In Part 1 of my 2-part series on creating an effective dryland training program for elite-level swimmers, I outlined the goals of dryland training and explained the importance of upper- and lower-body strength and power in the pool. Now, in Part 2, let’s look at what ties it all together for the swimmer: the core.
Swimmers and Their Six-Packs
Now that we have discussed the importance of both upper- and lower-body strength, we must address the importance of being able to connect the two—which brings us to the core. Even on land, the core is an essential component in improving performance. Besides taking place in a large box filled with water, swimming is unique in that, with the exception of the starts and turns, there is no solid anchor point from which to produce force as there is on land. As a result, core strength is paramount.
Core strength is a very broad term, but stability and rotational force are the predominant core capabilities needed in swimming. The four swimming strokes can be classified into two groups: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The front crawl and backstroke are asymmetrical, with the arms and legs of the swimmer performing alternating motions on each side. Breaststroke and butterfly, on the other hand, are symmetrical, as both legs and both arms perform the same motion on each side during the stroke. This means that a swimmer needs to be able to produce rotational power and maintain torso stability in the water in order to become proficient at all four strokes.
Rotational Strength and Torso Stability
Let’s take a look at the rotational component first. In the front crawl and the backstroke, G. John Mullen, DPT, states the need for, “rotation of the body to allow for maximal distance and torque production per stroke” (1). The swimmer needs to be able to make a “cross-connection” as the hand catches and the foot kicks into the catch. During the catch, the body is rotated away from the hand that is entering. As the swimmer begins to pull through, that connection occurs, requiring rotational force of the core to turn the body toward the pulling hand and preparing the opposite hand for entry. Turns also require rotational force, both for flip turns and open turns. As I noted in Part 1, efficient turns can mean the difference between winning and losing a race!
In addition to rotational strength, the importance of torso stability cannot be overstated. When performing breaststroke or butterfly, the swimmer must maintain a stable position in the water. Any unnecessary horizontal, vertical, or rotational movement will slow down the athlete. A stable core also provides the connection for power transfer through the water, as seen in the catch to the kick in the butterfly stroke. Torso stability is essential when holding a streamlined position in the water, whether it’s off the start, off a turn, or during the full extension phase of the breaststroke. Any unnecessary movement is a loss of energy and can add time to the swimmer’s race.
When developing your dryland program, be sure to include exercises that address both rotational strength and stability. Exercises to develop rotational strength can include wall tosses with a medicine ball, landmine rotations (barbell corner rotations), and barbell standing twists, to name a few.
As for the stability component, weighted carries are some of the best exercises out there. From farmer’s walks (weight in each hand) to suitcase carries (weight in one hand) to waiter’s walks (weight held overhead on one side), these exercises promote developing stability throughout the entire core. Other examples of stability exercises include all variations of planks, Pallof presses, and stability lifts or chops. Also, recall that the core includes everything from the shoulders down to the hips. Be sure to incorporate exercises that develop both the anterior and posterior portions!
Don't Forget the Shoulders!
Shoulder injury is the most common ailment among swimmers (2). Considering collegiate swimmers perform approximately 3,600 to just under 10,000 strokes a day, this comes as no surprise. It only makes sense to address this in a dryland program. However, choosing the proper exercises and volumes is of critical importance, otherwise additional shoulder work outside the pool may only contribute to pre-existing shoulder issues.
When working with the shoulders, the key elements are scapular stability and scapular and thoracic mobility. It is necessary to understand the demands placed on the shoulders by each stroke, as they differ. A swimmer who trains predominantly butterfly will not always display the same shoulder issues as one who swims mainly front crawl. During the front crawl, the shoulder is not actually in a “true impingement position” due to the position of the body. Conversely, during butterfly, the shoulders do enter a position of impingement when the hands simultaneously catch (3). Taking the time to understand proper shoulder mechanics and the various stroke techniques will positively contribute to the development of the overall dryland program. Consulting both the swimming coaches for technique explanation and an ATC or PT for further explanation of shoulder mechanics is an excellent idea for the strength and conditioning coach.
When designing the shoulder component, focus on exercises that promote scapular stability and mobility, along with thoracic mobility (essential for efficient dolphin kicking). Begin with low volumes and be sure to emphasize proper form when completing the exercises. Be a stickler on the form! Incorrect execution will either fail to accomplish the goal of the exercise, or be detrimental to shoulder health. Some good exercises to begin with include scap push-ups for scapular retraction, overhead scap punches for scapular elevation and depression, and thoracic extensions over a foam roller for thoracic mobility. Be aware that hypermobility is common among swimmers and can actually increase the risk of injury. In these cases, it is best to remove mobility work!
Just Keep Swimming...Then Recover
The last, and most overlooked, component of a comprehensive dryland program is recovery. Two-a-day practices and early mornings are part of the swimming culture. The combination of high work volumes and morning practices means that recovery is essential to performance and injury reduction. There are many recovery modalities out there, but the best form of recovery is sleep. The negative impact on the body due to lack of sleep has become a popular topic of research recently, and for good reason. Remember, fatigue is cumulative and the body heals itself during sleep. If a swimmer misses a half hour (or more) of sleep each night and is on a typical college schedule of 5-6 days of morning practice a week, that equates to a loss of 2.5 to 3 hours of sleep per week, minimum. While three hours does not seem like much, in terms of being able to perform at the highest level, that three hours can be a deal breaker.
In a close second on the list of recovery methods is proper nutrition and hydration. Food is fuel for the body: the better the fuel, the better the performance. When training at a high level, timing is also important. Refueling and rehydrating within 30 minutes of a completed training session will help the athlete recover more quickly and be ready for the next practice of the day. In addition to sleep and nutrition, foam rolling, self-myofascial release (SMR), and cold tubbing are good recovery practices. Working recovery into the dryland program will serve to emphasize its importance while also providing some relief to the swimmers that, yes, there is a time when they don’t have to, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
To Sum it Up
A comprehensive dryland program for elite-level athletes will incorporate strength training, core and shoulder work, and recovery. The program should be individualized and properly periodized, and overall workloads should be monitored. Consistent and frequent communication between the swim coaches and the strength and conditioning coach is essential, as the dryland work needs to complement, not hinder, the work occurring in the pool. A well-designed and well-executed dryland program can help swimmers improve performance and reach their athletic potential. Just ask Michael…
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Mullen, J. (2010, April 15). Abdominal Training Rotational Athlete. Retrieved from http://www.swimmingscience.net/2010/04/abdominal-training-rotational-athlete.html
Mountjoy, M., Junge, A., Alonso, J.M., Engebretsen, L., Dragan, I., & Gerrard, D. (2010). Sports Injuries and Illnesses in the 2009 FINA World Championships (Aquatics). British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44, 522-527.
Tovin, Brian J. (2006). Prevention and Treatment of Swimmer’s Shoulder. North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 1(4), 166-175.