How to Progress, Regress Dryland Exercises in Swimming

By G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and COR, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review Swimming World correspondent.

SANTA CLARA, California, January 15. THIS week I was Interviewed by Jeff Commings and he brought up an excellent question regarding the appropriate age to start weight training.

Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question, as it depends on many variables. If you’re interested in hearing my answer, check out the interview. If you’re looking for a concrete expert opinion from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, please see its position statement.

This article will not delve into the variables influenced by resistance training, but instead it will discuss methods to challenge an athlete without weights.

Too often I hear about swimmers performing weight training without an appropriate amount of general strength. For this reason, dryland is a highly dangerous place, leading many kids to their physicians or training rooms (MacFarland 1996; Wolf 2008).

Now, there are multiple areas aiding to this high injury, but I want to focus on two specifically:
1. Lack of patience with developing youth swimmers
2. Use of inappropriate exercises

Many times a coach, parent, strength coach, etc. feels pressure to keep adding items to the training program for consistent improvement. Remember, the master chef isn’t paid for what is put into a recipe, but also for what they leave out. Tailoring dryland for each individual is difficult and time consuming, but quite possible with possible progressions and regressions for each desired movement.

This mindset results in impatient individuals reading about other strength coaches having children bench, squat, and deadlift extreme weights. Unfortunately, this information often comes from ground based-sports or weight loss programs with much different purpose and rationale.

Swimming is a unique sport as you all know. For this reason, an age-group swimmer can be a world class swimmer, despite being unable to perform a simple push-up! Think about the 14-year old girls at Nationals who don’t have enough strength to do a push-up, what other sport could an athlete who couldn’t push their own weight off the floor properly compete on the National level?

Do you think any 13-year-old who couldn’t perform a push-up be an elite football player? Soccer player?

This difference is likely due to the use of force vectors on a stable surface, which does not exist in swimming, except on the walls. Therefore, it is essential to keep patient as in-water and out-of-water strength do not directly correlate. Instead, allow children to develop general strength out of the water with body weight movements to protect against injuries, likely improve coordination, and potentially improve swimming. This patience may appear boring, but is far from boring with the proper individualization and progressions.

Unfortunately, too many people in charge of dryland don’t have the knowledge to progress and regress exercises safely. This feeds into the anxiousness as coaches run out of progressions for those kids who excel at dryland. Also, to reiterate, if a 13-year old swimmer has Olympic Trial qualifications, it doesn’t mean they are competent on land, dryland must be considered a different sport!

Moreover, many dryland instructors do not have the ability to scale down an exercise, often forcing those unskilled dryland swimmers into inappropriate exercises and increasing their risk of injury and causing frustration due to excessive failures. Remember, our sedentary society has removed general “playtime” for children and young adults. This has resulted in many uncoordinated young swimmers.

For these reasons, it is key to be patient during dryland and provide appropriate dryland exercises before putting a 100-pound bar on their back. I typically require athletes to master a single arm push-up (elevated for females), single leg squat, pull-up, and core stability in the six planes of motion (one plane of motion is the anterior sagittal plane, which I test with the march) prior to initiating weight training.

Now these are difficult exercise progressions as many elite high school swimmers can not perform them, therefore it is key to have a list of systematic regressions to provide appropriate exercises for each swimmer. Allan Phillips’ went over these for pull-ups (pull-ups: progressions and regressions). However, an order of progressions and regressions for each exercise is key. Here are a few examples:

Squat Progression
Wall sit → Arms overhead squat → Squat → Single leg negative squat → Single limb squat

Push-up Progression
Wall push-up → Elevated push-up → Push-up → Weight Push-up → Single arm elevated push-up → Single arm push-up

These are only a few varieties of progressions/regressions, as many exist, just ensure they are safe and appropriate for each swimmer based on their skill on land.

Individualization is key, and if you feel you do not have the resources to provide adequate instruction or do not have time to provide a safe, systematic dryland approach, considering hiring a strength coach. This coach can screen all your swimmers and provide a safe, systematic dry-land program for maximal results.

If you are looking for more progressions, be sure to checkout Dryland for Swimmers.

1. Wolf BR, Ebinger AE, Lawler MP, Britton CL. ?Injury patterns in Division I collegiate swimming. ?Am J Sports Med. 2009 Oct;37(10):2037-42. Epub 2009 Jul 24.
2. McFarland EG, Wasik M. ?Injuries in female collegiate swimmers due to swimming and cross training. ?Clin J Sport Med. 1996 Jul;6(3):178-82.

G. John Mullen is the owner of COR 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, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.