This is part 2 ofour series on the swimmer's body. Be sure to check out Part 1 if you haven't already.
Competitive swimming is compatible with a wide variety of body types. There are, however, certain aspects of a swimmer’s body that are common to most athletes in the sport. How different muscle groups over or under-develop in response to swimming can have a dramatic impact on how well the athlete moves on land. This is part two of our series on the swimmer’s body. In part one, we explored the five most common idiosyncrasies aquatic athletes face. In this piece we will discuss the ways aquatic athletes can mitigate the negative effects of these issues through strength training and dryland work.
Posture (rounded shoulders and curved back)
A proper standing posture reveals a gentle curve in the spine, resembling a slight “S” shape. For many dryland exercises, such as squatting, dead lifts, and other closed kinetic chain* movements, the athlete’s upper back must be flat while the lower back may have a slight curve. This position protects the lower back from bearing excessive weight and transfers the force from the lower limbs through the trunk efficiently. A kyphotic back during lifting or bodyweight exercises means that the core is either too weak or not engaged when it should be contracted, and the spine is bearing load in inappropriate areas.
In strength training, it is critical to practice movement patterns correctly until they develop into good habits. When standing or sitting, let your shoulders rest back and down away from your neck. Integrate core training into your strength program to ensure those muscles are developed, and focus on engaging them during other exercises to support the lower back. To help correct kyphosis, remember to stretch out tight muscles in the shoulder, chest, and back. Rehabilitation exercises are great to perform before each strength day to reinforce the correct movement pattern right before you start lifting. Nick’s Video Series has a number of exercises to start you off. Sleeping on a firmer bed can also help correct severe kyphosis.
Hyperextension (Elbows, Knees)
When conducting any exercise on land, the body is loaded (either by body weight or with additional weights). A straighter limb will support its load better than a hyper-extended one. As a general rule, it is best to avoid “locking” one’s legs or arms during strength exercises because this puts the limb in a compromised position if the joint cannot unlock quickly. Although an unlocked limb will feel odd to athletes with hyperextension, it will maintain the proper technique of the exercise. In fact, a very slight bend in the limb (decreasing the joint angle) is preferable for injury prevention. Should the load be too intense, the limb can then bend in its natural direction to distribute the force.
Hyperextension is an innate characteristic of some swimmers than cannot be altered through any exercises. Rather, the athlete must learn to be careful in strength training by not fully extending the legs and arms during a movement. Avoiding a locked position, especially when it involves hyperextension, ensures that the right muscles are engaged and working to produce the movement.
In the case of a swimmer, the glute muscles and hamstrings can fail to contract with the quadriceps, and the stabilizing support of co-contraction is lost. During a squat or jump, this can lead to injury. In addition, muscle groups that help in swimming will be underdeveloped, placing greater load on the few muscles that do activate. Swimmers with habitually tight quadriceps may resort to improper lifting technique and place more strain on surrounding joints such as the hip capsule and knees. For example, a squat that solely activates the quadriceps will allow the knees to track inward toward the body midline, putting the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in a dangerous position where it is prone to tearing. This occurs because the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius are not activated to resist the inward movement of the knee.
Swimmers will remain quad dominant, but they can integrate exercises to activate other muscle groups as a form of injury prevention. They must start with basic activation, slowly moving through an exercise while training the brain to contract all the appropriate muscles. Over time, the muscle recruitment will become automatic, re-establishing co-contraction and helping the athlete develop properly in his or her strength program.
Swimmers can maintain bone density through a regular dryland program. In order to be better at shock absorbance, swimmers should focus on landing from jumps “quietly”, meaning their feet land lightly. This requires greater body control in the legs and core to control their landing. Many strength programs include jumping because the explosive strength you develop can translate well to diving and flipturns. If you are just beginning to integrate jumps into your program, start with smaller jumps (lower boxes if box jumping) and get your technique down before moving on to higher jumps. On the other hand, running should remain a no-no for competitive swimmers. It unnecessarily puts the athlete at risk of injury and does not provide benefits you can’t get from other forms of dryland or swim sets.
Having good proprioception, or awareness of one’s body in the surrounding space, can help prevent ankle injuries. Other ways to minimize rolled ankles are to strengthen the surrounding musculature and to improve your balance. Working on your balance will not only help you stabilize yourself from falling, but it will also improve your body position in the water by forcing you to engage your core. Body awareness is a means to prevent injury and to improve your biomechanics.