The sport of swimming has accelerated at an incredible rate over the past 30 years, particularly in the last decade. As important findings from exercise physiology research surface, swimmers and coaches have adjusted their training methods to maximize performance. Strength and conditioning training are crucial to the success of any competitive swimmer in today’s arena. The type of strength training may change over time, perhaps incorporating more weights once the athlete reaches the collegiate level, but its purpose remains the same: to improve the swimmer’s power, athleticism, and overall speed in the pool. Here are five major reasons to incorporate strength training into a swimmer’s program.
1. Building Muscle and Bone Density
It is very difficult to build muscle through swimming alone. Despite the repetitive movements and whole body integration while swimming, muscle groups are not triggered to develop significantly. When a stress is placed on a muscle, such as the weight of your own body or a dumbbell on land, the muscle is signaled to resist the downward force of gravity by contracting. Strength exercises on land create a number of these stressors. When muscles respond, as in the lifting of a dumbbell, micro-tears in the tissue occur and cause soreness. As the body repairs these micro-tears, muscle builds up. Pulling one’s body through water cannot create this stimulation for tissue growth as much as strength exercises on land because the perceived force of gravity is reduced.
Another benefit of weight-bearing strength training for swimmers is that it increases bone density. Loading weight on bones stimulates bone tissue to develop. Female collegiate swimmers, according to a study in the Journal of Athletic Training1, have the lowest bone density of a variety of athletes in different sports. Swimmers have this tendency because they spend the majority of their training in the pool.
2. Core strength
The core is critical to swimming. It maintains the correct “downhill” body position of the swimmer when horizontal to minimize drag. It enables the swimmer to accelerate faster in a turn, and carry more speed off a dive with a clean entry. Strength training often requires the integration of various muscles in complex movements, with the core at the center of the action. In order to transfer force efficiently from one part of the body to another, you need a strong core that engages quickly. This applies to every part of your race, from the hip rotation in freestyle to the underwater dolphin kick off the wall.
3. Injury Prevention
The repetitive motions in swimming can lead to chronic injuries. Strength training varies patterns of movement and challenges muscles to learn new exercises. It can target areas left underdeveloped by swimming and relieve some of the demand placed on more stressed muscle groups. Stronger muscles also help distribute force correctly, putting less strain on joints, tendons and ligaments.
4. Learn Correct Biomechanics
Especially with weight lifting, the athlete must learn correct body position for a variety of exercises. This requires focus, muscle recruitment, and coordination. Swimmers develop better posture through core engagement and upper body strength, which helps improve breathing in the water. Balance and stability improve with single-legged exercises and strengthening of large muscle groups.
5. Generate More Power
Strength training develops power unmatched by any power training a swimmer can do in the pool. Once the athlete develops a baseline level of strength, there are countless exercises that can be done in quick bursts of energy. Explosiveness develops well on land, where the athlete has a harder surface to push off. Squat jumps, lat pull-downs, and pushups are just a few of the exercises that develop power for the pool.
Strength training for swimmers is critical to their development. It challenges the athlete to execute new movement patterns under a greater load than in the pool. Athletes tap into new sources of power and speed on land, translating to greater performances in the water.
For more on swim-specific strength training, check out this post.