Strength and Conditioning for Sprint Swimming

Bishop, Chris MSc1; Cree, Jon MSc1; Read, Paul MSc, CSCS2; Chavda, Shyam MSc1; Edwards, Michael MSc1; Turner, Anthony MSc, CSCS*D1

Strength & Conditioning Journal:
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000019


Author Information

1School of Health and Social Sciences, London Sport Institute, Middlesex University, London, United Kingdom; and

2School of Sport, Health, and Applied Science, St. Mary's University, London, United Kingdom

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

Chris Bishop is the lead strength and conditioning coach for Optimum Elite Fitness and a lecturer on the BSc Sport & Exercise Science Program at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University.

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Jon Cree is a strength and conditioning coach and a lecturer in Sport & Exercise Science and Sport & Exercise Rehabilitation at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University.

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Paul Read is a senior lecturer in strength and conditioning at St Mary's University, London.

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Shyam Chavda is an academy strength and conditioning coach for British Fencing and QPR Football Club and the sport technician and weightlifting coach at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University.

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Michael Edwards is a sessional lecturer and strength and conditioning coach at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University.

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Anthony Turner is the program leader for the MSc in strength and conditioning at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University.

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Article Outline
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Strength and conditioning (S&C) is an essential aspect of performance enhancement for sprint swimming and is often used as a complimentary training modality to in-pool conditioning. Swimming has unique demands as a sport, but weight-room training can offer considerable benefits to complement the swimmer’s performance.

There are a number of issues relating to swimming that the S&C coach must take into consideration. Rasulbekov et al. (18) suggested that the drag of the water acts as a natural decelerator, increasing the likelihood of turbulence (unwanted side-to-side movement during stroke pattern). In addition, efficient stroke pattern, eradicating muscle imbalances, and sufficient agonist versus antagonist strength ratios should also be considered before embarking on program design (12–14). However, more recent research has suggested that the S&C coach is most likely to make their greatest contribution by influencing the moments the swimmer has access to ground reaction forces (GRFs), namely the dive and turn (4). Therefore, the aim of this article will focus on the importance of the start and turn and the associated physical components that enhance swimming performance. The example training programs are aimed at enhancing performance for the sprint swimmer.

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This section will provide the reader with an insight into existing literature concerning training strategies used to enhance start/dive performance. Lyttle and Benjanuvatra (11) (Table 1) identified that a strong start can account for 30% of a 50-m race and suggest that a strong dive is essential to maximize performance. The time spent on the blocks to produce that force was measured at 0.79 second (10), highlighting the need for both strength and power (including rate of force development [RFD]).

Bishop et al. (2) assessed the effects of plyometric training on block start performance. The intervention consisted of 2 individual hour-long sessions using a wide range of exercises starting with low-intensity plyometrics, such as ankling, progressing onto countermovement jumps (CMJs), and squat jumps (SJs), and finishing with a variety of drop jump variations. Eight weeks of plyometric training provided a mean reduction of 0.59 second in start time, translating to a significant improvement in start performance. Not only did the swimmers show a reduction in time but also an increase in the distance covered from when the head contacted the water.

Poole and Maneval (16) investigated the effects of 10 weeks of depth jump training and its effects on vertical jump performance. Forty depth jumps were performed either 2 or 3 times a week. The results demonstrated significant improvements in jump height for both protocols but also identified that there was no significant difference between 2- or 3-day training protocols. West et al. (24) looked at strength and power predictors of starts in international sprint swimmers and their correlation with 15 m time, peak vertical and horizontal force (Table 2). They found significant correlations between the 1 repetition maximum (1RM) back squat, peak power, and jump height (all specific to producing high GRFs). They concluded that to improve swim start performance, strength and power exercises should be incorporated into the programming.

In addition to the evidence presented above, the S&C coach should be aware of the different starts available to the swimming athlete. Holthe and McClean (6) and Lee et al. (10) studied biomechanical analyses of 2 differing starts using 2 digital high speed cameras identifying block start time, flight time, water angle entry, and time to 12 m. Both studies identified that the track (split stance) start was superior, allowing the athletes to dive further with an increase in water entry speed. Specifically, mean time spent on the blocks for the track start was 0.79 second, which was a significant improvement from the 0.84 second spent on the blocks for the grab start. This translated to quicker take-off velocity (4.32 versus 4.2m/s), greater entry velocity (5.31 versus 5.24 m/s), higher water angle entry (40.9 versus 37.6°), and reduced time to the 12 m distance (5.45 versus 5.53 seconds) (10). In light of the evidence presented regarding plyometrics and its effects on the start, the differences between the track and grab start may provide the S&C coach with useful insight into sport-specific exercises to assist with this aspect of the race. Figure 1A and 1B depicts both the grab and track starts, respectively, that Lee et al. (10) assessed.

The turn is the second point during races that provides the athlete with GRFs. It may be noted that in a 50-m long course race, there will be no turn, as opposed to a single turn in a 50-m short course race. Potdevin et al. (17) identified that time spent on the wall for swimmers during the turn was between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds and represented 1.5% of the total race time in a 50-m event. The positions adopted by the swimmers during the turn, as they apply GRF, are similar to that of a CMJ. One may speculate that much like the dive, improvement here can be made by incorporating plyometric training. The simulated pattern of a CMJ is what the swimmers seem to perform, and therefore, variations of this exercise may help to produce greater push-off distances.

Chow et al. (3) analyzed the turning techniques of 19 elite swimmers. It was noted that the average speed on approach to the wall was greater in shorter distances, as represented by 1.67 m/s covered in the 100-m events compared with 1.49 m/s in the 400-m events. The distance covered from push off decreased as race distance increased as well. The 100-m event portrayed push off distances of 5.07 m in comparison with 4.71 m in the 400-m event (3). The explanation for this decrease in push-off distance was logically suspected to be down to a less forceful thrust, which was deemed an indication of energy consumption for the longer distances.

Theoretically, the S&C coach would also address the physiological issues associated with the sport/event in question. However, the physiology of swimming, although important, would seem not to affect the methods for enhancing the start or turn. Therefore, this section can be described as falling out of the remit of the S&C coach.

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Research has identified, both the SJ and CMJ have been associated with the start and the turn, respectively, and are therefore deemed the most appropriate power tests for sprint swimmers (3,4,6,9,17). With the split stance of the track start in mind (6), imbalances in lower limb strength and power may exist in swimmers; therefore, single-leg jump tests (in addition to 2-legged SJ and CMJ tests) could provide some useful information here regarding lower limb asymmetry. Large differences will assist the S&C coach with tailored program design specific to the athlete.

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West et al. (24) found that the 1RM back squat was significantly correlated with time to 15 m, peak vertical force, and peak horizontal force. Rodeo (20) also identified the dominant use of the glute complex and quadriceps group during the majority of phases in the breaststroke, which would support the notion that the 1RM back squat test may be the most appropriate.

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The breaststroke has unique demands in comparison to the other 3 strokes. Freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly strokes require much greater mobility and range of motion because of the high demand for rotation in the shoulder joint. Although still prominent, Rodeo’s kinesiological analysis (20) stated that shoulder protraction, adduction, and abduction were more associated with the breaststroke. Nuber et al. (15) provided supporting evidence to the notion of less rotational requirement in the breaststroke. A fine wire electromyographical analysis of the muscles used in and around the shoulder during freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly strokes was analyzed. The 8 muscles analyzed were biceps, subscapularis, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, serratus anterior, and deltoid. The results suggested that the freestyle and butterfly are frequently associated with impingement syndrome because of the repetitive nature of rotation, but this did not apply to the breaststroke. What was of note was that the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major were described as the “pull-through muscles,” indicating their importance in the “effort” phase of the stroke, whereas, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and serratus anterior were predominantly “recovery phase” muscles (15). This may suggest that both push and pull tests would be necessary for the breaststroke swimmer. The current gold standard field tests to measure upper body strength are the 1RM bench press and 1RM pull-up. It is important to check the ratio between these, as appropriate levels may optimize movement accuracy throughout the stroke, potentially reducing the drag effect. In support, this balance ratio is associated with increased power (1), limb speed, and movement accuracy (7). It is important to note that the majority of force (from the upper body) being applied comes from the back muscles (15). Excessive training of the chest muscle group could be counter-productive as these muscles are effectively producing force in the wrong direction. Table 3 shows a proposed testing battery for the sprint swimmer.

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Throughout the 2003–2004 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) college season, Grote et al. (5) recorded the results from a survey sent out by Stanford University to the top 25 NCAA teams in that season. Two hundred and ninety-six competitive swimmers (198 male and 98 female swimmers) provided feedback regarding hip adductor injuries they experienced that academic year. The male breaststroke swimmers swam a mean distance of 9,017 ± 7,162 m per week in comparison with the individual medley swimmers who swam 5,853 ± 1,961 m (breaststroke) per week. Grote et al. (5) noted that during the final phase of the breaststroke kick, peak adduction velocity of the femur can reach 245° per second, thus offering an explanation as to the vulnerability of the hip adductor complex during the breaststroke. The hip adductor injuries experienced by breaststroke competitors in this season was significantly higher than individual medley or nonbreaststroke swimmers. These results are shown in Table 4.

Literature on swimming has also shown the knee joint to be at risk of injury in addition to the hip adductor complex. Previous research by Keskinen et al. (8) acknowledged that a combination of high angular velocities and excessive tibial external rotation relative to the femur was a significant contributor to overuse movement patterns in hip adduction and the knee joint. Stulberg et al. (22) and Rovere and Nichols (21) addressed the associated risk factors and treatment of the breaststroker’s knee and identified that patella-femoral osteoarthritis was a prominent by-product of the breaststroke kick and reduced internal rotation of the hip. It was suggested that the treatment should involve working on technical aspects of the breaststroke kick (21,22). For the S&C coach, ensuring the hip adductors can work dynamically in a full range of motion would seem an important part of program design to compliment this aspect of the breaststroke kick. That said an exercise such as lateral lunges would provide good use of gluteal activation on one side while simultaneously offering flexibility to the opposing adductor complex.

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Richardson et al. (19) studied the shoulder in competitive swimming at U.S. training camps leading up to an Olympic Games. It was reported that shoulder pain was the most common injury in competitive swimming. In addition, the severity of the problem was claimed to increase with the caliber of the athlete and be more associated with sprint events as opposed to distance swimming (19). During the freestyle, Richardson et al. (19) reported that a common trait among swimmer is for their elbows to “drop” when fatigued. This causes increased external rotation of the shoulder joint during the “pull-through” phase of the stroke, which is deemed to cause a mechanical disadvantage. Training the adductors of the shoulder and internal rotators is thought to assist in the prevention of this common flaw in technique (19) and thus may assist in the strength and stability of the joint.

Wolf et al. (25) addressed injury patterns in NCAA Division 1 swimmers from 2002 to 2007 at the University of Iowa. It was suggested that the highest injury incidence was reported in the freestyle but that this may have been because of it being the most common stroke swam. Fifty of 94 swimmers swam freestyle, with 58% reporting injuries throughout this period. The highest injury percentage (90%) occurred in the breaststroke but only 10 swimmers from this stroke took part in this study. It was also suggested that there was no significant association of stroke swam and time missed, or body part injured. However, Wolf et al. (25) did report that the shoulder and upper arm were the most common injury site with 78 of 94 swimmers reporting injuries and time off from training.

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The purpose of this section was to outline specific strategies that the S&C coach may be able to use to enhance performance for various components of a race. To specifically target the start, plyometric exercises, such as split broad jumps or split SJ (exercises that work on improving both horizontal and vertical power), would be appropriate for complimenting the split stance seen in the track start. However, the countermovement associated with the turn would imply that plyometric exercises, such as CMJs and drop jumps, may be a more appropriate training method for this section of the race. In addition, the requirement for high levels of RFD (for the start) would support the notion for weightlifting, namely the clean & jerk and snatch. Both weightlifting and plyometric training are believed to be a very viable training method for enhancing both the start and the turn. Before the Olympic-style lifts can be taught safely and effectively, there is a requirement for a large foundation of strength training to be undertaken (23).

With respect to the lower body, lifts such as the back squat and deadlift will provide the necessary foundation for developing the gluteal complex and quadriceps in preparation for progressing on to weightlifting. Lifts that support upper body development should include push presses, bent-over rows, and pull-ups. Collectively, these lifts will promote higher GRFs and upper body postural strength, providing a solid base for progressing onto higher velocity lifts/movement patterns, such as weightlifting and plyometrics. Table 5 provides example strength and power programs that the S&C coach may consider for enhancing swimming performance.

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The basis of dry-land training should be centered around symmetry and aiming to enhance strength and power to improve performance for the dive and turn. Existing research has demonstrated that plyometric training has proven to be a viable training method for enhancing both these aspects of a race. For strength training, developing lower body strength through exercises such as back squats has also been shown to have positive results on start performance. Strengthening the adductor complex must also be considered in program design for injury prevention purposes. Exercises such as lateral lunges will not only offer the adductor complex strength but also simultaneously increase their range of motion. Because of the nature of having no real “off-season”, periodization for swimming can be considered a challenge. That said concurrent training for strength and power may be the most appropriate forms of training to maximize performance.

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sprint swimming; ground reaction forces; dive; swimming turn

© 2013 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association