6 Questions Regarding Weight Training For Teenage Swimmers

By Dr. G. John Mullen

Originally posted Feb. 4, 2015

SANTA CLARA – A few days back, USA Swimming correspondent Mike Gustafson opened his mailbag and gave his personal experience and opinion on weight training for teenagers. In this piece, Gustafson questions the use of weight training, using his personal experience as a former competitive swimmer. As a dryland consultant for clubs across the nation, one could think I’d be upset with him for “bashing” weight training, but as I read his piece I was nodding my head, as I had similar experiences in my own swimming career.

As an age-group swimmer, I ranked second in the United States for 13-14 boys in the 50 free. I mention this not to suggest my expertise, but to note I was an early maturer. When I turned 17 I wasn’t improving as I had expected and decided to find a strength coach instead of using my swim club’s weight training program. I figured I need an expert, someone who can lift 500 pounds off the ground and works with football, basketball and other sports. On the first day of training, a 300-pound Olympic weightlifter asked me my name, then showed me a workout on a white board. He said I had to complete this circuit faster than the times on the board to be able to train with him. Exhausted from a grueling practice and two hours of country club coaching, I laced my shoes tight and sprinted through this 20-minute circuit. Despite being a “sprinter” in the pool, I had years of high volume training under my belt, and I sprinted through the routine of line touches, body weight squats, and walking lunges.

At the end, I sprinted back into the facility asking for my time. The strength coach looked up at me from his chair, questioning if I’ve done the entire routine, as he was shocked at my time. My time blew away the two top times, later which I found out were done by a high school wrestler trying to make varsity and a baseball pitcher. (No offense to those athletes, but who would bet against an aerobically-trained swimmer performing 15,000 yards a week in a 20-minute circuit routine?)

After each session with this strength coach, I felt quite similar to the feelings that Mike Gustafson had. The strength coach knew I was a sprinter, and thought this 5’10” 130-pound boy needs some muscle. I was given six to eight exercises of 6-12 repetitions for three to five sets to failure. Also, he thought that as an athlete, I should know how to clean, jerk, and perform all the Olympic lifts. So, I followed the program to the letter and worked my butt off, but I could barely finish the swim workouts.

Sore mucles weight training for teenage swimmers

Photo Courtesy: (c) Stockbyte

Taper came and the strength coach wanted me to lift like this up to three days before Sectionals, which was my summer taper meet, as there were no Junior Nationals at the time. I remember getting to that meet and being so sore and tired … not a good feeling at a taper meet. To say the least, I did not perform well. This left me extremely frustrated, as I was working hard and not seeing any benefits. Clearly, I was an impatient high school student starting to peak in maturity, making improvements harder, but it still didn’t seem fair. I worked with this strength coach for one more season with similar results. In retrospect, the program designed was not the worst program I’ve seen for a swimmer, but this hypertrophy (muscle mass building) program combined with high-volume training was not effective, as similar to research done in collegiate swimmers.

Entering college, I once again was pumped to begin working with a dedicated strength coach for college athletes! As you can tell, I was the swimmer who loved dryland, mostly because I excelled at it. At college, I got into the weight room and once again I was doing high volume Olympic lifts, 4×12 of cleans and jerks, with little to no instruction by the trainer. Luckily, I had some weight lifting experience in high school, or I certainly would have hurt myself on these Olympic lifts without form corrections. Sure enough, our team had our fair amount of dryland injuries, probably close to the statistics I’ve reported about previously.

This is a long introduction to my thoughts on weight training for teenage swimmers, but I feel my experience is all too common. You have a motivated young swimmer and you want to give them every opportunity for improvement. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you work, if the pieces aren’t in the correct place or you don’t have the right people working with you, you’re unlikely to succeed.

Like Gustafson, I personally had similar results with weight training. Mike and I are an older generation, one I wish strength coaches can move away from. Unfortunately, I see and hear about the same pifalls everyday:

  • Injured from dryland
  • Too sore to move
  • Tired and overtrained
  • Dislike of dryland training

Remember, weight training for swimmers is different than weight training for fitness or other sports. Swimming contains so many differences!

My physical therapy colleagues constantly ask me: “Why do you do strength coaching for swim teams?” or “Why don’t you just become a swim coach since that’s all you post on social media?” These dryland inadequacies are the reason why I write so much about dryland and work with so many teams. I am trying to improve this generation of swimmers so they don’t have to go through things that Gustafson, myself, and millions of others have in the past. Luckily, there are small segments of coaches making improvements, but this isn’t the majority.

6 Questions Regarding Weight Training for Teenage Swimmers

Back to resistance training for teenage swimmers. Here are the most common questions I receive regarding resistance training for teenage swimmers:

Is it safe? In all honesty, it often isn’t. This doesn’t mean it can’t be safe with proper guidance, progressions and supervision, but if a swim coach with no education in resistance training is teaching weightlifting to your growing child, I’d argue it isn’t safe. Just because you lift weights or did as a swimmer doesn’t make it safe. A proper program is safe, but must start with many basics and progress to weight training. Once again, when done properly with proper guidance, weight training scientifically is safe for all ages; however you must be able to perform proper body weight form correctly, master all body weight exercises first, then progress to weight training. Also, performing some type of lower-body loading (i.e. body weight training, weight training, jumping) during years of maturation is likely beneficial for preventing low bone mineral density (BMD) in the hips. This increases the risk of osteoporosis and fractures later in life. These formative years are a huge opportunity for bone growth and health! Too often, people are allowed to lift weights on a club team once they reach a certain age. It’s like magic, you turn 16, time to lift weights! This is similar to giving a kid a car without driving lessons at 16. Just because they are a certain age doesn’t make them competent and safe. I’ve worked with some young groups of kids who I’ve given resistance training (often bands, but sometimes weights), but only after they’ve mastered all body weight movements, demonstrated safe biomechanics, and needed further overload for improvement.

Does it help swimming? In all honesty, it hasn’t been scientifically proven. However, few things are scientifically proven in swimming or sport, as results are very individual. If you are looking for a detailed breakdown of all the resistance training in swimmers, read this piece. Just remember, many of these resistance training programs are dated and similar to the programs Gustafson, myself, and many others performed. Nonetheless, I believe dryland is beneficial for many things — swimming performance being one of them — but if you don’t, then don’t do it! A poorly-designed dryland program is likely more harmful and wasteful than not doing one (at least have them perform another sport or run around so they can develop BMD, see above).

If Not weight training, then what? A well-designed dryland program must be a unified and consistent program within an entire club. Many clubs have their coaches run their programs separate from one another, resulting in confused swimmers as they progress through programs. Ideally, a club should provide a progressive program from the time children enter the program to the time they leave. This well-planned program must start with the basics: dynamic warm-up, coordination, games, and biomechanics. Next, improving strength, power, and improving muscular imbalances are the next key areas. It should build on these principles, preventing muscular imbalances, while continually developing strength without creating habitual soreness. Once movement mastery with challenging body weight exercises in varying planes of motion occurs, then consider weight training.

Should we run for dryland? If you are looking to burn calories and cause fatigue, which is the goal of some groups/individuals on swim teams, then run. However, dryland is a practice, just like swimming. You should have a purpose and goal for everything in your dryland program, especially the elite athletes. This simple shift in mindset can help tremendously, as most swimmers don’t need more of a workout, they need a practice. Like renowned strength coach Pavel Tstatsouline says, “if you want a workout, run up a hill.”

Will I get too bulky? Weight lifting can certainly put on muscle. Some feel more mass can benefit certain swimmers by increasing their potential for force production and/or increase surface areas for grabbing water. Others feel it adds unwanted resistance in the water, resulting in drag. Luckily, there are methods for increasing strength with putting on muscle mass and without putting on muscle mass. If you are looking for the latter, performing low volume, high-intensity lifts, but not to failure. This routine can build power and strength without adding excess muscle mass. This type of training is also the most supported in the literature for improving maximal swimming velocity.

Will I get too stiff? One misconception about resistance training is the idea that resistance training reduces mobility. Resistance training can certainly cause soreness by causing muscular damage believed to result from the cross-bridging of actin and myosin, especially during the eccentric phase of a lift. This soreness will acutely limit motion and the sensation of “stiffness.” However, resistance training over a longer period appears not to reduce range of motion and more likely facilitates greater range of motion when combined with static stretching. Therefore, if you are worried about becoming stiff, start with light weights, have a low lifting volume, and start when stiffness is less vital (during the off-season, although a brief window for most). Then progress slowly, hopefully through a progressive approach set-up at your club from the age-group to the senior level.

This article only answered some of the questions regarding weight training for teenage swimmers and even less regarding dryland for swimmers, as it is a highly complex and misunderstood topic. Nonetheless, safe, effective and beneficial dryland programs are possible when you take into account the research, common sense and a knowledge in swimming. Dryland needs to make a shift and benefit swimmers, not disservice them like it did for Mike Gustafson and myself. If you are a coach, evaluate your group and team’s dryland. If you are a parent, don’t settle for inexperienced coaches leading your children through poorly-designed and dangerous programs. Encourage them to work with a dryland coach or become certified themselves (this won’t solve all the problems, but is a good place to start). If you are unsure about the safety and effectiveness of the dryland program, consider the following:

 

  • Are the coaches even watching the kids during dryland?
  • Are the coaches making corrections to the kids’ form during dryland?
  • Is there a progression of exercises and continuity among groups?
  • Are they simply giving the kids a “workout” instead of a practice?

 

 

If you answered no to the first three and yes to the last question, your kids are likely going to have results like Gustafson and myself.

If you are a coach and want to make this shift at your club, it is possible. First, look into becoming a certified trainer. These certifications are not all created equal, but are self-study courses which are not overly pricey. I highly suggest the NSCA-CSCS certification as it is the most-coveted certification. While these programs can teach you biomechanics, common types, safe progressions, and training volumes, they won’t teach you the subtitles of dryland for swimmers. If you are looking for implementation of dryland with swimmers, finding a mentor is key, but highly challenging.

At COR, we’ve started an internship program for those looking to improve their dryland and weight training knowledge for swimmers. Other avenues are through online sources, blogs, research articles, presentations, etc. It is a small community, but there are great minds in the sport. Gain information from these people, email them, consult with them, and pick their brains. I know this all sounds like a lot of work, but remember you are doing this for the kids and are setting safe, practical, and educational programs which they’ll use and remember for their entire lives.

Don’t have dryland leave a poor taste in their mouths!

7 Comments

7 comments

    • avatar
      G. John Mullen

      Thanks JR. Keep up the good work!

      • avatar

        I liked the article John.

        Regarding your comment on performing lower volume, what is your opinion on solidifying movement patterns with high volume first? I know this may not directly benefit a swimmer, as the goal of dryland would be to increase force production, but a true, high-intensity may not be achievable without a hypertrophy/strength base to work from.

        Kevin

  1. avatar
    G. John Mullen

    Thanks Kevin.

    Improving movement competency is essential. Personally, I feel higher volumes, 8 – 15, for younger children is enough for learning the skill. If they are having problems with this repetition range, then consider different curing or a different progression/regression of the movement.

    Hope that helps!

  2. avatar
    ctch110michaelqing

    Is there any where I can share this on WordPress?

  3. avatar
    Brit

    Something I’ve had sucess with, and I’d be interested in others’ views on – “use paddles like they are weights”. Max force overload – sets of 3 x 25 meter swims, with recovery in between. I.e. dry-land strength training in the pool

  4. avatar

    It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before end
    I am reading this wonderful piece of writing to improve my knowledge.

Author: G. John Mullen

avatar
Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the owner of COR (www.trainingcor.com), strength and conditioning consultant, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System (http://www.corswimmershoulder.com), Dryland for Swimmers (http://www.drylandforswimmers.com), and is chief editor of Swimming Science (www.swimmingscience.net) and the Swimming Science Research Review.

Current Swimming World Issue


Trouble Viewing on Smart Phones, Tablets or iPads? Click Here