Heavy Lifting: Building Strength, Power Through Resistance Tools

Feature by Michael J. Stott

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PHOENIX, Arizona, November 2. IN April 1961 Sports Illustrated observed of the New Trier Township High School (Winnetka, Ill.) swim team that only "the Olympic-seasoned squads from Indiana, Southern California and Michigan were capable of beating them in a dual meet."

Back then swimmers were urged not to lift weights. "The belief was that weight training would build bulky muscles and decrease flexibility," says David Costill, Ernest Maglischo and Allen Richardson in their seminal tome Swimming. "Attitudes toward resistance training have changed so much that we now believe swimmers must engage in resistance training if they wish to be successful," note the authors.

The basics of resistance training in the water are fairly simple. "The concept is overload," says Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University, "i.e. increasing the resistive elements against which swimmers are swimming. The overload is generally perceived by swimmers and coaches as being an overload to the muscles. We are forcing the athlete to generate greater force at any given swimming speed. My opinion is we are not targeting the muscles per se, but targeting the central nervous system. So, if done correctly, it is teaching the nervous system how to generate power," says Stager.

Experts agree that the implementation of resistance training requires care. "The whole idea of strength and conditioning in swimming is to equate it to the pool," says University of Alabama coach Eric Mcilquham. "Resistance tools can be very effective because they are very swimming specific, meaning you are training the muscles in very similar neuromuscular patterns that one uses in swimming.

"In order to have a successful strength and conditioning swimming program you need to develop an athlete's ability to apply power over a specific period of time while maintaining body alignment/posture. But before you apply any kind of power to a swimmer, there must be proper body alignment. Get the technique down before you start adding any kind of load. Alignment before power development," says Mcilquham.

Stager, a swim coach in addition to being an exercise physiologist, admits he isn't a fan of widely-used resistance devices like swim benches. "With a Vasatrainer, for instance, the emphasis is on muscular strength or muscular power. The question is always what's the transfer between what you are doing on a swim bench and what's taking place in the water.

"The resistance should be appropriate and specific to the athlete," he cautions, "and that's what I don't like about most of the devices because they are not specific to the athlete. It is almost as if one size fits all. What you want to do is train the athletes to specific individualized thresholds. You can invoke quicker and bigger changes if you train at or just below these thresholds. When you start resistance loading an athlete while in the water, at some threshold the stroke will start to decay, so there is no point in having a swimmer work beyond that level. If you can identify what that threshold is for each athlete then you can prescribe a resistance that is appropriate to invoke optimal performance changes," says Stager.

"Strength requirements for swimming are somewhat high, but the power requirements are enormous," says Kenyon coach Jim Steen, winner of 50 NCAA swimming and diving championships. "That said there are as many different ways to build beneficial strength and power on land as there are programs addressing the issue. I'm not sure anyone knows what the best way to develop strength and power on land is," he says, "but those programs that create strength and power protocols on land and are effectively in synch with what is being done in the water are the most successful.

"Over the last quarter century we have seen a greater use of resistance-type equipment designed to develop power in the water, i.e.: cords, buckets, swim benches, Power Racks, Power Towers and even more sophisticated pieces of high tech equipment," he continues. Steen is partial to the Power Rack, in part because he helped develop it. In use by more than 800 different colleges, clubs, YMCA's or high schools, the Power Rack is "a very effective power development tool for sprinters and certain middle distance swimmers when used in concert with a systematic, sequential and creative program of swimming speed sets," says Steen.

"We see it as a specific piece of equipment for developing flat-out speed: power = speed … speed = power. It can also be overused. There is an ideal window during the course of a season for developing pure speed (i.e. power). Assuming a three-week taper, the window is a six-to-eight period immediately prior. Here you need to pursue power in every form: on the Power Rack, in the pool on specific benchmark swim sets and even through various dryland routines," he says.

At Kenyon, the Power Rack produces quantifiable data specific to each swimmer because Steen and his staff take great care to monitor and test the power of athletes in the water, on land and in the exercise room. "We are looking to enhance power in all strokes at all distances and monitor each and every swimmer's response to specific power exercises," he says.

For any resistive device Steen heartily endorses closely-monitored performance. "Take the time to compute Power Ratios," he urges. "Swimmers and coaches need measures of progress.

Keep accurate records on the Rack; it will pay big dividends in performance and motivation. Calculate Power Ratios. Power = Force x Distance/Time. Follow the formula … the weight you lift is the force; the distance is a constant, in this case 12-1/2 yards, so you don't need to factor it into the formula; your time value is simply the average of all repeats in a given session; divide force (weight lifted) by time to determine the power ratio. This provides a numeric value of the relationship between force and time.

On any given day at Tucson's Hillenbrand Aquatic Center a visitor can spot 14 or more Power Towers in use. And that makes sense since "they were the invention of Frank Busch, Greg Rhodenbaugh and Rick DeMont," says Sam VanCura, Steen's business partner whose company Total Performance Inc. has manufactured Power Racks since 1988 and Power Towers since 2005.

In its nascent stage (1999) the Power Tower was a rust-prone, bulky, dangerous and nearly immobile dinosaur. Then DeMont suggested making water, not plates, the weight source. Aluminum replaced steel. Cables and pulleys were lengthened to allow swimmers to traverse 25 yards rather than 12 1/2. Now head man at Missouri, Rhodenbaugh retains his fondness for towers because of their consistent resistance. "We do mostly 25 meter work or less with a variety of equipment combinations," Rhodenbaugh says. "While resistance is great for power, it is also a great teaching tool for technique," he says.

DeMont agrees. "Power Towers automatically put you in a better line and force you to hit the efficient parts of your stroke. If weight is changing your stroke we will lighten it to where you can do it properly. When the technique comes apart I don't like to beat it into the ground. I don't want to do one more rep that is not raceable," he says.

Aside from machines there are many other ways to build resistance and power in swimming. Tubing (popular in the late 60s), cords (big in the 90s), parachutes, buckets, paddles, fins are just some obvious ways. Cords, be they hip belts, ankle straps or lane belts can be quite effective because resistance increases as a swimmer goes farther. Again coach and swimmer need to be careful of stroke decay.
Parachutes come in three basic sizes where resistance is directly related to the velocity of the swimmer and stays relatively constant as long a swimmer maintains speed. Many use parachutes in lower intensity training sets (think pulling), where resistance can be combined with paddles to work on upper body development.

In the end, resistance mode aside, it remains incumbent on swimmer and coach to preserve perfect technique. "Resistance training is an awesome tool for developing strength in the water," says DeMont. "Swimming is getting faster and faster and power continues to be a bigger part of the equation."