Swimmers: Eight strength training mistakes to avoid.

1. Over training the shoulders.

It’s common for elite swimmers who compete year round to easily train in excess of 50,000 yds a week. With that comes an awful lot of overhead repetition. Needless to say, with high aerobic volumes and or high intensity efforts, the shoulders are heavily stressed. Whether it be from overuse, misuse or under recovery, the shoulders are often repeatedly pushed towards their threshold. A dryland or weight room session shouldn’t be a constant source of competing demands. Bottom line: the shoulders need time to adequately recover between pool outings.   In addition to undermining recovery, the exercises shown below have the tendency to bring ill effects upon the highly active shoulder. (from left to right: bench dips, lateral raises, shrugs)

Take classic bench dips for example. During this exercise, it’s common to see internally rotated end range shoulder extension, antior tilted scapula,  sternal depression, and forward head posture…none of which make for a very happy shoulder. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much to take the small rotator cuff muscles beyond muscular fatigue. The bigger problem: the stronger and much larger muscles (deltoids for example) will continue on with an exercise in the presence of  joint mal-alignment. Recall, a durable shoulder is one with a rotator cuff that fires with seamless and synchronized timing and coordination – not to be confused for characteristics associated with isolated strength. The take-away: choose shoulder exercises that will help , not hinder your capacity to train longer and harder in the pool.

2. Choosing Machines over Free Weights.

When it comes down to modern day strength training philosophy, most performance enhancement coaches advocate training movements versus simply isolating muscles. To the inexperienced lifter exercise machines may appear to be a safe and convenient alternative to using free weights. Consequently the training effects are rather different. For starters, machines tend to deliver very little benefit towards improving functional capacity. To that end, machines fix you into  “one size fits all” single planes of motion which arent’t very representative of athletics and life-like movements. Machines undermine individual physiological uniqueness, which can lead to unhappy joints – a scenario that can also result from the associated repetitive pattern overload.

The vast majority of collegiate and post graduate swim programs utilize "free weight" resistance training on a regular basis.

Choosing free weights  such as dumbells, barbells, or kettlbells will help to facilitate authentic movement and the necessary muscular co-contractions that allow for transfer to more functional activities. Furthermore, seated positions via machines do very little to demand core stability just prior to and during a movement. Exercises performed with free weights allow for more freedom of movement, which in turn leads to better core engagement. As a general rule of thumb, strive to construct the bulk of your work out routine from full range of motion, multi-joint, and multi-planer exercises.

3. Lack of proper execution.

With improper execution any exercise can become contraindicated. Execution is everything.  If you wouldn’t condone dropping the elbow in freestyle swimming or inefficient streamlines, don’t allow the respective fundamental equivalents to occur during dryland. Use exercises that you understand and are confident using. Understand how and when to use progressions and regressions. Remember: a well executed program should facilitate injury reduction, while sloppy execution can lend itself to injury.

4. Under emphasis on absolute and relative strengths.

Don’t limit your land training to high rep/endurance exercise, metabolic circuits,  and tabata style protocols.  While those efforts can have their place, it’s also recommended to program in some high-intensity, pure strength and power movements while allowing for adequate recovery between sets. The incorporation of challenging compound or multi-joint  exercises can boost absolute strength in addition to increasing anabolic human growth hormone all while potentially yielding a better testosterone to cortisol ratio.

Additionally, with the use of a progressive overload approach, an individual can experience increased strength with minimal changes in body weight. This will in-turn lead to favorable increases in relative strength. Relative strength is simply the comparison of one’s demonstrable strength to their overall body weight. This improvement in strength can be in part a result of the positive adaptations associated with motor unit plasticity. This can be interpreted as the ability to change and improve the neurological efficiency of high threshold motor units that would otherwise not be exposed with endurance oriented training.  <Folland JP et. al. 2007>. At the very minimum, appropriately challenging resistance training efforts will increase bone, tendon and ligament strength.

6. Fear of getting “Too Bulky”

Don’t be misguided by the fading belief that resistance training inevitably leads to unwanted gains in mass. For starters, not all resistance training protocols are the same. Just as there isn’t any one way to coach a given sport, there are endless methodologies on how to go about resistance training. Sure, there are mass gaining protocols used by body builders, however, they tend to be pretty specific and require a great deal of dedicated effort toward that goal. After all, bodybuilding is a judged competition for a reason. Reason being, for most individuals adding sizable muscle mass just isn’t all that easy.

This was the intentional by-product of a very specific training regime (not to mention....steriods)

Generally speaking, if you’re a competitive swimmer, odds aren’t in your favor to readily put on excessive muscle.  Swimming imposes such an immense metabolic demand that it’s extremely difficult to supply the necessary caloric surplus to invoke rapid mass gain. Continuing along those lines, prolonged intense swim training coupled with inadequate recovery and nutrition brings on the potential for an influx of a muscle eating hormone known as cortisol.  Eric Otter provides a great research review on a closely related subiect:  Molecular Responses to Strength & Endurance Training – Are They Incompatible?.  As a final closing point to the topic: Women and children have significantly less testosterone than men, which drastically decreases their likelihood of experiencing unwanted muscle gain in the gym. <Vingren JL et. al. 2010>.

5. Excessive focus on anterior chain.

The nature of swimming bio-mechanics is such that the front side of the body tends to be trained more so than the back. It’s common for an experienced swimmer to diplay impressively sculpted shoulders, pectorals, abs, and quads.

While Squats, straight arm pull downs, bench pressing, swim benches, direct abdominal exercise…etc. etc. might do wonders for performance enhancement, they shouldn’t exclusively dominate each and every workout.   For the sake of balance, it’s in good measure to program exercises for the backside of the body. Horizontal pulling & rowing, dead lift variations, and otherwise upper back, gluteal and hamstring stimuli will do a swimming body good.

7. Over emphasis on tissue length (i.e. stretching)

Traditionally speaking, it’s common practice for veteran swimmers to emphasize tissue extensibility and length while simultaneously under emphasizing proper strength and motor control.  It’s important to understand that any gains in tissue length via traditional stretching should be accompanied by an appropriate corresponding strength gain.  We must consider the role that tissue length (both contractile and non contractile) plays upon it’s ability to produce, control, and or transfer force.  Stiffness can aid in force production  while excessive elasticity can hinder it.  Have standards for defining a required range of motion and a way to repeatedly access it. Continually Test and Re-Test.

How much is enough ? ? ?

Prioritize your stretching efforts according to specific need. Younger  populations and elite athletes may need less, while less experienced and older populations may require more. Don’t exhaust valuable land time attempting to add tissue length if what already posses is adequate for the given function. Instead, focus on increasing stability, force production, and neuromuscular efficiency within the desired range. When talking about passive range of motion, more isn’t necessarily always better.  Excessive mobility can sometimes mean less stability. Less stability usually means less force transfer, unwanted compensations, and inefficient, less controllable movement. In the end, should a methodical assessment determine a need for making stretching a part of your program, be sure to complement it with some respectable strength training for better lasting results.  One should acknowledge that using proper resistance training via compound movements over full ranges of motion can have positive effects on range of motion all while increasing neuromuscular force production.

8. Training through pain

This one should be pretty straight forward. If it hurts, don’t do it. With the exception of activity induced muscle soreness, don’t make a habit out of working through painful movements.

It’s a complicated situation because not all bad movement is painful, and not all painful movement is bad. The rules of normal motor learning do not apply when pain is present. The onset of pain can cause unwanted compensations to occur, and training despite the pain may only make matters worse.  According to renowned late Czech Physiotherapist, Vladimir Janda, “Pain, however undesirable, serves as a biological function acting as a warning signal that all is not well in the movement system.”