A quick search on the web for strength and conditioning for swimming will reveal a generous amount of results, but very little actionable information. Unfortunately, this is because the majority of the swimming industry is stuck in the past. Many in this community feel that traditional strength and conditioning programs have little to no transfer to the water and that swimmers are too “uncoordinated” and can get hurt from such programs. This mindset is holding back many athletes from achieving their full potential.

Not only does this lack of information ward off well-meaning strength and conditioning coaches with more traditional contact sports-based backgrounds from learning more about this segment of their athletes, but it also directly perpetuates long held ideas about “swimmer coordination,” driving an entire athletic population to avoid extremely beneficial land-based training.

As a strength and conditioning professional, you may already understand the relationship between weight training and high performance, but your potential clients may not. Below, I’ve listed what I’ve found to be some of the most important considerations for exercise prescription for swimmers.

1. Kill the stereotypes

One of the most important things you can do as a strength and conditioning professional to increase buy-in from your swimming clients is to immediately dispel any and all myths that they’ve heard about strength training as it relates to swimming. These can include, but aren't limited to, myths like swimmers are too uncoordinated, extra muscle mass will make them sink, weight training will make them slower, and they’ll hurt themselves.

2. Fix alignment

Because of the nature of this sport, alignment plays a huge role in performance enhancement, especially as swimmers get better and need to find new ways to drop time. You'll need to be cognizant of your athletes' alignment from head to toe. This idea needs to transcend any initial assessment because it will need to be reinforced. Make sure the athlete doesn’t fall into any pattern of anterior pelvic tilt, the lordosis generally associated with this, posterior pelvic tilt, or the kyphosis of the upper back generally associated with this spinal position.

A certain amount of anterior pelvic tilt or posterior pelvic tilt can be brushed off a little easier with other populations, but with swimmers, when poor alignment directly correlates to reduced hydrodynamics and, in turn, more drag, we need to address this as a top priority.

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3. Rethink your myofascial release

Right now, foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and rumble rollers are the ‘in’ thing. I’m not here to say that foam rolling is a waste of time because it isn't. I’ve personally noticed awesome changes from myofascial release in dozens of athletes but generally not in swimmers.

The problem with mixing swimmers and foam rollers is that swimmers already display too much congenial laxity (hyper mobility) at most joints. So hitting foam rollers, especially before a workout, tends to have performance reducing effects. Notice that I said "at most joints." Some areas are relatively free game for rolling. Problem areas for swimmers tend to be the IT band, glute medius, pec minor, and calves. But even with these, I prefer to put them in a cool down segment. That way, we can hit a few more areas that may be troubling the athlete on a daily basis without compromising joint stability before a workout.

4. Aggressively prevent stretching

This point comes directly out of the last one. We can't confuse mobility (moving through an active range of motion) and flexibility (moving through a passive range of motion). While swimmers may have some mobility issues that can be addressed with foam rolling, they rarely, if ever, have flexibility issues. In fact, swimmers are so flexible that they love to stretch. But this can be a huge problem for a swimmer’s athletic career as well as for us as coaches. We need to encourage strengthening these swimmers through their existing range of motion before we allow even more range of motion with poor body awareness.

The easiest way to ensure this is to prevent stretching while the athlete is at our facility. If/when a swimmer begins to stretch between sets, use this as a teachable moment to explain why they don’t need any additional passive range of motion.

5. Focus on the neglected

Again, the last point isn’t to be confused with mobility, especially in the hips. Because swimmers rarely get past thirty degrees of hip flexion/hyper extension (and no abduction unless a breast stroke swimmer), they become prone to injuries outside of their normal range of motion. As strength and conditioning professionals, we need to expand this active range of motion to prevent injury.

This is also a very sagittal and transverse plane dominant sport. In training, we need to focus on incorporating more frontal plane work. Just like with many other populations, the glutes become dormant without sufficient activation. There is an existing train of thought in the world of swimming that states that we should avoid strengthening the glutes because they increase hydrodynamic drag. Adding turbines to a jet increases drag as well, but we still put them there so the plane can travel at its top speeds. The glutes aren't any different. Sure, we may be a little more hydrodynamic, but in neglecting these, we're also limiting the most powerful hip extensors in the body!

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While the glutes are often neglected, so are the trapezius group and rhomboids. Although they receive stimulation while swimming, these are a huge performance group and should be trained in all three movements (elevation, depression, and retraction). This will ensure that there aren't any weak links that would hinder scapular mechanics in the pool and therefore performance.

6. Avoid energy system training

Many strength and conditioning coaches who don't have much experience with swimmers love to throw them into a pool to make workouts ‘sport-specific.’ Not only do swimmers already spend enough time in the pool, but you probably don’t know what swimming mechanics should look like and may be doing more harm than good.

Similarly, in an attempt to be ‘sport-specific,’ strength and conditioning coaches love to time swimmers and do energy system work to replicate race times. Again, this is a bad idea. Leave this work to the swim coach. These athletes are constantly getting bombarded with energy system training and need to slow down and focus on quality. They also need to get sufficient recovery to perform well on each exercise.

7. Bear in mind training age

Although you may be working with a college population, swimmers generally have very little real weight training experience, so be sure to account for this while developing your program. Focus on ingraining good motor patterns through a controlled range of motion. Add volume and load only once a pattern is demonstrated with sufficient form. Again, keep in mind that many of these technique problems can be soft tissue restrictions, so monitor these athletes closely to see what may be reducing their active range of motion.

Generally, swimmers aren’t like football players who are usually encouraged to be in a gym beginning freshman year of high school, so there isn't any need to get fancy. Pull out the basics and ride them out until you see progress begin to stall. Then it might be time to program some more advanced exercise progressions.

8. Address nutritional concerns

Swimmers eat like crap. There isn't any way around it. You’ve seen the articles in the mainstream media showing the unbelievable amount of poor quality food that Michael Phelps supposedly ate every day during his training. Your swimmers have seen that, too, and your swimmers think they can get away with that. They can’t.

Many male swimmers have the dreaded ‘skinny fat’ syndrome caused by their food choices and hormonal profile. Be sure to encourage a balanced diet and educate them on its benefits.

While too much of the wrong thing is generally the problem for the guys, too little is generally the problem for female swimmers, who are one of the most at-risk groups for falling into the female athlete triad. Again, explain the implications of this disordered eating on their performance and life. When necessary, seek a qualified nutritionist/sports psychologist to help mitigate the situation.

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9. Keep communication lines open

Although this is rather general and can be applied to most sports, this is critical with swimming. Most swim programs vary intensity drastically. Maintain contact with the coach to know when it’s okay to push and when you should back off. Because this sport is so different from the demands of other sports, strength and conditioning coaches may at times become confused with some swim lingo or phrases used. Accept your knowledge limitations and reach out for help and education from the coaches and athletes. They'll be appreciative that you care enough to check, which will help change the current dynamic between swim coaches and strength and conditioning professionals.

Similarly, keep communication open with the athletes. Are they sore from their last practice? What is their psychological profile? Have they just won/lost a big meet? These are the kind of concerns that fluctuate and change training preparedness in the world of swimming on a daily basis. Assess the situation as soon as you see them to get an idea of their readiness. If you’ve kept communication lines closed, swimmers may be hesitant to let you know or express why their training has been lacking. This may leave you scratching your head wondering what the problem is with your perfectly programmed workout. Keep the communication open to get into the minds of the swimmers.

10. Work on alignment, alignment, and more alignment

Posture is everything in swimming. After a hard day of practice, swimmers tend to rely on passive restraints rather than active muscle tension for support. Reinforce good posture whenever an opportunity presents itself. You may only have these athletes for an hour a day, but the problem of course is the other 23.

If we can get swimmers to develop some proprioception, or sense of awareness in space, they will be more likely to exhibit better posture, thereby increasing blood flow to the body and improving breathing patterns, which will allow the body to switch more easily between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems and allow them to train harder and recover better.

Now that you have a better understanding of strength and conditioning for swimming, make sure you act. If you don’t have any swimmers who train at your facility, maybe try to cater to some. The market for swimming strength and conditioning is completely open. These are an awesome group of athletes chasing greatness just like everyone else. Many groups of coaches, parents, and athletes still hold outdated notions of strength training. Let’s make it our mission to change their minds one person at a time.