Updates to the Research of Swimming and Strength Training

Updates to the Research of Swimming and Strength Training

Greater access at the collegiate level to strength and conditioning environments and creative professionals who design effective programs has brought a new era of swimming that transcends the “dryland” training with only bodyweight, stretch cords, and med balls. While those modalities certainly have their place, high performing athletes they will not make. Improving an athlete’s absolute strength in fundamental movements will serve to improve that athlete’s ability to function. Three recent research updates on strength training relevant to swimming and running performance remind us of what is meant by sport-specific and what will benefit our athletes most.

Research is telling us that we can actually reasonably predict swimming abilities through these basic strength skills (Keiner, 2015). The effect is most pertinent in shorter events where athletes gain greater advantage from the push on each wall (e.g. three times over the course of a 100-yd short course event). Because of this, researchers have elucidated that training young athletes in the weight room using basic movements (i.e. squat, deadlift, bench press, clean, etc) will translate into significantly improved performances in the water. We are fortunate at the National Training Center to have our young swimmers preparing themselves for the collegiate strength and conditioning environments by learning the standard lifts while on the club team. Most teams do not have that advantage, but club teams that do will produce athletes better prepared to compete at a collegiate level and beyond.

To bolster the claim that young swimmers need to be training in the weight room, Michael Keiner and his colleagues in Germany published a study outlining the relationship between upper body, lower body, and trunk strength as pertaining to the prediction of sprinting ability in young swimmers (Keiner, 2015). They took a group of adolescent, national-level swimmers (male and female, average age of 17) through testing for their swimming velocities (15m up through 100m) and maximal lifts of squat, deadlift, bench press, bent-over row, sit-up, squat jump, and countermovement jump. The research team found that maximal strength performances, especially the deadlift, squat, countermovement jump, and squat jump were correlated with better short-distance swimming. Upper body strength training movements (bench press and bent-over row) were also correlated, but to a lesser degree. This demonstrates that swimmers absolutely should be performing basic strength training movements that address their abilities to have an effective start, pushes off each wall, and integrity through their trunk that translates into a more effective pull. With the start and dive being a critical portion of the determination of overall 50-m time (according to Bishop, et al, 2013), it is imperative that our sprinters be performing maximal lifts regularly.

How to prescribe these lifts brings up more questions. Another recent study examined very specific durations to the strength training intervention with telling results. Glen Belfry and his team at the University of Western Ontario studied two different modalities of strength training and their relative effects on both 50-yard and 200-yard swims (2016). The research team took three groups and tested them on their times in the 50- and 200-yard freestyle events. They then took two of the groups through a specific strength program over the next six weeks and used the third group as a control. The first two groups either performed 30 seconds of bench press and 30 seconds of a pull-over or 120 seconds of each, theoretically matching the time requirements of either the 50- or 200-yard swims. The control group did not strength train during the six-week period. The results showed that those athletes who performed the 30-second strength training bouts improved their times in both the 50- and the 200-yard events. On the other hand, those athletes who performed the 120-second bouts only improved in their 200-yard time. This suggests that shorter, high-intensity lifting is superior to longer duration, low-intensity lifting for improving swimming performance. Specifically, the 30-second bouts actually upregulate enzymes and factors that promote enhanced development of both anaerobic and aerobic pathways, while the longer bouts do not appear to have as great an effect on the anaerobic pathways.

While not as much research is conducted on distance swimmers, longer-duration events still yield improvements when utilizing near-maximal strength training protocols. For instance, a study published at the beginning of this year applied to trained runners attempting to improve their 5-km run time utilized a six-week program of four sets of four repetitions at 80% 1RM to improve maximal strength (Karsten, 2016). That team found an improvement in running performance in the 5k after the strength training intervention. Almost more importantly, they revealed degradation in performance when the strength training was halted (and running only was continued).

All three of these studies display the fundamental difference between training in the water (or road) versus training in the weight room. Put in simple terms, the weight room sets the absolute capacity of an athlete’s mind and body to push and pull maximal loads while the pool translates the neuromuscular drive into a sport. Champions are made in both places: foundations are laid in the weight room and abilities are honed for greatness in the pool.

Karl Riecken is the Coordinator of Performance Testing at the National Training Center in Clermont, FL. He designs and implements the strength and conditioning programs for the NTC Lightning and for visiting athletes. He is a sports performance nutritionist and serves as an adjunct faculty for the University of Central Florida’s Sport and Exercise Science program.


Belfry, G. R., Noble, E. G., & Taylor, A. W. (2016). Effects of Two Different Weight Training Programs on Swimming Performance and Muscle Enzyme Activities and Fiber Type. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 30(2), 305–310. http://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000842

Bishop, C., Cree, J., Read, P., & Chavda, S. (2013). Strength and conditioning for sprint swimming. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 35(6), 1–6.

Karsten, B., Stevens, L., Colpus, M., Larumbe-Zabala, E., & Naclerio, F. (2016). The Effects of a Sport-Specific Maximal Strength and Conditioning Training on Critical Velocity, Anaerobic Running Distance, and 5-km Race Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 11(1), 80–85. http://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2014-0559

Keiner, M., Yaghobi, D., Sander, A., Wirth, K., & Hartmann, H. (2015). The influence of maximal strength performance of upper and lower extremities and trunk muscles on different sprint swim performances in adolescent swimmers. Science & Sports. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.scispo.2015.05.001


Karl Riecken

Karl Riecken earned a master's degree in Health and Wellness and Applied Exercise Physiology from the University of Central Florida. During his undergraduate years he was a cross-country runner but fell in love with triathlon before he graduated. Karl has worked for the sport performance departments of both USA Swimming and USA Triathlon, conducting research and helping to coach world-class athletes at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. He has been an assistant coach for youth triathlon teams and for USA Triathlon Elite Development Camps. Karl now provides physiological testing and training for athletes and patients at the National Training Center in Clermont, FL. Karl holds certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Triathlon, USA Track and Field, USA Cycling, USA Weightlifting, and the Road Runners Club of America.