SANTA CLARA, California, September 11. MY name is John Mullen and I have my Doctorate in Physical Therapy. I'm also an exercise enthusiast, life optimizer, reader, caffeine consumer, and strength coach. Now sit down, I'm about to blow your mind: out of water strength likely doesn't translate to swimming success.
I know what you're thinking, how are you a strength coach for swimming, but don't think out of water strength translates to swimming success? And why should someone do strength training if it doesn't translate to swimming success?
Before we tackle this question, sit back and enjoy an anecdotal story to prove my argument:
In high school, I swam in a summer league. There are two unique items about this league:
1. This summer league competed in almost exclusively short course meter pools.
2. Future NFL players competed in this league.
When I was 15-years old, I swam against future center of the Ohio State University and the New York Jets Nick Mangold (shown to the right). I'll never forget stepping behind the block to race this behemoth of an individual in the 50 free. I dove in, brought my tempo up to as high as possible and after my first breath I saw him at my hip. At the turn, he was a body length behind, and at the finish I had won by more than four seconds, even though he could squat 800 pounds.
This short story demonstrates that out of water strength does not necessarily transfer to swimming success, as it was obvious Nick was (and still is) stronger than me, as he could have thrown me across the pool. But, he didn't have the in water strength and motor control for swimming success.
To reiterate, out of water strength does not predict swimming success. However, this does not imply dryland and strength training are worthless, as these facets can enhance training in swimmers of all abilities. But, too often strength coaches do not understand the nuances of swimming.
All strength and conditioning programs for swimmers must understand a few necessities:
1. Stroke technique mandates swimming success: Top coaches and research suggest proper stroke technique is paramount for swimming success (Dutto 1994). Therefore, let's break it down: stroke technique > energy systems > in-water strength > dryland. Even though stroke technique is king, it doesn't mean these other areas are not important, especially for elite success, but stroke technique must take precedent and impairing technique through excessive dryland programs resulting in extremely sore swimmers disrupts motor programming and stroke technique. If someone is sore they are going to manipulate their bodies differently in the pool. This manipulation is often harmful to swimming biomechanics and results in poorer performance. It doesn't matter if this soreness is from dryland, gym class, excessive sitting, if someone is sore, then they will move differently and stroke biomechanics will alter.
2. Similar Movements Impair Motor Programming: The nervous system records and remembers specific movements, not muscle actions (Robb 1968). These movements are fine tuned during swimming, but many dryland programs likely disrupt these motor programs and impair swimming.
Often times dryland coaches attempt to duplicate swimming outside of the pool. I admit I have done this before, attempting to improve a specific characteristic of a stroke, or an athlete's limitation which coincides with their swimming deficit. However, attempting to replicate the stroke out of the pool with the hopes of in pool translation is unlikely, and likely impairing their motor program, so don't confuse the nervous system!
3. Motor control out of the water helps correct stroke technique: I often see coaches making many suggestions on the pool deck attempting to fix the number 1 priority: stroke technique. Unfortunately, many people do not innately have the skills to manipulate their body to do these unique corrections. Swimming requires many unorthodox positions. Moreover, in this era of excess sitting and people staying indoors, very few have the elite characteristics for swimming success.
For children, it is essential to learn a variety of movements, understanding if one can manipulate their body differently on land, then they have a higher chance of being able to manipulate their body in the pool and improve their stroke technique. Unfortunately, many children concentrate on swimming at an early age. This likely improves them acutely, but could impair them chronically (Borms 1986a; Borms 1986b).
It is essential to do a variety of movements and tasks to learn how to manipulate one's body and adjust to the demands of the sport. Think about it, if you are a kid, you're going to have stroke errors, all kids do as they often lack the motor control or strength to have perfect strokes. If they only swim, then they will only learn this poor stroke and lack the motor control to manipulate their bodies and make corrections. Make sure to learn/teach motor control of various movements outside of the pool for swimming biomechanical correction in the pool.
4. Out of water limitations never resolve in the water: Piggy-backing off of number 3, many people do not have the innate skills for swimming success. However, reducing these limitations is essential for improvements in the pool. If one can not extend their thoracic spine 15 degrees outside of the pool, what is the chance they will undulate 15 degrees with their thoracic spine in the pool? I'd argue, their chances are between slim and none. Make sure you know your out of water limitations and are focusing your dryland around these potential areas of improvement, as they are pockets of potential, waiting for improvement.
5. Injured swimmers don't swim to their potential. Many different forms of swimming training have been successful for specific swimmers, but being injured will slow your progress under any form of training! This makes individualized injury prevention mandatory for all swimmers to prevent injuries, increase effectiveness, and cut redundancies. If you are not taking the time to prevent injuries, you're asking for an injury, likely one with longer recovery.
However, a prevention program likely decreases the time away from the pool, decreasing the amount of disruption to your motor program. Therefore, all swimmers need to do shoulder and low back injury prevention work. All breaststroke swimmers need to do hip and knee injury prevention, on top of shoulder prevention (sorry breaststrokers, but everyone knew you were weird already!).
The start of a proper dryland program is assessing these five criteria. After this, individual subtleties and individualization results in elite dryland programming. With the start of the season, get going on fixing your limitations, as there is no better time to start a dryland program, but don't forget these five necessities!
1. Dutto, D. J., & Cappaert, J. M. (1994). Biomechanical and physiological differences between males and females during freestyle swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), Supplement abstract 1098.
2. Robb, M. (1968). Feedback and skill learning. Research Quarterly, 3, 175-184.
3. Rushall, B. S., Marsden, J., & Young, C. (1993). A suggested program of foundational conditioning exercises for age-group swimmers: A manual for coaches. NSWIMMING Coaching Science Bulletin, 2(1), 1-23. John Marsden is Head Conditioning Coach for the New South Wales Institute of Sport, Olympic Park, Homebush, Australia, and Clive Young is a certified Level 2 swimming coach.
4. Borms, J. (1986a). The child and exercise: an overview. Journal of Sports Sciences, 4, 3-20.
5. Borms, J. (1986b). The child and exercise: an overview. Journal of Sports Sciences, 4, 3-20. [Summary at
G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal, STACK Magazine, and is the creator of Swimming Science.