3 Factors to Consider When Training Swimmers

A good strength program for swimmers should aim to enhance each aspect of their event while also reducing their risk of injury.

When you think of athletes who strength train, swimmers probably aren't the first ones who spring to mind.

However, every athlete can benefit from strength training. Strength training can increase stroke rate, power off the blocks and explosiveness on turns. It can also reduce risk of injury by stabilizing their shoulders and increasing bone mineral density.

While strength training has plenty of benefit for swimmers, coaches and athletes must recognize that swimming is a sport with unique demands. A football or basketball strength program is not the ideal way to train a swimmer. With that, here are three factors to take into consideration when implementing a strength program for swimmers.

Factor 1: Their Stroke

What stroke does the athlete focus on? The answer is going to affect the focus of their workout. The same way that a thrower and a sprinter in track have different needs, so too do the freestyle and the breaststroke swimmer. All swimming strokes are full-body activities, but each utilizes the body differently to propel the swimmer through the water. When training my swimmers, I will divide them into two groups. Freestyle and backstroke is the first group, and breaststroke and butterfly is the second. The first group's workout has a slightly heavier focus on the upper body, because in my opinion, the freestyle and backstroke require more contribution from the upper body than the breaststroke and butterfly. The breaststroke and butterfly group perform slightly more leg and core stability work for the same reason.

Factor 2: Common Swimming Injuries

Common injuries within the sport is a consideration any coach or athlete should make when putting together workouts for an athlete/team. The most common injuries for swimmers are overuse injuries involving the shoulders. This makes sense, because aside from the breaststroke, all of the strokes require violent repeated overhead movements at the shoulder. This is similar to what baseball pitchers and volleyball players experience, so any good strength program for a swimmer should contain rotator cuff stability work to help stabilize the shoulder.

Other common swimming injuries include neck and back injuries that come from overextending. These are typically found in younger swimmers, and primarily result from technique flaws that should be addressed by the swim coach. In the weight room, though, the strength coach needs to be aware that this is a common compensation for swimmers. Everyone knows that lifting with a flexed spine is dangerous, but those same dangers exist when an athlete is overextended.

Coaches for swimmers need to emphasize a braced neutral spine to help reduce the risk of this injury and engrain proper movement patterns. This includes making sure the cervical spine remains neutral throughout the entire movement. In the images below, you can see I have an overextended Cervical spine in the first photo. This is a common lifting flaw for many athletes. Swimmers who have a tendency to overextend will often exhibit this issue, and it must be addressed as soon as possible. The second image shows me deadlifting with a neutral spine, which is what athletes should strive for.

The third injury that commonly plagues swimmers is known as "swimmer's knee." This is an issue most commonly found in breaststrokers, because of the unique nature of the breaststroke kick. A lot of prevention for this is going to be based on gradually increasing volume of breaststroke, but from a strength and conditioning standpoint, whenever there is an issue of knee pain, your answer can often be found at the joint either above or below it.

A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that swimmers who specialize in breaststroke have a reduction of internal rotation at the hip. Making sure the athlete has mobile hips that are functioning properly is going to be the best thing to help prevent this knee pain. If the hips can't move, then the knee has to provide the motion. Once the hip is moving well, it is important to ensure that the glutes are functioning properly. If the glutes are not working properly, it can increase the stress on the knee, specifically the patella tendon. There are a million different articles on how to activate the glutes, so I won't go into detail there. To reduce the risk of swimmer's knee ensure that the hips are mobile and that the glutes are active and functioning properly.

Factor 3: Primary Energy Systems

Similarly to factor two, figuring out the primary energy system used in a sport is going to be crucial for training any athlete. Swimming is a unique sport, because it is primarily aerobic with the exception of the 50-meter and 100-meter events, but swimming also requires explosive pushes off the blocks and walls throughout each race. Most of a swimmer's conditioning occurs in the pool, but for cross training, a sample workout on the rower could look like this:

  • Six sets lasting two minutes each with 2-4 minutes rest between sets
  • In each set, alternate between 25 seconds at 70-80% intensity with all-out effort for 5 seconds. This mimics the nature of many swimming events where roughly every 25 seconds the athlete needs to explosively turn

In the weight room, swimmers should have separate blocks that focus on muscular endurance, max strength and power. There shouldn't be any hypertrophy blocks for swimmers, because excess bulk can be detrimental to performance. Some would argue that max strength is unnecessary for swimmers, because of the aerobic nature of the sport. I would agree if we were talking about a cross-country runner, but swimming requires an explosive start and explosive turns every 50 meters and strength is half the equation for power. For this reason, I believe a block focusing on max strength makes sense, though bar speed should still be prioritized during this phase.

Every sport is unique, and good coaches take those differences into consideration when making a strength and conditioning program. It is important to recognize that athletes who perform different strokes have different needs. With any sport, it is crucial to factor in the energy systems utilized during competition and the common injuries inherent to the sport. A good strength program for swimmers should aim to enhance each aspect of their race while also reducing their risk of injury and help them feel better both in and out of the pool.

Photo Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock, technotr/iStock, Wavebreakmedia/iStock