Lifting weights has long been thought to be a way to boost performance in the pool. Today a group of top strength and conditioning coaches from elite NCAA programs discuss what swimmers need to know about weight training.
Swimming at the collegiate level is a time of change and growth.
With a totally new environment, new training partners, and the addition of weight training (for many swimmers for the first time), it can be a confusing and frustrating experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however.
By adjusting expectations, being willing to listen to your new coaches, and by staying ahead of the injury curve you can make the most of your time competing for your new school.
Five strength & conditioning specialists from some of the top NCAA programs in the country including NC State, Stanford and Texas A&M, stopped by to share advice for swimmers who are on their way to post-secondary swimming for the first time, or some reminders for swimmers returning for another year:
It’s all about technique.
“We focus a majority of our time on getting the most efficient range of motion for each individual before we worry about putting a heavier load on,” says Tanna Burge, a strength and conditioning coach who works with the swim team in her role as Director of Sports Performance at Texas A&M.
“It sounds simple and basic, but pulling back and hammering down the technique, mobility, rate of force development, and end range strength has made a huge impact on our student-athletes.”
The benefits of having a strong focus on technique in the gym, in the same way that you would in the water, also helps swimmers mentally.
“It releases them from the stress of feeling like they have to lift as heavy as possible every time they come to the weight room, and helps them understand the transfer of strength, force, power and flexibility from the weight room to the pool,” adds Burge.
Swimmers are comparison-making machines. We scour the web for splits, results and the training of our competition. We measure the performances of our practices from day-to-day and week-to-week.
It’s natural, we are competitive swimmers, after all. And this sense of competitiveness is obviously going to extend itself into the weight room.
Some swimmers will show up on day one having had some strength training background, while others couldn’t tell you the difference between a deadlift and a plank. Your strength coach exists in order to provide a training framework that serves not only your goals, but to scale you into the training.
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“There is a definite separation in the young swimmers I see these days, about half are already lifting/training and the other half don’t lift at all. For those beginning a new training protocol, keep it as simple and basic as possible for as long as possible,” says Burge.
For incoming freshmen in particular, forget the assumption that you will be doing the exact same stuff that the upperclassmen are doing.
“A common assumption new student-athletes make is that they will be expected to jump right into the same program as returners,” says Katlyn Haycock, who oversees the program design and implementation for the swim team at the University of Michigan.
“And this is not the case. We will begin an athlete on a program that is appropriate for his or her training age and provide the required coaching at all times.”
Show up ready to work.
If you are dead-set on showing up one day-one ready to work, Jason Dierking, strength and conditioning coach for the University of Louisville’s swim program, has advice for you.
“Focus on mastering proper movement mechanics with your own bodyweight,” says Dierking.
”Having the ability to squat, hip hinge, and do a perfect chest-to-floor push-up will put you ahead of 75% of your fellow freshmen.”
If you are fully healthy and you have decent mechanics you should also be prepared to run.
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“You will do a lot of dryland training in college, and chances are that will include running. Make sure you are able to comfortably run 2-3 miles before you get on campus and you will make your life easier.”
Trust the process.
Excellence in the pool and the gym requires a bit of a blind commitment. You place faith in the hard work you do in order to see the results you want.
And as a competitive swimmer you know that there will be bumps, setbacks and outright failures on the way.
It’s simply part of the deal when it comes to achieving awesomeness.
This is just hard to remember when you feel like other athletes are progressing faster than you in the gym (and the pool).
“Remember that your strength coach has your best interests in mind when designing your training program,” says Nathaniel Brookreson, who as Director of Strength & Conditioning for Olympic Sports works with the swim teams at North Carolina State University.
“Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and work on the basics to allow you to take two steps forward,” adds Brookerson.
“Things like movement competency, general strength and resiliency must be prioritized over anything fancy and novel. Simply focus on how you can get better that day, that moment and embrace the process over worrying about the outcomes.”
If there is uncertainty, ask.
The key to releasing some of that competitive fire that leads swimmers to jacking up the weights before they are ready for them is to listen to the “why” from your strength training coach.
“One of the key elements of my programming for swimmers is educating them on the ‘why?’ of everything,” says Burge.
“When they understand why they are doing a certain exercise and how it directly relates to their performance in the water, there is much greater buy-in,” says Burge.
If you are feeling confused or lost with your training it’s best to get to understanding the “why.” Your strength and conditioning coach is an expert and will be prepared to help you understand the purpose behind the work, so ask.
You aren’t sleeping enough.
The research on how sleep affects athletic performance is clear-cut—the longer you try to shortcut your time between the sheets the harder your performance in the pool will feel, the slower your reactions and explosiveness, and the more miserable of a person to be around you become. (Science.)
“Don’t underestimate the power of recovery,” notes Haycock.
“I consider it the most important element of recovery. College athletes in general do not receive adequate sleep.”
Research done on swimmers at Stanford showed just how pivotal a role added sleep in the performance. When athletes underwent a period of sleep extension (getting 9-10 hours of sleep per night) performance approved across the board, from turn time, start time, with times to 15m dropping by over half-a-second.
Social engagements will come flying at you left, right and center. Assignments, exams and labs will cause your weekly schedule to creak under their weight. And, of course, the workouts in and out of the pool.
It’s on you to manage your studies, social life and training so that when you walk on deck for morning practice you are at least mostly ready to kick butt.
Be proactive about staying injury-free.
Most college and university programs have an abundance of support staff that you could only dream about during your age group swimming days.
However, all the physical therapists, trainers and coaches in the world can’t substitute you doing the things you need to do to stay injury-free over the course of the swim season.
“Make sure you are proactive in maintaining your physical health,” notes Jason Quan, an assistant sports performance coach who works with the swimmers at Stanford University.
This means actually doing the pre-hab that you are assigned. Whether’s it’s mobility work to ward off swimmer’s shoulder, doing core work for better stability in the water, it’s on you to stay ahead of the injury-curve.
Your posture can be better.
Swimmers are used to being told to have better body position in the water. We know that we swim fastest when our body is in alignment, with our shoulders in position, our back straight and core engaged. Despite this knowledge we slouch our way through the rest of the day.
Problems really start to happen when this bad posturing extends into the weight room.
“Proper posture when lifting is crucial,” notes Michigan’s Haycock. “Swimmers are used to the buoyancy of water providing postural support.”
With a culture of sitting bad posture is already a problem, but swimmers are especially disposed to the forward-rounded shoulders and unsupported mid-section prevalent in today’s society.
“Most everyone can improve posture,” Haycock adds. “But swimmers tend to be prone to poor posture due to the nature of the sport.”
Swimming in university can be a fun and exhilarating experience. For those who come from small rural clubs the camaraderie and common team goal can be a welcome addition to your swimming. And even those coming from larger age group clubs can find it refreshing being with a group of swimmers all the same age.
That being said, the newness of it all, being away from home for the first time, no one on your butt to get schoolwork done, and the new program can be overwhelming.
At the end of the day remember to trust the process. To ask questions and listen. And to be proactive in staying healthy.
Do these things and your swimming experience at university will not only be more enjoyable, but will also result in faster swimming.
A big THANK YOU to the following S&C specialists for taking the time to contribute to this article:
- Tanna Burge is the strength and conditioning coach for not only swimming, but also oversees all non-football S&C programs at Texas A&M. You can catch up with the Aggies swim team on Twitter.
- Katlyn Haycock does the strength training programming and implementation for the men’s and women’s swim team at the University of Michigan. Follow the news and results of the team on Twitter here.
- Jason Quan is a Sports Performance Coach who has been working with the women’s swimming team at Stanford University since 2011. You can stay up-to-date with the Stanford Cardinal swim teams on Twitter here.
- Nathaniel Brookreson is the Director of Strength & Conditioning for Olympic Sports (including the swim teams) for the North Carolina State University Wolfpack. Follow the NC State swim team on Twitter, and catch up with Nate at Elite Physical Preparation as well.
- Jason Dierking is the assistant director of sports performance at the University of Louisville, where he works with the men’s and women’s swim teams. You can catch up with Jason on Twitter here.
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Training for strength, size, power, speed and agility all at one time can be overwhelming. Most of us aren't elite athletes who get paid to train and recover seven days a week. However, this workout program introduces you to a new way to incorporate weightlifting with other sport-specific movements to enhance your athletic performance.
This plan is not about training for strength and endurance concurrently. Athletic movements require more than running in a straight line and picking up heavy objects. They require the ability to change direction quickly, stop, start and create large amounts of force in small amounts of time. Often, this can be the difference between winning and losing. Hybrid muscle training (HMT) can help you become a true athlete.
HMT was created using experience and scientific evidence. The weightlifting portion has nonlinear periodization with full-body workouts multiple times per week. Studies have shown that nonlinear periodization can improve overall strength more than other types of periodization. Furthermore, this study shows that full-body workouts provide a greater increase in muscle hypertrophy than split-body workouts. Although athletes aren't usually trying to be the biggest or the strongest, both of these attributes make for a good foundation.
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The conditioning and sports skills portions of these mesocycles are designed to keep you in the mindset of whatever sport you play. Too often, athletes come into the weight room with a focus on getting ripped when this may not be beneficial to their overall sport performance. In this program, you focus on curing your weak points while practicing some common movements to help transfer your newfound strength and speed into game situations.
You'll notice the workouts aren't assigned to specific days of the week. This is to give you flexibility to work around your schedule. I recommend taking one full recovery day, but feel free to do your conditioning work after your weightlifting/metcon for the day. The reason to do it post-workout is to ensure you have enough glycogen to complete the workout. However, make sure to do separate sports skills sessions to mimic competition. Whether that is technique or general movements, you want to replicate what you're required to do when it counts.
The 12-week plan
HMT has three distinct mesocycles, each four weeks long. The program may work best in the off-season, but if you play sports as a weekend warrior, or if your games are relatively easy, it can be done any time. I don't recommend trying to complete the program during a high school or collegiate sports season, but it can be done if you are committed.
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The first mesocycle focuses on muscle hypertrophy to increase muscle size. The second focuses on strength and incorporates conditioning and sport-specific skills. And the third combines your new increased muscle size and strength with metabolic conditioning so it can transfer over to your sport.
This is one of the most important parts of your workout. If you don't have 6-8 minutes to spend warming up, you shouldn't be working out. The key to warming up is to engage the muscles you plan to use that day. Your goal is to end with a light sweat and a slightly elevated heart rate.
- Warm-up for all workouts: 6-8 minutes
- Bodyweight Squats - x25
- Push-Ups - x10
- Banded Rows - x20
- Vertical Jumps - x10
- Hip Rotations - x10 each side
- Leg Swings - x10 each side
- Foam roll: 2-3 minutes, focusing on your back, hamstrings and quads
- Rowing machine – 300 meters at a moderate pace
You should also add a warm-up set before each exercise to further prepare your muscles for the work set.
Mesocycle 1 – Hypertrophy
This cycle helps you adjust to the specific weightlifting movements in the program and establish your focus on increasing muscle size as much as [possible.
RELATED: The Science of Building Muscle: 2 Ways to Maximize Hypertrophy
Weeks 1 and 3
Perform 3x15 per exercise with 90- to 120-second rests between sets.
Workout 1: Front Squat, Barbell Row, Incline Bench, Romanian Deadlift
Workout 2: Back Squat, Pull-Ups, Military Press, Decline Bench
Workout 3: Deadlift, DB Row, DB Bench, Reverse DB Flys
Workout 4: Barbell Bench, DB Row, DB Shoulder Press, Lunges
Sport skills: Pick an area you are weak in and use drills to improve it. For example, if you're a soccer player who cannot shoot well with your left foot, take 30-40 minutes and focus on technique while shooting. Use this as active recovery day with minimal stress/effort.
Conditioning skills: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Perform conditioning drills that emphasize game speed. You could even play a pickup game, but keep your energy up. For example, if you're a football or basketball player, perform 10- to 15-second shuttle-style sprints.
Weeks 2 and 4
Repeat Weeks 1 and 3, performing 4x10 per exercise with 90- to 120-second rests between sets. For example, here's a typical split for the first mesocycle:
- Monday - Workout 1
- Tuesday - Workout 2
- Wednesday - Sport Skills
- Thursday - Workout 3
- Friday - Workout 4
- Saturday - Conditioning
- Sunday - Recovery
Mesocycle 2 – Strength
This mesocycle focuses on full-body lifts using a medium rep range to develop power and strength. The idea is to improve your overall strength while staying agile. That's why sprints and cycling are part of the conditioning skills. You need to learn how to use the muscle mass and strength you've gained so far. As for the skill, fundamentals are vital in all sports. They include throwing, catching, dribbling, punching, batting or any other big movement.
Weeks 1 and 3
Perform 5x5 per exercise with 120- to 180-second rests between sets.
Workout 1:Power Clean, Deadlift, Leg Press, Pallof Press
Workout 2: Squat, Push-Press, Lat Pulldown, Barbell Shrugs
Workout 3:Bench Press, Box Squat, T-Bar Row, Hang Clean
Sports skills: Practice the skill you use the most in your sport and focus on technique. You want to perfect whatever movement you are working on to ingrain it so you can do it even when you're fatigued.
Conditioning skills: 10-15 Sprints – 40 yards with 30 seconds of rest. Agility ladder exercises.
Conditioning skills: HIIT cycling – 15 minutes total – 3 minutes at 75-percent effort, then 100-percent effort for the last 20 seconds of every minute for minutes 4-12. Start your cooldown at 12 minutes with 50-percent effort.
Weeks 2 and 4
Repeat Weeks 1 and 3, performing 3x8 per exercise with 120- to 180-second rests between sets.
Mesocycle 3 – Metabolic Conditioning
This is when you combine the size and the strength you've gained over the past two months. Don't expect to lose any progress because you're lifting differently. However, you might lose some body fat, since this is when the intensity gets kicked up a notch. Notice the alternating sports and conditioning days, unlike the first two cycles.
RELATED: This Metabolic Conditioning Workout Is Not for the Faint of Heart
Weeks 1 and 3
Circuit style - 3x10 with less than 90 seconds rest between sets.
Workout 1: Barbell Row, Push-Press, Barbell Bench, Sprints 4x100m.
Workout 2: Dumbbell Row, Dumbbell Floor Press, Box Jumps, 500m Row.
Workout 3: Cable Chest Press, Cable Row, Deadlift, Box Shuffle.
Sports skills: Either play a small-sided game of your sport or focus on two skills, one weak and one strong.
Conditioning skills: Plyometrics 3x10–Bounds, Skater Jumps, Lateral Bounds, Hops, Scissor Jumps. Keep intensity high with less than 60 seconds rest between sets.
Conditioning skills: Agility drills: 3-Cone Drill, Agility Ladder, Shuffle,
Weeks 2 and 4
Repeat weeks 1 and 3 with 2x20 and 3 minutes rest between sets.
Recovery is one of the most important parts of this program, since you are constantly overreaching. It is vital that you get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. The importance of sleep has been shown in multiple studies. If you do not get enough sleep, your body will not have adequate time to repair itself and release specific growth factors. Scientific evidence has shown that sleep is vital to muscle growth. Furthermore, lack of sleep can cause decreases in IGF-1 and testosterone levels while causing an increase in cortisol levels. The amount you are training can be overwhelming, so give your body enough time to recover every night. If you find yourself absolutely beat, take an extra rest day. However, that doesn't mean you can skip the workouts you don't like.
There is no secret supplement or diet that will make you an elite athlete. You have to put in hard work and eat smart to make progress in this program. I highly discourage any type of diet or reduced food intake while doing hybrid muscle training. It's also important to not overeat, as this isn't a bulking program. You will ultimately need 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to ensure that your protein intake is high enough to maximize protein synthesis.
This program is not for the faint of heart. It requires dedication and determination to finish. Athletes should always look to push themselves, and HMT is a great way to increase your athletic performance.
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