4 Reasons Why Masters Swimmers Need Strength Training

Masters Swimmer stretching
Photo Courtesy: Jeff Commings

By Dr. G. John Mullen

I’ve written about strength training previously, in short advocating the benefits of low-volume, high-intensity strength training with proper form. When many read this, they think this form of training should only be done by elite swimmers, while youth swimmers should do running or another high-volume exercise. As far as Masters swimmers are concerned, they are simply happy with just swimming, as aerobic exercise has many health benefits. However, many don’t realize that low-volume, high-intensity strength training is essential for swimmers of all ages! Over the spectrum, this form of resistance training is most beneficial for Masters swimmers.

There is nothing wrong with Masters swimmers having a singular mindset of swimming being their only form of training, as America and developed nations are spiraling through an obesity epidemic. This has resulted in physicians recommending only cardiovascular exercise. Unfortunately, these recommendations are the low-hanging fruit, not maximizing health or swimming performance as one ages. I know, your physician suggests swimming moderately for 60 minutes a few days a week, and some swimming zealots believe resistance training doesn’t transfer to the pool. But once again, how I interpret the research clearly suggests strength training does transfer. Also, recent American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines do recommend strength training:

AHA Recommendation For Overall Cardiovascular Health:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes OR
  • At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activityAND
  • Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.

For Lowering Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

  • An average 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week

I see it over and over at my physical therapy and strength training facility, COR. Clearly, I look at strength training with a glass half-full approach, but with the scientific literature and practical information from my facility, I’m fairly certain that strength training plays a vital role for swimming performance at any age, particularly Masters. Here are four reasons why strength training is essential for Masters swimmers:

  1. Disease Prevention: Watch the news and you hear about diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Yet, falls and fractured hips are just as deadly and even more preventable. The research is slightly mixed on the effects of swimming on bone density, as a recent study opposed the notion that swimming negatively influenced bone mass. However, at best swimming results in no bone density change. Performing only one mode of exercise which doesn’t increase bone mineral density is a problem for any swimmer, but particularly Masters swimmers, as bone mineral density decreases with age. This increases the fracture risk, once again a large health issue. A study at Tufts University found that older women who lifted weights for a year improved their balance by 14 percent (a control group composed of women who didn’t lift weights suffered a 9 percent decline in balance in the same year). Therefore, strength training can enhance bone mineral density and improve balance, reducing fractures and falls. Combine this with the cardiovascular health and metabolic health and you have a big reason to perform strength training.
  2. Swimming Performance Enhancement: Better known as muscle mass, lean body mass is an essential body tissue, as it speeds metabolism and increases muscle cross-sectional area. For opponents of strength training for swimmers, they argue only swimming strengths the skill of swimming and theoretical force production in the water. However, you can also argue strength training increases muscle mass or general strength, which increases the force production of the water and the potential for greater force production. Once again, simply strength training is unlikely to increase swimming speed, but it increases the potential for greater swimming force production and swimming speed, especially when combined with swimming training.
  3. Injury Prevention: The body loses water as it ages. This decrease in joint hydration results in decreased joint space. When the body has reduced joint space it increases the friction within the joint, resulting in greater joint stress. When one doesn’t have enough strength or joint awareness (proprioception), the joint stress greatly increases. For example, if you don’t have joint control or awareness, the joint will have more movement and less control over stressing the joint. Strength training increases proprioception at the joint, helping control the joint and minimize joint stress. Strength training also increases tendons and muscle strength (when performed with safe biomechanics), helping reduce the risk of sprains and strains. Older individuals have over the years hurt themselves in a variety of ways. Most injuries are not a result of anything they did in the pool or weight room, but from the demands of life. Whether a sore shoulder from swimming or from painting the house, strength training can reduce these risks.
  4. Improved Confidence: Being able to learn a new movement or increase the amount of weight one can lift greatly improves confidence. This increase in confidence can increase mood and quality of life. Moreover, most people prefer a fit-looking muscular body. Therefore, weight training can greatly increase confidence and quality of life.

If you’ve read this far you must either be nodding your head or at least be considering beginning a strength training program. As you can guess, this is a great opportunity! However, each opportunity is accompanied with responsibility. Don’t just go jump into any silly strength training program. Find a program that suits you, whether it is with a personal trainer or a group that realizes the uniqueness of a swimmer. Moreover, if you are lifting weights, you need to have proper form and progressions. If you are working with someone and aren’t being corrected with form, you are asking for an injury, negating the positive effects just discussed.

Also, remember to start slow! If you need to only perform body weight exercises, that is fine. You will still get all the benefits listed above. Take responsibility for your health, picking a safe, realistic program, stressing biomechanics and facilitates the areas in swimming lacks to improve.

Good luck and stay strong!

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online it solution
8 years ago

this is swimming strength training related post .i say that the training is important for me.thanks to the blog owner.

Paul Windrath
8 years ago

For older masters swimmers, even if strength training does NOT transfer to the pool, having enough strength for every day activities is critical. Having enough lower body and core strength to maintain balance and mobility enhances quality of life. When mobility declines, longevity and quality of life decline. Falls become more likely, etc..

G. John Mullen
G. John Mullen
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Windrath

Couldn’t agree more, thanks for the comment.

Dianna Deerfield Ray
8 years ago

Mike Morrison-thanks!

Dianna Deerfield Ray
8 years ago

Mike Morrison-thanks!

Christian Alberga
8 years ago

Brian Alberga

Rikma Aprianti
8 years ago

Tuh Yarita Witoelar Virna Bolang

Ahmed Hussein
8 years ago

1

Christian Svensson
8 years ago

Christian Annis Christina Martin

Gordon Belbin
Gordon Belbin
8 years ago

Rightly or wrongly, I assume that the “swimming zealot” you are referring to is Brent Rushall who, ironically, suggests that masters swimmers should do weights. I’m sure you are already aware of this and chose not to mention it …

Joseph Emory Schumacher Jr

Sara Ashley Vidal

Susie Bender Paul
8 years ago

I added strength training 7 months ago to avoid re-injuring an old shoulder injury. I’m very fortunate to train with J.R. Rosania, who understands swimming. My shoulders are healthy and I’ve leaned out a bit, I’m much stronger in the water and have dropped considerable time off my 200 free. I can’t envision swimming without strength training.

Steve Gilberg
Steve Gilberg
8 years ago

What is your strength training workout?

Karen Jane Ennew
8 years ago

What strenght training would you recomend

John Mullen
8 years ago

Very difficult question without knowing your strengths, weaknesses, past injuries, training volume, etc. If looking for a general program, ensure it uses the entire body and works in all planes of motion. If you aren’t sure where to begin, contact a personal trainer.

Karen Jane Ennew
8 years ago

Thank you

Karen Jane Ennew
8 years ago

Thank you

Esther
Esther
8 years ago

Dear Dr. Mullen: Thank you for this helpful article. I have two questions that I’m hoping you might answer:
* Do exercises with resistance bands count as “strength training,” or is it better to use actual weights?
* Is it safe to assume that swimming will NOT help prevent osteoporosis since it is not a weight bearing exercise? If not, would resistance band training be helpful?

G. John Mullen
G. John Mullen
8 years ago
Reply to  Esther

1) Yes, any activity through resistance can provide similar benefits.
2) We don’t know the answe to this, but from my understanding it will not help prevent osteoporosis. However, it also doesn’t increase the risk of it, like manyonce thought. Band training would help this.

Daryl J
8 years ago

Interesting article for me as i have been on both sides of the fence.
To put things in perspective i am a 44 year old male who 1 year ago i was very much anti-weights, did not want to do any weight training as i felt it would bulk me up, affect my stroke style and make me slower in the water. I was no expert but as far as i understood it lifting weights led to a shortening of the muscle fibers which would impact my movement and flexibility which would impact my stroke flexibility. just ruled it out completely.

One year on and i have actually dispelled with my old beliefs. Been doing high intensity training with a combination of strength and aerobic work for about the last 3 months. I am progressively getting stronger with the weight work BUT the improvements in the pool and ocean swims have also been experienced. I feel as though i am gripping the water better and my new strength can be delivered all the way through through the stroke range. I have to stress i am also doing quite a lot of stretching and flexibility exercise as well to ensure i can maintain a full range of fluid movement.

All told i would 100% recommend combining some form of strength/weight training to compliment your swimming training. Would also say be patient with the process to experience the gains. It was hard to start with and the fatigue was overwhelming at times, must be age related. I have had to change my lifestyle and diet to support the increase in exercise but physically and mentally in a great place now.
GO FOR IT……..

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