Science of Performance: Questioning USRPT Founder Dr. Rushall’s Thoughts On Dryland Training

By Dr. G. John Mullen

SANTA CLARA, California, September 4. MANY coaches are familiar with Dr. Brent Rushall and his writings on USRPT on the Swimming Science Bulletins. Some have even ventured onto his website and read many of his worthwhile publications or science abstracts. If you haven’t, get on the website and educate yourself (#swimnerd)! Within this information you’ll find a lot of information about biomechanics, physiology, dryland, etc. which often disagree with current swimming philosophy. After I read nearly all these publications and books from Dr. Rushall, I found myself agreeing with a lot of his information, as we’ve both read a lot of similar publications. However, I had questions about the following statements from Rushall:

“[D]ry-land training demands are unrelated to or negatively impact male elite swimming performances (Sokolovas, 2000). [Current training theory is unrelated to male competitive performances.]”

“Strength/land training is a false avenue for swimmer improvement (Bulgakova, Vorontsov, & Fomichenko, 1987; Breed, Young, & McElroy, 2000; Costill, King, Holdren, & Hargreaves, 1983; Crowe, Babington, Tanner, & Stager, 1999; Tanaka, Costill, D. Thomas, Fink, & Widrick, 1993). [There still is an emphasis on developing “strength” in swimmers, despite its irrelevance.] Occasionally, a report of the value of strength training emerges (e.g., Hsu, Hsu, & Hsieh, 1997).”

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to all these articles, as some aren’t digitally produced. However, I am going to provide more information about the articles reviewed and make my own conclusions about dryland. As a disclaimer, I am a physical therapist and strength coach, making my views likely biased, so keep that in mind.

Sokolvas 2000

Unfortunately, USA Swimming took down this complete study and I have not been able to retrieve the information, even from the author. From my understanding, there was a negative correlation with dryland training and performance. However, this study was an observational study, one of the lowest forms of evidence. This doesn’t dismiss the information, but it is far from a randomized, retrospective study. To demonstrate the potential flaws, consider this scenario. If 3 of the worst swimmers in this study went to the same college and all were told to smile 5 hours a day, then smiling would negatively correlate with swimming performance and no one should smile…see the flaw. Once again, useful information, but nothing to hang a hat on!

Bulgakova 1987

Once again, I couldn’t find this article through online searches on PubMed. From Dr. Rushall’s review, “This study investigated the effects of two forms of strength training on good 11-12 years-old swimmers. Exercises were performed twice a week over a six-month period. Water exercises were mainly tethered rubber-band swims, while the land exercises used a pulling swim bench. The same amounts of interval training were used for each group on the exercises. A variety of measures were taken in and out of the water.”

His review concluded: “The dry-land group actually increased more in the water than did the in-water group. However, the in-water group improved to a greater degree in actual swimming speed.”

Without knowing the exact parameters of improvement for the “in the water” statement, it is difficult to extrapolate information. Also, the dry-land only performed swim bench, far different than most well designed dry-land programs, making this information purely related to swim bench.

Breed 2000

Dr. Rushall often reviews pre-released publication abstracts, making it difficult to be certain some of the article reviews are the same. However, I’m quite confident the Breed 2000 and Breed 2003 publications are the same.

Breed (2003) taught 23 females (average 18.9 years old, non-swimmers) the swimming start and split them into a control or resistance training group. The resistance training lasted nine weeks and was performed three times per week (clean pull, barbell press, parallel squat, back extension and many more at varying training volumes). Starting styles were correlated with jumping tests, but not isokinetic squat tests. Also, resistance training improved the dryland test.  However, alterations did occur in certain start variables. Importantly, the take-off velocity significantly improved in the track start. However, flight distance did not improve in the resistance training group. Horizontal impulse and hand impulse significantly improved for the resistance training group for the track start. Lastly, the flight angle significantly improved, likely due to the improvements in impulse. This suggests in untrained swimmers, resistance training can likely increase impulse and velocity for the track start, but not improve dive performance (Breed 2003).

This study had some conflicting results, as improvement was noted in some, but not all, starting parameters. Also, this study looked at non-swimmers! How can one extrapolate dry-land research for a complete novice to an expert? Moreover, it only assessed the start, a completely different skill than actual swimming.

Costill 1983

Once again, from the published literature, it seems Costill 1983 and Sharp 1982 are the same publication.

Dr. Rushall notes the Sharp 1982 study in his dryland debate, yet this study did not address the application of dryland or strength training and performance, but the correlation of swim bench training and performance. Since Sharp (1982) is cross-sectional and not prospective, it can only note associations, not a cause-and-effect relationship.

This uncontrolled study had four subjects (very small subject pool) perform five sets of 10 maximal pulls five times a week on the biokinetic swim bench. The results note increased sprint velocity (Sharp 1982).

Although the swim bench is suggested to reproduce some elements of regular swimming, it cannot adopt the biomechanical aspects related to the athletes feel for the water.

Once again, it’s a study on swim bench, not a complete dryland program.

Crowe 1999

Crowe (1999), measured 1 RM of the bench press, latissimus pull down, and triceps press in 65 college swimmers. Dryland power was assessed using a seated chest press and a two-arm supine overhead throw for distance using a six-pound medicine ball. Swimming power was assessed by performing the crawl stroke for 30 seconds at maximum effort while tethered to a cord. Competitive times for 50m and 100m crawl strokes were used as measures of swimming performance.

Only the 1 RM latissimus pull down was related to performance for women. For the men, muscular strength was related to dryland and swimming power but not to performance (Crowe 1999).

This study suggests correlations between most dryland measures are minimal with swimming performance, but again doesn’t show any cause-and-effect as it is prospective.

Tanaka 1993

In one of the best swimming and dryland studies, Tanaka (1993) compared an intervention group (12 men, average age 19.2 years old) combining three weekly sessions of strength training with regular swimming training to a control group (12 men, average age 19.2 years old) performing the swim training program only. The strength training program consisted of three sets of 8–12 repetitions with progressive resistance across five exercises (dips, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, elbow extensions and bent arms fly).

The intervention group declined maximal swimming velocity between week two and eight of the study. However, the decline was not significant compared with the control group. The combined strength training group did show about 25 percent improvement during dryland tests, while the swimming-only group showed no improved on dryland.

Overall, Tanaka and colleagues (1993) found no significant improvements in either 22.9-meter (25 yards) or 365.8-meter (400 yards) swimming performances after eight weeks of dryland strength training. This does suggest higher volume resistance training combined with a high-volume swimming program impairs sprint and distance swimming.

Hsu 1997

The one study Dr. Rushall references which supports strength training is by Hsu (1997), which I can’t access. This study appears to have a positive effect of isokinetic shoulder internal and external rotation for five weeks. Rushall notes the strength-trained group improved significantly in three factors involving swimming speed and propulsive forces, while the swimming-only group showed no changes. Unfortunately, the parameters of the training or improvements isn’t noted. Also, longer distances were not analyzed, as the 50 is mainly a power event, somewhat dissimilar to the other events.

Although positive for dryland strength training, the program is far from elite dryland for swimmers.

Summary of Rushall’s reviews

This review may sound harsh on Dr. Rushall or his views, but it is simply my interpretation of the literature he has reviewed. As a coach or swimmer, you must assess the available research, implement a plan, and then reassess.

In this series, I’ll review the other research articles on strength training and swimming, as well make my recommendations for dryland. As you’ll see, dryland in swimming needs a change, even a radical change as Dr. Rushall notes, but it is still a valuable asset for any swim team.

Want more on Dryland for Swimmers, order your copy today for $59.99!

References:

  1. Sokolovas, G. (2000). Demographic information. In The Olympic Trials Project (Chapter 1). Colorado Springs, CO: United States Swimming. [On-line. Available at http://www.usa-swimming.org/programs/template.pl?opt=news&pubid=941]. [unfortunately a dead link]
  2. Bulgakova, N. Z., Vorontsov, A. R., & Fomichenko, T. G. (1987). Improving the technical preparedness of young swimmers by using strength training. Theory and Practice of Physical Culture, 7, 31-33
  3. Breed RV, Young WB. The effect of a resistance training programme on the grab, track and swing starts in swimming. J Sports Sci. 2003 Mar;21(3):213-20.
  4. Tanaka H, Costill DL, Thomas R, et al. Dry-land resistance training for competitive swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1993 Aug; 25 (8): 952-9
  5. Sharp RL, Troup JP, Costill DL. Relationship between power and sprint freestyle swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1982; 14 (1): 53-6
  6. Crowe SE, Babington JP, Tanner DA, Stager JM. The relationship of strength to dryland power, swimming power, and swimming performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc.1999;31(5):S255.
  7. Tanaka, H., Costill, D. L., Thomas, R., Fink, W. J., & Widrick, J. J. (1993). Dry-land resistance training for competitive swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 25, 952-959.
  8. Hsu, T. G., Hsu, K. M., & Hsieh, S. S. (1997). The effects of shoulder isokinetic strength training on speed and propulsive forces in front crawl swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29(5), Supplement abstract 713.

 

15 comments

  1. avatar
    Paul Windrath

    Thank you for the comments. Besides doing dryland and weights that relate directly to swimming improvement, they also serve the purpose of helping the person become a better athlete in everything they do – not just swimming.

    Having said that, it does seem that the best athletes make the best swimmers.

    Just a thought….

    • avatar
      John Mullen

      Thanks for the comments Paul. Dryland and weights can improve some athletic related skills (strength and power). However, I do question the comment that the best athlete makes the best swimmer.

  2. avatar

    I am reticent to make public comments about published statements but have to react in this case. The author purports to relate my thoughts on land-training. How that is divined I do not know. I have spoken perhaps 20 words to Dr. Mullen in a bar in Clearwater Florida approximately a year ago. The basic investigative technique for determining another person’s thoughts is the interview. Dr. Mullen has never interviewed me. He has selected some of the research abstracts from the Swimming Science Journal and omitted others. He has failed to report two lengthy articles written almost 20 years ago with colleagues that are published in the Swimming Science Journal (http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/testex11.htm and http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/condit12.htm ). A better understanding of resistance/strength training in sports in general is contained in seven issues of the Coaching Science Abstracts (http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/index.htm) and a further seven issues concerning the specificity of training. It is preposterous for Dr. Mullen to claim to know what I think. This activity lacks any semblance of scholarship and at best could be construed as a personal vendetta by Dr. Mullen toward myself and/or for his own self-aggrandizement. It is true that the structure of USRPT does not include resistance/strength/land training but that does not negate the possibility of there being some value in that type of work in swimming (e.g., for rehabilitation from injury; correction of specialized training effects, etc.). As a graduate of the University of Southern California, Dr. Mullen has shown one poor example of its product. His representations in this article are blatantly false.

    • avatar
      Mike Shelby

      You seem to think he was personally attacking you. He even stated that he agrees with most of what you’ve written on the subject. I believe he read many articles/papers that you’ve written on the subject, disagreed with one specific aspect (strength training), and listed out many articles that backed up his opinions.

      I don’t believe he claimed to know what you think. He simply read what you’ve written, stated what you’ve written, and disagrees with it.

      You need to calm down because you sound extremely childish reacting the way you did to John’s article. You may be 100% correct, but what you wrote about John was uncalled for.

      • avatar
        coacherik

        100% agreed. If one cannot take constructive criticism or at the very least a honest attempt at questioning the validity of some of the evidence (versus all of it in one internet post, which would lose most readers) presented, then its best to stay out of this realm completely.

        I am a supporter of this training style, as our club continues an attempt to implement this at our upper age group, senior levels (time, space, etc. and working around that) and spread through all groups. However, it is these types of words and comments, Dr. Rushall, that make it very difficult for many to take your hard work and passion seriously. For someone in the sciences, you have a the knowledge and basics of argument and debate figured out. When you do these types of things, you lose the argument and lose support.

    • avatar
      John Mullen

      Dr. Rushall, I apologize if I suggested to know what you think, as I do not. I only wanted to provide insight on a few recent statements you’ve made in your recent Swimming Science Bulletins and that I also receive questions about.

      Thanks for clarifying your view on dryland, I appreciate your insight and suggestions. As an avid reader of your work, I hope I didn’t suggest a personal vendetta, just a view and comments based on your work. Much of your work has guided my interest in reviewing swimming literature, which I can’t thank you enough.

      Regarding our meeting, they are completely accurate, as this is the only time we’ve met. For an interview, I would love one and believe I asked a while back, but you declined (which is fine). As for questioning my “product”, you are welcome to your opinion, but challenging opinions and providing other ideas is part of academic rigor. Sports science is highly complex, so opposing ideas in specific areas are common, no need for name calling.

  3. avatar
    Raymond Woods

    Dr. Rushall did not invent ultra short race pace training. That type of training has been around for years.

    • avatar
      Glenn Gruber

      Dr. Rushall has never claimed to have “invented” the concept of ultra short. He did however coin the term ultra short in his 1960 Masters thesis at Indiana University while working with Doc Counsilman.

      USRPT is just a way of defining a training mode that is different from what Dr. Rushall calls “traditional training”‘ i.e., the training that most people do that emphasizes yardage over strictly swimming at race pace.

      • avatar
        Glenn Gruber

        Let me restate my first sentence. What I should have said was that Dr. Rushall never claimed to have invented the concept of race pace training. He did coin the term “ultra short”.

      • avatar
        John Mullen

        Thanks for clarifying the specifics.

    • avatar
      John Mullen

      Thanks for the clarification.

  4. avatar

    I appreciate Dr John Mullen doing the leg work to dissect the research literature here. I will say that I always find the topic of dryland efficacy to be nonsensical. When is comes to performance, there are too many factors to make definitive claims for it or against it. The nature of swimming is just too unique for anything done on land to translate 100% back to the water. I believe the better the athlete the better the ability to translate. Also, .Not all land training is created equal – so let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet! At a minimum, I advocate that strength training increases a swimmers resistance to injury which indirectly improves performance by allowing him/her to train in the pool to max potential.

    • avatar
      John Mullen

      Thanks Tad Sayce. Couldn’t agree more, sports science is highly complex. I agree with your minimum (injury prevention) and think there it can help even more than that, which I’ll discuss in further posts.

  5. avatar
    Dan Smith

    My comment: in debating the efficacy of any training method(s) in any sport, I believe two measures need to be applied: 1) can the the reported results be reliably reproduced by others in the field using scientific method and; 2) does the method and resulting publications pass peer-review? What swimming appears to have encountered is what Kuhn (1962, 1997) in “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” explores in what he called the “episodic model” of scientific discovery in which the accumulation of facts and observations serves to spur further advancement, but does so after a period of chaos in which there are competing theories and hypotheses, and in the case of swimming methods of training. That will drive new experiments and observations. Part of what we see, in my view, is the result of earlier attempts to explain what happens when swimmers train. In the interim, 50+ years in my experience, the science and ability to measure what happens when swimmers train has gotten better. We’ve gone from stop-watch splits and heart-rates to measuring lactate, to blood gases, energy systems measurements, heart-rate at all times while training, and do a frame by frame analysis of stroke using digital methods. To me, it appears that discussion and eventual agreement of what’s best, most efficacious and scientifically sound will be dependent on the best data that is collected consistent with solid scientific methodology and analyzed, but larger samples of athletes/swimmers are needed. Swimming appears to follow other sports in that at some point there will be coalescence of thought about best training, but it is still away off. And, hopefully, I’ll live to see it. The roots are there, I hope it grows into a tree….and I can take advantage of it. One thing that has not been explored related to performance is a healthier, older population. Another area for exploration.

    • avatar
      G. John Mullen

      Great comments. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of funding or interest for swimming related research (especially in the United States, as there is no grant process for swimming related research that I’m aware of). This inadequacy may keep us in this area of “chaos” for a while!

      For Masters athletes, there is a true lack of research. Most older research is on injured or unhealthy populations, not performance. Once again, this is likely due to a lack of funding, damn money!