animal protein is important for strength development. Two grams per Kg of body weight is the basic rule-of-thumb for adequate intake to support heavy strength training.
- Slow and heavy weight work performing only a few repetitions (i.e., pure strength training) has no carry-over value to total body activities.
- Since swimming is a movement sport, power is a better concept for consideration as being the capacity to develop that MIGHT affect swimming performance.
- Tethered swimming requires power in the water with the one drawback being that it alters technique and does not get the swimmer to perform at a desirable speed (stroke lengths are shortened and power is increased up to a certain amount of slowing). Thus, the value of such training, although appearing obvious, may be detrimental to high level performers where skill level is paramount for determining performance excellence.
- Power is greatest when the load of performance is about 30-40% of maximum. Thus, "newer" resistance programs are employing exercises that require about 30% of maximum load while exercises are performed as fast as possible.
- Plyometrics is a popular form of training. However, its drawback is that the athlete's body weight is used as the resistance and that may be an excessive load for many exercises. Because it is convenient does not mean it is appropriate or beneficial. Modern research questions the benefits of total-body loaded plyometric training. Perhaps lighter loads and plyometric training might be more beneficial.
- When strength/power training is performed at training is important. If it is done to fatigue prior to swimming then that fatigue will reduce the quality and benefits of the following training session. Such programming might be counter-productive and inhibitive of maximum training stimulation in the pool. Strength/power/auxiliary training should be done after pool training or at a time when complete recovery occurs prior to entering the pool session.
- Strength/power gains are easy to achieve. In the early stages of development they largely involve skill learning for the exercises being performed WITHOUT any real change in the muscle substructures. It is not unusual for up to 80% of strength gains to occur in 10 or fewer intense training sessions. Those rapid gains followed by much slower gains often produce motivational problems in athletes--particularly when improvements occur less frequently and in a less obvious manner as strength training continues.
- Pre-pubertal dedicated strength activities are inappropriate and unjustified. Pre-pubertal children do not have high enough levels of testosterone to respond markedly to strength training other than through the exercise skill learning aspect. Thus, there is likely to be no carry-over of strength exercise training effects to swimming performances.
- Training during the adolescent growth spurt would seem to be the most advantageous time to perform strength/power/auxiliary training. Growth will be directed toward the training stimulation.
- Once athletes mature and stop growing, stimulating strength/power training needs only to be of a predominantly maintenance form. Since growth has stopped adaptability will be very limited.
- If strength training is performed excessively, then muscle hypertrophy occurs. Increased muscle mass increases the specific density of the swimmer causing her/him to settle deeper in the water. The increased resistance from that outcome would be detrimental to swimming efficiency.
- Strength training is incompatible with endurance training. Since swimming is primarily an endurance sport (distances of 100 m and up require more aerobic energy than anaerobic energy), a concentration on strength development and performing it in close proximity to aerobic training could interfere with appropriate aerobic adaptation.
- Most research studies that showed a relationship between strength/power and swimming speed used 25 yards as the swimming distance. As the distance of swimming increases, the correlation with strength measures decreases. Beyond 200 m, there is no relationship between strength measures and swimming performance.
- Muscular endurance training (moderate load/high repetitions) does not transfer well at all to another activity. It would appear to have little value for swimming. Better gains would be made by swimming hard in the pool rather than doing unrelated muscular endurance training.
- Some shoulder strengthening exercises are part of successful rehabilitation programs for swimmer's shoulder (particularly when the supraspinatus is involved). That does not mean that such exercises will improve performance. What it means is that such exercises will correct the bad consequences of poor training and technical execution.
- Strength training does not increase the anaerobic performance of swimmers. It only increases anaerobic performance in the strength exercises themselves.
- Usually strength/power increases are measured in the exercises that are used for training. For example, quadricep strength is increased by squatting and improvements are known by increases in the number of repetitions and/or loads for that exercise. There is no way of knowing without direct measurement if those benefits allow a breaststroke kick to be more effective, efficient, or faster. The assumption of most coaches that strength training gains will be transferred into the sport is erroneous and naive.
- Strength/power training is only beneficial if artificial gains can be transferred into the sporting activity. Such a transfer is difficult, highly unlikely, and in its attempt, more than likely counter-productive.
- Overall, there is a strength training paradox. It is beneficial to swimmers who are below an adequate level of strength and detrimental to swimmers who are above that level.
- Another swimming paradox is that strength training programs may benefit maturing adolescents but are likely to be counter-productive for elite athletes.
- The window of opportunity for girls to improve from strength training is shorter in time, less in impact, and less related to performance than in males. That partly is why steroid use produces notable performance gains in women swimmers but not in men.
- In-water power training with various resistance devices is embraced by many coaches out of ignorance rather than verified factual evidence. The jury is still out on this form of training. It does exhibit higher correlation coefficients with swimming speed than land-training exercises, but still the coefficients are quite low when related to competition distance performance times.
- In-water resistance training would be counter productive, particularly for elite swimmers, if technique is changed to perform the exercise. The higher the loads of in-water exercises the greater is the destruction of good technique and consequently, less benefit (positive transfer) will result.
- Many commercial claims for strength/power training benefits for sports are false and unfounded, and yet coaches embrace them. A distorted and false logical justification for strength/power training being beneficial for swimming is a dangerous and very frequent characteristic of modern coaching.
- Reactions to training stimuli in sports are particularly individual. The common practice of having swim teams perform the same program is in violation of the principle of individuality. There are likely to be more swimmers harmed rather than benefited from performing the same program in a group setting.
- Swimming is a very unnatural sport for humans. Its techniques are the predominant determinants of success. Physiological changes are related to performance improvements in only a minor way. Since strength is a minor characteristic of some swimming events (and not an essential characteristic of other swimming events), it is of minor-minor importance. Swimming performance improvements are likely to be small to negligible from this form of training.
Modern Thinking About Strength Training
- Traditional dedicated strength training is useless and dangerous (it does not transfer and produces injuries).
- Whole body activities (e.g., loaded calisthenics, gymnastics) that stimulate underdeveloped body parts are of greater value than stylized exercises.
- Strength/power training will be of greatest benefit during the basic preparatory training period than at any other time in an annual training plan.
- Underdeveloped children or adolescents will benefit from ANY extra exercise up to a point.
- Strength/power training does not have to be performed as often as is currently in vogue. Slow gains are better than quick gains.
- When strength programs no longer display strength improvements in the strength training exercises, there is no benefit whatsoever to be derived for swimming by continuing such programs other than in a maintenance mode of training.
- Training programs for women/girls should be different to those of men.
- Strength training on the deck or in the water is no substitute for free-swimming training.
- Dedicated strength training of less than a carefully planned, and obviously individual nature, could be quite detrimental to an athlete's improvement.
- Modern exercises involve a concentration on speed of execution, light loads (no more than 30% of maximum), and total body involvement.
- There still is strong justification for building swimming strength through maximum effort/power work in the pool performing free-swimming.
Rushall, B. S., & Pyke, F. S. (1990). Training for sports and fitness. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan Educational.
Return to Table of Contents for the Carlile Coaches' Forum.