Swimming performance: why resistance isn’t futile!

Compared to air, water is dense stuff, which makes moving through it much harder for any given speed. In practice, this means that moving through water requires that the muscles of a swimmer need to generate large amounts of force, which is why strength is a major attribute in swimmers. How best to develop that strength however is another matter. While many swimmers perform resistance training on dry land to help develop muscular strength and power, there’s much debate over how effective this is. In particular, there’s a question of how any strength increases gained as a result of resistance training translate into increased force generation and swimming speed in the water. With that in mind, researchers have surveyed the scientific literature to try and come up with definitive answers to two important questions:

  1. How effective are the different types of resistance-training in terms of improving swimming performance?
  2. How do these different types of resistance training affect the technical aspect of swimming (stroke technique etc)?

In one piece of research, scientists decided to carry out a ‘meta-study’ – a study that gathers together all the previous high-quality evidence from a range of previous studies and pools the data to come up with overall conclusions [Sports Med. 2017 Nov;47(11):2285-2307]. To do this, they searched four separate scientific databases for published journal articles that had investigated swimming performance in competitive swimmers participating in a structured resistance-training programme. In order to obtain the most consistent and reliable results, articles that studied the following were excluded:

  • *Participants with a mean age under 16 years
  • *Untrained, novice, masters and paraplegic swimmers
  • *Triathletes and waterpolo players
  • *Swimmers with injuries or illness
  • *Studies specifically looking at swimming starts and turns

The gathered data was then statistically analysed to see what key recommendations emerged.

The findings

There were two key findings that became apparent. Firstly, the types of resistance training that best transferred into improved swimming performance in the water were programmes that emphasised swimming-specific movements, with low-volume but high-velocity/force repetitions. This was particularly true for improving stroke length, which a key determinant of swimming performance (Ed – see Andrew Sheaff’s article on page 13 of this issue). The other key finding was that resisted swims (for example, using swimming parachutes, drag pockets etc) were the best mode for improving stroke frequency, which (providing stroke length is maintained) can also boost swimming performance. Sports Med. 2017 May 12. doi: 10.1007/s40279017-0730-2. [Epub ahead of print]

Peak performance verdict

This study drew together previous research and confirmed an emerging consensus that resistance training CAN and DOES help improve swimming performance in the water provided that the movements are as specific as possible to your swimming stroke, and they are performed with low-reps and relatively high loadings. It also suggests that some aspects of performance are best trained not in the gym, but in the water using devices to increase the resistance encountered by the swimmer – something that we reported in a previous article (see article recommendations below) 1. With this in mind, some practical suggestions for swimmers are as follows:

  • If you want your dry-land training to maximally improve your performance, it must be integrated into your swimming programme as a whole; where possible, perform a swim session immediately after your strength training, because this will help your muscles to apply the learning and coordination in the water. This swim session should be more technical, allowing you to feel the stroke, for example by using paddles.
  • Choose exercises that target the key swimming muscles – eg pull-ups for the lats of the back, which provide the main propulsive force through the water in freestyle.
  • Use low reps – in the 3-8 reps per set range and make sure you perform no more than 20 sets per training session, which limits you to around 4-7 exercises per training session.
  • To help ensure the above, pick whole body exercises, which will also generate maximum impact. Remember you are not ‘isolating’ muscles, so there should not be lots and lots of exercises in this type of programme.
  • The very nature of this type of training requires greater recovery periods for the musculoskeletal and neural systems. Anything from 2-5 minutes recovery between sets is acceptable.

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