Historically competitive swimmers have trained to improve swim performance by swimming frequently, for long durations at various intensities. Recently elite swimmers have looked outside the pool for training methods which may offer additional benefits to performance beyond those which can be gained from swimming alone. One such training method is strength training.

Swimming Strength

The aim of competitive swimming is to cover a set distance within the constraints of a given stroke faster than competitors. In order to achieve this, a swimmer must reach, and maintain, the highest average velocity in comparison to his or her competitors. This requires a combination of attributes including technical proficiency, fitness, tactical awareness and strength.

Strength is one of several variables which can influence the performance of elite swimmers. At the world class level, competitive swimmers are pushing every aspect of training and preparation in order to improve by small margins in the hope of breaking a world record or reaching a podium. One such aspect where small but meaningful improvements can be made is strength.

Strength can be described as an individual’s ability to produce force in a given movement. Ultimately any movement which occurs does so because force is being produced. A man jumping in the air must apply force into the ground through their legs. As the earth is much larger than the man the force he applies does not cause the earth to move but instead the force applied causes him to push his own centre of mass away from the earth. This can be seen as an extension of the ankle, knee and hip joint and if enough force has been applied he will leave the ground before gravity pulls him back. People who can apply more force in a short period of time can therefore propel themselves higher into the air, or jump higher.

Swimming Start
In order to jump a man must apply enough force to the ground to overcome gravity.

The same principles which apply to jumping can be applied to swimming. All else being equal, a swimmer who can produce more force in a swimming action will be faster. However, unlike jumping, force applied during swimming is not always applied to the earth or ground but is often applied to water. This is subtle difference is frequently used as a justification for strength training programs to be altered or made ‘specific’ to swimming  however the basic principles of generating and applying force are similar regardless of the object which one is applying force to.

When a person jumps in the air they have to produce enough force to overcome the constant pull of gravity towards the earth. If they fail to produce enough force they will be unable to leave the ground and obviously not jump very high. During free swimming we are less interested in overcoming gravity or travelling vertically but we are very interested in travelling horizontally through the water. While gravity is less of an issue when travelling horizontally there is another force which restricts the amount of displacement a swimmer can achieve. Resistive drag is a term used to describe a force acting opposite to the relative motion of any object moving with respect to a surrounding fluid. Just as the man jumping must apply a certain amount of force to overcome gravity and leave the ground a swimmer must apply a certain degree of force to overcome the resistive drag they will encounter when moving through the water. The more force a man can apply to the ground the higher they will be able to jump. All else being equal, the more force a swimmer can apply in a propulsive action the faster they will travel. People who are strong can, by definition, apply more force in a given movement.

Swimming Strength
Enough force must be applied to the water in order to overcome resistive drag if the swimmer is to travel through the water.

What Kind of Strength?

We have previously described strength as an individual’s ability to apply force in a given movement. While this is a fitting description it can leave some questions unanswered:

  • Should we be interested in the maximum instantaneous force a person can produce for a fraction of a second or the average force they can apply over a set period of time?

  • Should we be interested in the amount of force they can apply against an immovable object (isometric) or throughout a movement?

  • Is it more important that swimmer be able to apply large forces during single efforts or reproduce high forces across multiple efforts?

  • Is it more important that a swimmer be able to produce force quickly as opposed to producing large peak forces which may take more time to produce?

When considering these questions it is clear that strength is a blanket term which can be used to describe a number of different qualities. In order to understand what kind of strength qualities are the most important for swimming we should first define them. 3 commonly discussed strength qualities are:

  • Maximal Strength : The largest force that someone can produce in a given movement irrespective of time

  • Strength Endurance : The ability to sustain a given force output for a given amount of time

  • Peak Power : The maximal rate of doing work. Most easily understand as the product of force and velocity

No single strength quality is more important than any other for swim performance. This is partially because they are in fact not independent qualities but in fact influence each other. For example it is difficult to produce large peak power outputs without first having high levels of maximal strength.

Different strength qualities come into prevalence during different aspects of a race. The start involves swimmers having to apply as much force to the block in a very short period of time. It is therefore important that elite swimmers have the ability to produce large peak power outputs with their lower body. During the free swimming aspect of a 50m breaststroke race as little as 18 strokes may be taken. This means that there are limited opportunities for a swimmer to apply propulsive force to the water and therefore applying as much force as possible (maximal strength) becomes very important. Over long distance events the objective is to have the greatest average speed. In order to achieve this, distance swimmers must be able to produce a given amount of force repetitively for sustained period of time (strength endurance).

Ben Proud Start
A strong relationship exists between the peak power output a swimmer can produce when jumping and start times.

Having established that different strength qualities are required at different parts of the race it is logical to assume that all strength qualities should be trained in the gym to cause an improvement in swim performance. In some cases, such as when working with elite senior swimmers with years of strength training experience this may be true. However for the majority of swimmers such a detailed strength training program may not be required, or even appropriate.

We have previously described how different strength qualities overlap. For someone to be able to produce high peak power outputs in a given movement they will first need to be able to produce high amounts of force in that same movement. For example if we wished to see an athlete perform a bench press with 50kg with at high speed, say 2 meters per second, a prerequisite would be to first make sure they are strong enough to bench press 50kg. An athlete cannot be powerful without first being strong.

The same analogy may be used to describe the relationship between maximal strength and strength endurance. If we wish to see an athlete perform 20 reps of a bench press with 50kg a prerequisite would be to first make sure they are strong enough to bench press 50kg for 1. In reality their 1 rep max would likely have to be higher than 80kg. In short, one cannot have high levels of strength endurance without first developing strength. From a practical perspective we have seen elite swimmers turn their 1 rep max weights into 10 rep max weights by simply improving their maximal strength and without specifically training strength endurance. So while it seems logical for swimmers, who must sustain force production in the water over multiple strokes, or reps, to train on land to improve strength endurance, it may be the case they first simply need to get strong. Former world breaststroke champion and British Swimming national centre coach James Gibson sums this philosophy up nicely  “Top end strength brings along strength endurance“.

James Gibson
“Top end strength brings along strength endurance” - James Gibson

How can you get stronger?

The human body has an innate ability to try and maintain its current status. This ability is frequently referred to as homeostasis. Therefore in order to change the body, for example make it stronger, a person has to make a serious effort to force the body to adapt a new state.

The good news is that while it is difficult to get stronger, the human body also particularly adept at being able to adapt when a large enough stress is applied to it. The key message here is ‘large enough stress’. If an elite swimmer was to simply perform 2 easy swim sessions per week it is unlikely they would increase their fitness. This is because they simply haven’t stressed their body enough to cause it to adapt and improve its ability to renew energy stores during exercise. In the same light, if a swimmer was to perform exercises in the gym with minimal resistance it is less likely they can have provided enough stress to cause the body to adapt and get stronger.

A relationship exists between specificity and overload. There is often a desire to perform sport ‘specific’ exercises in the gym which mimic actions seen in the pool. This can bring a level of comfort to the participant because mimicking actions in the pool with resistance can lead to the assumption that what they are doing will directly impact there performance in the pool in a positive way. There is of course one issue to consider with this approach:

  • If we assume that exercises need to be ‘specific’ to swimming and that this is the most important aspect of training. Then why not just have swimmers perform a maximal effort race in their main event every training session then go home?  After all this would be the most sport specific form of training they could complete.

This is of course not how swimmers train. They complete sets in the pool which overload particular energy systems, such as the aerobic or anaerobic systems, causing them to adapt and then as competition grows closer use these new improved energy systems to perform better in their given race. They train in a less specific way to encourage greater overload.

The same principles should be applied to strength training for swimming. Sport specific exercises may look similar to swimming actions but they will provide little overload when compared to other typical strength training exercises. We want to use exercises with allow us to train the similar muscle groups used in swimming but that provide opportunities to affectively stress the body to adapt.

What Muscles/Movements?

Strength training for swimming is not about replicating the work with is being completed in the pool. When elite swimmers are completing 20 hours per week of swimming it is unlikely that trying to mimic what is being done in the pool for an extra 2/3 hours per week will make a significant performance improvement.

The main propulsive muscles used during a swimming race are the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major and quadriceps. We therefore want to use exercises which allow us to sufficiently overload these muscles. Remember the aim of strength training is not to replicate what is done in the pool but to develop a stronger swimmer who can then use their new strength when swimming. 3 of the more effective exercise for overloading the propulsive swimming muscles are the chin up, bench press and back squat.

Chin up

Chin ups are an excellent exercise for stressing the latissims dorsi. Just as a freestyle swimmer must achieve a solid catch position then pull the arm downward towards the body a chin up require the arm to extent above the head and pull towards the body. Here are some useful tips to remember when performing chin ups:

  • Start from a dead hang with arms fully extended and feet off the ground.
  •  Try to resist the urge to kick or swing the body. The goal is to overload the lats and other muscles which pull the arm from above to below the body not use other muscle groups or momentum to complete the task.
  • Rest the underside of the chin on top of the chin up bar.

  • Weight can be added to provide greater overload.

Bench Press

The bench press is a commonly used exercise for targeting the recruitment of the pectoral muscles. These muscles are recruited along with the lats during the propulsive portion of most swim strokes.

  • The bar should be held and lowered under control, with no assistance, until contact is made with the chest.
  • The bar should then be pressed back towards the starting position, with no assistance, until the elbows lock out.
  • Throughout the lift both feet should remain in contact with the floor and the athletes glutes should be in contact with the bench throughout.
  • The bar should remain parallel with the floor throughout.

Back Squat

Squatting movement allow the quads to be worked in a movement that involves additional recruitment of the glutes and hamstring which play an important role during starts, turns and kicking actions. Here are some points to consider when performing the back squat:

  • Position the bar across the upper back and assume an overhand grip with both hands to hold the bar in position throughout the exercise.
  • During the decent aim to achieve full depth (the lowest point which they can reach without loss of a neutral spine position). Ideally this will involve the centre of the hip being lower than the centre of the knee joint.

  • The soles of the feet must remain flat throughout the lift (no excessive shifting of centre of mass over the base of support).
  • During the assent the spine must remain in neutral.
  • The lift should be completed to full lockout of the knee and hip with no external assistance.

If you are unsure of how to perform strength training exercise such as those mentioned here please seek the advice and supervision of a qualified instructor.

How strong is strong enough?

It could be argued that an elite athlete can always benefit from being stronger just as an athlete can always benefit from being fitter, faster, or technically proficient. However it is likely that as you begin a strength training program you will make improvements relatively quickly before eventually reaching close your genetic capabilities. You may then decide that having improved your strength you may wish to shift the emphasis of your training to other areas but how will you know you are strong enough? Below are some general guidelines taken from observations of elite international swimmers during strength training sessions over several years:

Frequently observed 1rep max scores on key exercises in elite senior swimmers (BW = bodyweight)

Sprint-Male

Chin up - BW+50kg

Bench Press - 120kg

Back Squat - 130kg

Sprint-Female

Chin up - BW=25kg

Bench press - 75kg

Back squat - 85kg

Middle Distance - Male

Chin up - BW+35kg

Bench press - 100kg

Back squat - 115kg

Middle Distance - Female

Chin up - BW+20kg

Bench press - 65kg

Back squat - 80kg

Distance - Male

Chin up - BW+30kg

Bench press - 90kg

Back squat - 100kg

Distance - Female

Chin up - BW+15kg

Bench press - 55kg

Back squat - 75kg

When beginning a strength training program these numbers should not be of primary concern. Before attempting 1 rep max lifts swimmers should first learn and practice proper technique and then gradually challenge themselves to hold this technique together under incrementally heavier loads.