Body types of swimmers vary as the body adapts to its non-weight bearing environment (i.e., water). In comparison to a land-based athlete, a swimmer's body shape environmentally adapts to and reflects the specific movement patterns and muscle involvement of each swimming stroke. While swimmers may at times seem posturally incorrect, hyper-mobile, lacking co-ordination, balance, even strength, the question is – how can a swimmer benefit from dry-land training?
As a physical educator, I’m in a fortunate position that allows me the opportunity to work each year with hundreds of elite male and female swimmers from the ages of 12 years upwards at state and national levels. This position allows me to practice, compile and review a number of training based theories as a physical educator. Then combine this data to scientific based research findings for improved athletic performance.
The first of these studies (Bulgakova and colleagues 1987) investigated the effects of two forms of strength training on 11 to 12 year old swimmers twice a week over a six month period. Results conclude that: “Dry-land training has the potential to negatively effect swimming performance because of disruptive transfers to swimming technique as well as not being associated with performance improvements.”
Startling findings also arose from Tanaka and colleagues who performed a 14 week swimming program with a collegiate men's swimming team. The participants were divided into two groups: the first group performed swimming training alone, while the second group performed the same training plus resistance training under supervision. Results of this study conclude that: “Despite the fact that improvements of 25 to 35 percent were recorded on the resistance training exercises, dry-land resistance training did not improve swimming performance.”
Resistance training does produce changes in strength training performance and in the physiology of the muscles. However, its effects are specific to the training exercises and do not necessarily transfer positively to the sport for which they are “intended.”
The findings of this study are in agreement with other well-controlled investigations involving other sports. With mature athletes, studies shoewed that land-based weight training does not produce performance benefit over that which can be achieved through swimming alone. The authors warned that land-based resistance training exercises may alter stroke mechanics. Strength activity improvements that were carefully measured were not transferred into the swimming strokes of these mature athletes. This lack of positive transfer can be adequately explained by the specificity of training principle.
Some of the reasons for failure of land-based training are:
- The resistance activities do not mimic the movement path or action speed of swimming.
- Muscular actions in the exercises are in coordinated patterns that have no commonality with crawl stroke swimming.
- The distributions of forces in land-training exercises are different to those of swimming.
Although many studies involve mature athletes, if athletes are markedly "weak", as is often the case with young swimmers who engage in a dominantly sedentary lifestyle, then some strength gains may have been beneficial. However, these studies are in concert with modern training theory that:
- The major benefit of land-based resistance training is one of general strength development in "weak" athletes;
- In serious adolescent or mature athletes, land-based training has little benefit for swimming performance; and
- The principle of specificity of training is particularly obvious in swimming because stroking actions used are so unnatural.
To begin to improve an athlete’s capacity through a full range of movement without limiting performance, one must recall the principle that STRETCHING also DEVELOPS STRENGTH (PNF - Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation).
Kokkonen and Lauritzen (1995) evaluated the effect of a PNF stretching routine on strength and muscular endurance gains. The results showed:
- In the male experimental group, flexibility increased 38 percent, strength by 17.2 percent and endurance by 35.6 percent.
- In the female experimental group, flexibility increased by 23.3 percent, strength by 16.8 percent and endurance by 35.5 percent.
PNF stretching is likely to stimulate these types of changes due to its isometric contractions. As a result, PNF stretching could be an alternative to, or supplemental method for standard weight training programs, especially for swimmers and weaker athletes.
The link between PNF stretching and static (isometric) drills tend to go hand in hand towards improving:
- Strength and muscle control at various ranges of motion
- Body awareness
- Voluntary breathing control
- Movement efficiency, rhythm and motor control
- Recovery and training time
Part 2 of this article will present a number of recommended dry-land sport-specific training activities for swimmers.
- Bulgakova, N. Z., Vorontsov, A. R., & Fomichenko, T. G. (1987). Improving the technical preparedness of young swimmers by using strength training. Theory and Practice of Physical Culture, 7, 31-33.
- Tanaka, H., Costill, D. L., Thomas, R., Fink, W. J., & Widrick, J. J. (1993). Dry-land resistance training for competitive swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 25, 952-959.
- Kokkonen, J., & Lauritzen, S. (1995). Isotonic strength and endurance gains through PNF stretching. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 27(5), Supplement abstract 127.