Weight Training and Its Impact on Swimming

Feature by Michelle Berman, Swimming World intern

PISCATAWAY, New Jersey, November 19. WEIGHT training has been done by college and club teams around the world for many years. It has long been known to be how an athlete can improve strength, and thus improve their speed in the water. But how important is the amount of weight you lift to your success in the pool?

Liberty University assistant coach Jessica Barnes knows from experience just how much of an impact lifting is for athletes.

"Weight training was absolutely beneficial to my swimming in college [at Penn State]. Before college I had never lifted, only did pull-ups for strength work; therefore, I knew I had a lot of room for improvement in getting stronger and increasing my muscle mass," said Barnes. "I put on 15 pounds of muscle over the course of my four years, and as a result of getting stronger outside of the pool, I got faster in the pool."

Rutgers Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Tufo sees lifting as more than just becoming leaner, but as a way to keep athletes in the pool, and not in the trainers' office.

"The primary reason for strength training athletes is injury prevention. Stronger bodies are less susceptible to injury especially when weak areas are targeted for a specific sport," said Tufo. "Developing strength and power translates to faster athletes and aids athletic performance."

Weight training has its advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, lifting may inhibit your ability to swim as fast in the earlier parts of the season, versus the end when you will likely back off on lifting at least a little bit. Lifting does break down your muscles in the process to build them up. Therefore, lifting heavier and heavier weight will likely limit, at least to some degree, your speed early on in the season. However, you can limit the difference by staying up to date with your strength during the off-season.

"I most certainly believe that weight training can benefit an athlete's performance at the beginning and throughout the course of a season," said Tufo. "Off-season strength gains prepare the athlete both mentally and physically for competition and are extremely important. Athletes who train hard in the off-season are far better prepared at the start of a season than those who do not."

UC San Diego junior Alexandra Henley knows that lifting weights can greatly impact how you swim throughout the season.

"I definitely noticed a difference in my swimming when I first started lifting weights about two-and-a-half years ago. However, I haven't really stopped since then as I believe it is important to keep your strength up," said Henley. "I am just as tired in the beginning of the season as I am in the middle of the season weights-wise. I think it is important to continue strength training in the off season even if it is just to maintain what you have worked up to."

Another important factor that is often part of many weight-training routines is cardio-based workouts. There are many different beliefs about the importance of the cardio workout, as well as whether or not certain athletes should do more cardio versus weight bearing exercise.

"This will depend on the athlete and events they swim. A distance swimmer does not need to do as much weight bearing exercises as a sprinter and vice versa, a sprinter does not need to do as much cardio work as a distance swimmer," said Barnes.

Tufo believes that both are important and thus a balance between the two should be reached.

"Determining which type of workout is more important is entirely dependent on your goals. For a distance swimmer, cardiovascular workouts hold a higher priority," said Tufo. "If an individual's goal is to gain strength, then weight lifting should be the focus. Usually, a carefully planned combination of both is optimal."

As we have seen, weight training is obviously a crucial aspect to an athlete's performance in the long run of their sport. For swimming, weight training is an ideal and easy way to bring power into the pool.

The cycle in which an athlete may weight train varies from place to place, but an average would be either two or three times per week. Exercises include weighted squats, bench press, inverted row, hang clean, dead lift, pull-ups, as well as other various core exercises.

"Our goal is to target every muscle group," said Barnes.

"At my school, we are on a fou- week program where we do six different exercises twice a week," Henley said. "These exercises vary and we do things like Bulgarian split squats, high pulls, bent over rows, rollouts, etc. However on Fridays we do heavier lifting, which only consists of two to three exercises such as squats, dead lifts, and bench press."

For Tufo a year-round weight training program is ideal, and the intensity of a workout will vary based on whether the team is in season or out of season. Also, Tufo makes it clear that working with the coaches on their team goals is crucial to the teams overall success in the weight room.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages?

An obvious advantage is a significant amount of increased power, body mass, mental toughness as well as overall body strength. Also, lifting more means having more muscle to help pull you through the water with more efficiency. Various disadvantages are common.

"The major disadvantage of strength training is the possibility of injury. Without a proper warm-up or a qualified individual to teach correct form, serious injury could occur," said Tufo. "Also, constant variety and progressive overload must be implemented in order to continually see gains. Strength training is hard, very hard, and most people are too soft to stick with it on a consistent basis. This leads to frustration and the desired results are not achieved."

Weight training is important for any program, but is there ever a time when it simply becomes too much?

"A good weight lifting program will never become too strenuous or hurt practice performance if done with correct cycles. Each athlete will respond differently to a weight lifting program; therefore, it is important for a coach to be involved in the weight lifting program," said Barnes. "You want to structure a weight lifting program around a practice schedule that will help incorporate the strength gained into the swimming performance."

Weight training, as with anything you do, may become overbearing at times. This is when it is crucial to remain aware of what you are doing and seek guidance from professionals to make sure you are doing everything correctly.

So what can an athlete take away from weight training?

"Strength training makes athletes both mentally and physically tougher and prepares their bodies for the strains of competition. It builds confidence and helps athletes feel good about themselves. Stronger, more powerful athletes move faster and accelerate and change direction more quickly. This enables them to be in better position to make a play, get to a ball faster than their opponent, jump higher, or propel their body through the water," said Tufo. "In addition, given the right environment, weight lifting serves as a team bonding activity. Fighting through a tough workout with your teammates brings teams closer together and helps athletes to trust each other when things get hard. Knowing you can rely on your teammate not to quit in the heat of battle is extremely important."

Michelle Berman is a junior swimmer at Rutgers University who is serving as an intern at Swimming World this semester.

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