In-Depth Look at In-Season Resistance Training on Elite Male Water Polo Players

Guest commentary by Chris Barber

Water polo is a sport that involves high strength and high-intensity as well as endurance demands on the athlete. The non-swimming activities (throwing, passing and wrestling), are around 69% of playing time. Strength is not the only performance factor, but the ability to exert force at the speed, technical and tactical skills are also used in the entire game. It has been argued that muscular strength and power are the most important factors that give a clear advantage in elite competitions. The increased demands for technical training and competition, in-season strength and conditioning could maintain adequate levels of strength and power over the season. Appropriate anthropometric characteristics and water polo throwing ability are also important to success. Just playing the sport can enhance many of these factors, but elite competitors must engage in additional water polo specific conditioning, including exercises to develop high-intensity intermittent anaerobic effort, speed, changes in direction, strength, and power.

The study was designed to examine the effects of 18 weeks of bi-weekly (36 sessions) strength and high-intensity training in-season on muscular strength and other qualities critical to water polo performance of elite players. Randomly selected of the 27 national-level male water polo players (age 20.43 years), (height 180.33 cm), (body mass 81.43 kg), (body fat 12.43 %) and water polo experience of 8.5 years to perform additional program of strength and high-intensity training or only receive usual in-water training. The tests were carried out before (baseline-test) and after the training period (post-test). These test included A. anthropometric measures B. vertical counter-movement jump performance (cjm) C. maximal strength (1RM) bench press and full squat D. throwing velocity and E. 20-m maximal sprint and swim performance. The athletes were placed into 2 groups; one was a standard in-season program or experimental group which received the additional strength and high-intensity training. The athletes performed the strength and high-intensity exercises between 18 and 19 hours (in a weight training facility) and water polo training (in a swimming-pool) from 21 to 23 hours.

Testing Procedures
Before the testing began several warm-up sets were recorded prior to the actual maximal and explosive tests. All the tests were performed within a single day for each athlete and time of testing for baseline and post testing was held consistent for individual athletes. The warm up consisted of 10 mins sub maximal running at 9 km/hr followed by light stretching and a specific warm-up of vertical jump and full squats with low loads (2 sets of 10 repetitions of 20% of body mass. They were allowed a sufficient amount of rest between all tests to limit the effects of fatigue on subsequent tests.

Height was measured using wall-mounted stadiometer. Body mass was measured using a medical scale, and fat mass, fate free mass and percentage of body fat was estimated using bio-impedance.

Countermovement Jump
Countermovement jump test was performed using an infrared curtain system to measure flight and contact times. The jump height was determined from flight-time using standard calculation. The athletes performed five trials with one minute of rest between trials. The best and the worst trials were eliminated and the mean of the three central values were used for the statistical analysis.

Maximal Dynamic Strength (1RM)
The lower body maximal dynamic strength test was the full squat. It was determined as the highest weight that could be lifted through the full range of motion with correct technique. The athletes performed the full squat in an extended position starting with the bar in contact with the shoulders. The athletes performed a controlled eccentric squat to a knee angle of 60 degrees, followed without pause by a concentric leg extension (as fast as possible) returning to full extension. All athletes used a safety belt. The tests were performed in a squatting apparatus. Before the test a warm-up consisted of a set of ten repetitions of loads of 40-60% of maximum. Then five to six single rep test were performed until the athlete was unable to extend the legs to the required position. The last accepted lift with the highest possible load was determined as 1RM. The rest period was always 2 mins. \

The upper body 1RM test was the bench press. The bench press was chosen because it involves some arm muscles that are specific to the overhand throw. The test was performed on a smith machine as for the full squat. The athlete lowered the bar from fully extended arm position until the bar was chest height but not touching and then as fast as possible extend the arms to the starting position. The warm up was the same as the full squat. The last acceptable lift with the highest possible load was determined as 1RM. The rest period between trials was always 2 mins.

Throwing Velocity
Ballistic strength production during a water polo over arm throw was evaluated in a swimming pool. The athletes were instructed to use their throwing technique to throw the ball as fast as possible to the goal. After a 15-minute warm up the throw tests were performed. To simulate a typical water polo action, the players were allowed to put resin on their hands, and they were told to throw with maximal velocity toward the upper right hand corner of the goal. Each athlete continued until 3 correct throws had been recorded, up to a maximum of 3 sets of 3 consecutive throws. A one to two minute rest was allowed between sets of throws and 10-15 seconds between 2 throws of the same set. A radar device was used to measure throwing velocity. The radar was placed on a tripod behind the thrower. The 2 extreme values of the trials were eliminated (best and worst), and the mean of the central values was used for the subsequent statistical analysis.

20-m Maximal Sprint Swim
Maximal sprint swim times were recorded for a 20-m distance, in an indoor swimming pool of 25 m. The athletes started one meter of the wall facing the far end of the pool. They were signaled to start the sprint with a random sonorous sound. Infrared beams were stationed at the sprint start and end points (0 and 20 m) with time measured to the nearest 0.01 seconds using an electronic timing system. The warm up consisted of 5 minutes sub-maximal swimming followed by some half-speed sprints (2 sets of 15m). Three trials were completed, with five minutes of rest between trials and the shortest time was used for subsequent statistical analysis.

Testing Procedures
The athlete strength and high-intensity training took place on Mondays and Wednesdays for the S group during 18 weeks of intervention before water polo training. Each session lasted 30-45 minutes, 10 minutes of warm-up (5 minutes sub-maximal running at 9 km/hr, stretching exercises for 5 minutes and 2 sub-maximal exercises of 20 vertical jumps and 10 long jumps), 15-30 minutes of specific strength training and 5 minutes of cool down including stretching exercises. All training sessions for all groups were fully supervised. The athletes were instructed to maintain their normal daily activities but no additional strength or other forms of training were allowed.

After the program was completed, there were no significant differences between groups were observed in any of the anthropometric, strength or sprint variables and any physical characteristics analyzed. The height in the counter-movement jump significant increases of 2.38 cm in the S group. The maximal dynamic strength test for the full squat increased 11.06 kg and the bench press increased 9.06 kg. The throwing velocity increased by 1.76 km/hr in the S group. The maximal sprint swim decreased -0.26 in the experimental group.

The purpose of the study was to determine if elite male water polo players could increase muscle strength and other qualities critical to water polo performance (throwing velocity, swim sprinting and jumping abilities) by having an in-season program of strength and high-intensity training for the upper and lower body. The study showed that resistance and high-intensity training in-season increases the strength output of jumping, swim sprinting, 1RM bench press and full squat, or throwing velocity. This is the first study to examine gains of jumping and swimming performance, using resistance and high-intensity exercises such as bench press, military press and pull-ups for the upper body and full squat and plyometric exercises for the lower body.

Practical Application
The study showed that elite male water polo players can enhance muscle strength by using an 18 week in-season strength and high-intensity oriented training involving both upper and lower body (bench-press, full-squat, pull ups and jump exercises). Even though there was not a significant increase in results by the training, implementing some of these exercises with your dry-land program may be beneficial in their progress. Using sport specific performance qualities can enhance by using a strength and high-intensity training rather than just in-water training. When we work with our athletes, progression of the exercises will help the athlete’s performance. Even though the study says there is not a sufficient increase in abilities with just high-intensity training, does not mean we just not use it. There should be periods of the training were you would implement this type of training. The athletes should not be just performing high-intensity training. We want to implement mobility, dynamic multiple planes of motion dynamic warm up, core strengthening and shoulder stability exercises in our dry-land programs. Safety is always the first priority when training the athletes; do not increase weight or difficulty if the athlete does not have perfect form on every rep.

Chris Barber graduated from Concordia University Irvine with a degree in Exercise Sport Science. He has been a personal trainer for 3 years and is certified by the National Council of Strength and Fitness. In April, he completed an internship in strength and conditioning at the COR PT.

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Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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