Better results in the gym mean better results in the pool. Water Polo-specific training programs designed for each player’s position, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the team’s competition calendar are paying off big time in the pool, and in the results column. Coaches can see the difference in terms of wins and losses. They are also seeing a reduction in injuries, and an ability of their players to go hard all season long.
That hasn’t always been the case. A decade ago strength and conditioning began and ended with football. In the college setting, the big money sport got all the attention, including a staff of dedicated football strength coaches. That’s begun to change, as teams hired a new generation of strength and conditioning coaches who place a greater emphasis on studying the fundamentals of non-football, sport-specific training so athletes can perform their best and do so free from injury. Here’s a four-step guide on how to build a water polo-specific strength and conditioning program:
Step 1. Let’s start with the calendar.
Long before the first game begins, water polo players should be training. In the off season we believe athletes should start slow, building their foundation of flexibility and mobility. Start by doing as many movements as possible, with as little load as possible. Exercises should concentrate on increasing range of motion and working in multiple planes of the body.
As the athlete builds a base, we move into a strength phase where we decrease some of the exercises and at the same time add external loads. Volume of repetition decreases and weight increases. At this stage it is important for coaches to test, calibrate and get the athletes ready for preseason. As a coach, your focus should be on conditioning to ramp up cardiovascular output. That means finding the right balance of weight room and in-pool conditioning. Go too high with volume in the weight room and you risk burning the candle at both ends. Water polo coaches need to balance the demands of the pool with the demands of the weight room.
In preseason, coaches should move into water polo-specific work in the pool. This means position specific drills which requires splitting the team into positons and assigning exercises calibrated to meet their unique needs. In the weight room that means attackers are doing more upper-bodywork and speed work. Two-meter attackers and defenders are doing solid leg base work and upper body strength work for their respective positions, and goalies need to work on hip mobility and stability and reaction drills In the weight room, the volume and intensity has to supplement what you do in the pool. An increase in volume in the pool means less volume in the weight room.
Once the season begins, its all about maintenance. Maintenance doesn’t mean shutting down. It means keeping the athlete sharp, fresh and ready for every game. Consequently, volume in the weight room decreases while coaches work on specific exercises for each position, individualized for each athlete. This can include exercises prescribed by your athlete’s body type. Be sure your fast twitch players get exercises right for them, and not for your big diesel engines.
Additionally, competition calendar is important. Strength coaches look to balance games you can train through or games where you need to peak. For example, if a coach knows that games 3 and 8 can be powered through, and games 4 and 9 require their team to be fresh and playing at their peak, they may assign a difficult workout before games 3 and 8 and then taper the workout before games 4 and 9. Playing multiple games in a week or even in two or three days require modification to the training schedule and a focus in other areas of training such as recovery and regeneration.
Step 2: It’s all about output
The key to designing a solid strength and conditioning program for water polo means taking into account functional output. Your athletes’ position and role they play on the team may require different needs for speed, power and endurance. That means they need workout programs tailor made for them.
Attackers will work on upper-body strength, shoulder flexibility and thoracic rotation for wrestling and shooting. Bridge prescribes workouts to develop symmetry so both sides of the body are developed, along with thoracic extension exercises for swimming and shooting.
Centers, both offense and defense, tend to be bigger athletes and demand workouts that develop lower-body power endurance along with upper-body strength to push opponents around.
Goalies are in a category of their own. They require good hip capsule and groin flexibility to set their base in the cage. At Bridge we prescribe lots of reaction drills to work on timing and hand speed.
Step 3: Individualization: building your strength program one athlete at a time
The starting point of any individual strength and conditioning program begins with assessment and diagnosis. Since all flexibility, mobility, stability and strength work together, the exercise programs are designed to work to build on strengths and obliterate weaknesses. In water polo, that means, for example, examining the athletes’ hip capsule mobility, thoracic rotation and extension.
According to Olympic gold medalist, Jessica Steffens, “BridgeAthletic provides me with elite water polo-specific training that I can do anywhere and at any time. The workout experience is extremely engaging. I love the built-in level of competition that encourages me to work harder to beat my personal bests. Bridge water polo training emphasizes flexibility and core strength, which is key for me as an elite athlete.”
Water polo coaches must also consider designing workouts by “training age.” For example, a 20-year old with three years’ experience has less training age than an eighteen-year-old who has been playing since they were 12. That means coaches need to be smart in an appropriate progression to supplement their athletes’ lack of sport-specific skills and drills.
Step 4: The design of a good workout day
Coaches must also consider specificity of workout design in terms of personalizing warm up, preparation, main sets and recovery.
To get the most from athletes in the limited time they spend in the gym, we get straight to the point with warm ups that raise the core body temperature. We’ll work on movements flagged by the initial assessment as well as ones that prepare athletes for the day’s workout to come.
With the body warmed up, we work on multi-planar and multi-joint movements. Bear crawl and inchworm exercises are particularly well-suited to water polo-specific workouts.
Now we address the core of the workout with exercises designed to build strength, speed, or power. The volume of work, as well as specific players’ positions, and where you are in the season will dictate the main sets.
The right exercises can accelerate the recovery process and help prevent injury. Based on the day’s workout and coach’s assessment of their athlete’s condition, water polo-specific recovery exercises can speed the ability of your players to bounce back and start the next day fresh.
For example, centers doing a big leg day, the recovery exercises that stretch the hamstrings and glutes are going to be prescribed.