Dryland training is a critical component of an overall swim training plan. Anyone who has been around the sport has his or her own mental picture of what “dryland training” looks like. To some, it’s endless ab flexion exercises and shoulder pre-hab exercises, while to others it’s medicine ball work and swim benches. But what does a comprehensive dryland training program for an elite-level swimmer look like—and why is this element of training so important for swimmers?
Goals of Dryland Training
First and foremost, there should be two main goals in a good dryland training program: injury prevention and performance improvement. Swimming places a great deal of stress on the body, despite it being a “non-contact” sport. From 10,000-yard (+) training days for distance swimmers to practicing starts and turns for an hour, repetition is the name of the game in swimming. While occasionally there are acute injuries in swimming, more often swimmers experience chronic or overuse injuries, specifically in the shoulders and low back. A dryland program that includes weight training, development of core strength and stabilization, targeted shoulder work, and appropriate recovery practices designed to reduce and prevent injury is critical.
The second goal of a well-developed dryland program will obviously be performance improvement. To determine whether an athlete is improving his or her performance—and therefore determine if your dryland program is effective—coaches should take periodic measurements of athlete performance. In the pool, test sets or meets serve as the “measurements.” Depending upon which element of a dryland program a coach is evaluating, the measurements may also include strength testing in the weight room or even determining joint range of motion (ROM). Whatever the coach may choose to evaluate, it is important to keep in mind why that element is being evaluated and how it relates to determining whether there has been any performance improvement. A well-rounded dryland program can help develop healthy, balanced athletes, and ultimately decrease the injury rate and improve performance.
Overall Strength and Power
Nine times out of ten, the stronger athlete is going to be the better athlete. Strength training should be a key component in any dryland program. Being strong and powerful is critical in swimming, especially when talking specifically about the sprint-distance races (generally 50-100m). When you consider that drag forces increase exponentially with speed, up to 30m of a 50m race can be completed without taking a single stroke, and the start off the blocks can be up to 26% of a race for sprint distances (1), there is no argument that strength and power are crucial to swim performance for the sprint-distance events.
Not to worry, middle distance and distance swimmers! Strength and power are still essential components of performance for you as well. While there will always be only one start, the number of turns increases as racing distance increases. Starts and turns can mean the difference between winning and losing a race, especially in short-course yards (the format used for collegiate competition). Even in 200- and 400-yd races, executing good turns with a solid push off the wall can put you ahead of the competition. Take Ryan Lochte for example. Turns and butterfly kicking accounted for approximately one quarter of his 200m freestyle race at the 2012 Short Course World Championships (2).
Explosive Full-Body Power
There are direct benefits of performing the Olympic weightlifting movements (the clean and jerk and the snatch) and their derivatives, with the largest noticeable impact being on starts and turns. These lifts help develop an athlete’s ability to be explosive and rapidly apply force into the ground. In swimming, of course, the blocks and walls serve as the “ground,” and the same muscle fibers recruited during the clean and jerk, for example, are the same used when exploding off the blocks or driving off the wall during a turn. Force production and muscle fiber recruitment is the same on the weightlifting platform as it is in the pool. This is not to say that the most powerful athlete always has the fastest starts and turns, though. Both actions have very specific techniques that must be practiced in order to achieve the greatest results. Including the weightlifting movements and their derivatives in a periodized training plan will provide the foundation for the athlete to increase power output and improve performance in the pool.
The Importance of Upper-Body Strength
We cannot forget about the upper body, though! From Emma Reaney’s 6-stroke laps in her 200yd Breaststroke at NCAAs in 2015 (3) to Katie Ladecky’s 38-40 stroke laps in her World Record 1500m swim (4), upper-body strength, power, and endurance are key players. A swimmer needs to be able to “grab” the water in order surge forward. Technique determines how well a swimmer can do this—however, if the athlete can execute the proper technique but cannot move the water effectively, then strength becomes the limiting factor in swimming faster. While pulling seems to be the dominant motion in the water and it makes sense to improve pulling strength on land, training pushing movements is also important. Remember: muscular imbalances increase the risk of injury (5). Pull-ups (and their numerous variations), lat pulldowns, rows, push-ups, and various methods of the bench press are all good choices for developing upper body strength. Medicine balls are also good tools when working on the endurance component of training.
Maintaining starting velocity, distance and time off the wall following turns, and stroke count, are all key components to swimming faster. A properly periodized weight training program designed by a certified strength coach provides the means to develop the required strength, power and endurance, while pool practices provide the time to mesh these attributes with technique mastery for improved performance.
Now that we have discussed the importance of both upper- and lower-body strength in swimmers, we must address the importance of the ability to connect the two.
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Cossor J, Mason B. Swim start performances at the Sydney 2000 Olympic games. In Blackwell JR, Sanders RH, editors. International Society of Biomechanics in Sports: Proceedings of the 23rd International Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports; 2001 Aug 22; San Francisco, USA. p. 231-5. Retrieved from https://ojs.ub.uni-konstanz.de/cpa/article/view/3870
Gustafson, M. (2012, Decmber 13). The Buzz: Starts and Turns. Retrieved from http://www.usaswimming.org/ViewNewsArticle.aspx?Tabld=0&itemid=4927&mid=8721
Mullen, J. (n.d.). Race Analysis and Video: Emma Reaney 2:04.06 SCY Breaststroke NCAA Record. Retrieved from http://www.swimmingscience.net/2014/03/race-analysis-and-video-emma-reaney-204-06-200-scy-breaststroke-ncaa-record.html
Barbosa, T.M. (n.d.). Race Analysis and Video: Katie Ledecky 400 Free World Record. Retrieved from http://www.swimmingscience.net/2014/08/race-anaysis-katie-ledecky-400-free-world-record.html
Knapik, J.J., Bauman, C.L., Jones, B.H., Harris, J.M., & Vaughan, L. (1991). Preseason strength and flexibility imbalances associated with athletic injuries in female collegiate athletes. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 19(1), 76-81. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2008935