I opened my email on Saturday and noticed an email from our technique coach, Abbie Fish. The email included a blog post about the effectiveness of resistance training on swim performance.
Dr. Mullen does an awesome job of summarizing the research on the topic of resistance training from a controlled, scientific study perspective. Essentially the research points that resistance training "could" help swimming performance. However, more research is needed to conclude if it is an effective means of training.
Abbie challenged me to air out my thoughts on this research, so let's dive into it!
What the research tried to quantify....
The review looked at strength/resistance training, assisted sprint swimming, arms-only training, leg-kick training, respiratory muscle training, training the energy delivery systems, and combined methodology.
The hope of the study was to point out some clear answers and recommendations for resistance training with swimmers. However, the researchers were left with more questions at the end.
So are we hopeless when it comes to knowing if resistance training is effective for swimming performance?
Simply, the answer is no.
A Practical Application
Do I think further research will be helpful? 100%. However, physiology is physiology. Yes, a different medium (water) is in play but that does not stop human physiology from continuing its process.
Also, I think many swimmers look at resistance training in the wrong light. Resistance training gets looked at as something that is taking away from the pool or it gets looked at as something that will solve performance issues in the pool, alone.
This is where I think the misunderstanding casts doubt about resistance training's effectiveness for swimmers.
When the mindset switches from "what can resistance training do for me" to "what tools can resistance training help me improve upon that will give me a greater platform to perform," that's where the magic happens.
Training Example: Body Positioning
I use this example often, but it has too much value to not include in this post.
Let's take an age group swimmer who continuously breaks down at the 75 mark in a 100 FR. This athlete looks awesome at first and then the hips start to sag, the sag of the hips throws off the stroke and the kick, and all the sudden water wins the fight. The athlete hits the wall exhausted and defeated.
The next week the athlete holds a plank and the coach quickly notices that the hip sag occurs at the exact same time as it occurred in the water.
The next step should be to teach proper core mechanics on land.
Why? First, it will be easier for a coach to cue correction. The process of core engagement is much easier to teach on land compared to the water.
The athlete will also have an easier time learning body awareness this way. Then add water and watch the magic happen.
Yes, a bodyweight plank could be argued to not be resistance training. However, a plank + vertical pull with a band includes external resistance. Adding a half turkish get up progression involves external resistance.
If core stability is the limiting factor, it is going to limit all other aspects of a stroke. A kick will not be as powerful and direct with a weak core. A pull with result in little propulsion when a dynamic position is not maintained.
Abbie mentioned a one-liner that stopped me dead in my tracks one day.
She made the comment that water is about 800x more viscous in air. Viscosity means there is equal resistance in all planes of motion.
With that much more resistance involved when comparing water to air, I'd argue that you're completely wasting your time if body positioning, fueled by core stability, is not part of your regular training.
Holding a better body positioning alone will lead to better performance. External resistance can teach awareness and make an athlete much more effective at this skill. It will also allow the athlete to move more efficiently in the water. This could extend the athlete's capability to maintain a pace throughout the course of a race.
Did resistance training change the swim performance directly? No. Did it give the athlete a greater platform to perform? YES!
Training Example: Time
Of course an athlete has to swim to get better at swimming. However, where do coaches need to draw the line and say that quality of swim is more important than quantity of swim?
Yes, a young athlete needs repetition to learn proper form. What about a seasoned masters athlete?
What about an athlete who doesn't have that much time to train?
Here's the fun part. He has kept getting faster.
What does he focus on? He completes technically sound practices that hover around 3500 yards, strength trains, and doubles down on recovery.
On his road to FINA Masters Worlds, he added 10 lbs of muscle. During that time, he set a new LIFETIME best in the 100 BR (57.67) and progressed to fractions of a second within his lifetime bests for his other events. I thought you were supposed to slow down after 30?
By keeping his intensity high, improving his strength, and focusing on recovery, he has positively impacted his performance track.
Rich Hughey also hits on this notion of less pool work. Rich only does a 500 warm up.
By focusing on strength and quality practice over quantity, he has continued his 14x All American form into masters swimming. 21.06 for a 50 FR in the 45-49 class is one of the fastest times in history. He also has a 52.14 100-IM time in that age group.
When the world says these men should be slowing down, they continue to go fast.
Check out my Q&A with Rich from last week. To any swimmer who has plateaued or thinks their time has passed, this should be welcomed news!
Training Example: Injury Prevention
This is where I think we are really missing the boat with resistance training.
Resistance training aids in building a more resilient athlete. By giving athletes the ability to hold proper positioning for longer, maintain force outputs necessary for forward progress, AND properly disperse force across joints and muscles, resistance training helps reduce injuries. It is that simple.
Yes, you have to follow a program suited towards your abilities. Yes, you have to do it consistently. Yes, the basics work really well.
Honestly, swimming is too repetitive to not implement some sort of resistance training program.
Strength helps manage the load of endurance and repetition.
At the end of the day, a sound resistance training program helps athletes manage injuries and keep them at bay. This leads to fewer interruptions in training. That alone puts the athlete on a much better trajectory for success.
Yes, the science of resistance training is behind the curve when it comes to swimming. However, looking at the principles of performance and the demands of the sport make it clear that resistance training is here to help.
Start With Small Steps
You don't have to do anything drastic. Making minor improvements to strength can have major effects in the water. Start with shorter sessions and allow your body to adapt.
Be Savage About The Basics
Resistance training does not need to be fancy. It needs to be effective. Stick with your basic movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull, brace, rotate) and master them. This is a fantastic start and you should revisit the basics often.
As an athlete, you don't have time for things that will take you backwards. Seek the guidance of a performance coach who has a swimming background and thoroughly understands the demands of the sport.
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