Swimmers train differently depending on their stroke specialty and preferred distance. Butterflyers, backstrokers, breastrokers, and freestylers require unique dryland strength exercises much like how sprint, middle-distance, and distance athletes need variation among their workouts. While the general phases of strength training are the same across all swimmers, there should be particular movements within each workout that translate to the strokes and distances they swim most often.
Perhaps the greatest difference in swim-specific strength training lies between the two ends of the swimming spectrum—sprint and distance athletes. Sprint athletes need to harness quick muscle recruitment by developing a greater density of fast twitch muscle fibers. This can be achieved through strength training that focuses on power and speed. Sprint athletes require a longer preparatory phase leading up to their power phase because they will execute more extensive power lifts than distance swimmers. This prep work is necessary so the athlete can learn progressions for power movements, prevent injury, and ensure the proper muscles are recruited using good technique.
On the other hand, distance swimmers need to simulate their experience in the water with strength exercises that emphasize stability and endurance. The repetitive nature of their swimming requires greater stability in the shoulder girdle, hip capsule, and core to create more efficient long-axis rotation. In strength training, this translates to less power work and more stability work. For example, if a sprinter will be doing a bench press using the barbell, a distance swimmer may execute the bench press using dumbbells while lying on a swiss ball (also known as a physio ball). This variation makes the athlete work hard to remain stable during the repetitions. Distance swimmers may execute more bodyweight exercises than sprinters. One example would be doing sets of pushups with upper body rotation to mimic the body position of freestyle. Middle distance athletes will much more closely approximate the sprinter program. Swimmers that race mostly 200-meters or less, will need to integrate power into their strength training.
In addition to distance-specific training, swimmers should customize their strength exercises based on the primary strokes they swim. Athletes need to replicate the same pattern of muscle activation in dryland as they will use in the pool. Long-axis strokes (back and free) will demand rotational strength through the core as the body rotates side to side in the transverse plane. Short-axis strokes (fly and breast) require core strength in the sagittal plane as the abdomen moves forward and backward in that dolphin-like undulation. Breastrokers and IM’ers require more lateral leg work to target muscles used in breastroke kicking, which is drastically different in terms of biomechanics from flutter or dolphin kicking. Athletic trainers and coaches can slightly modify the format of their athletes’ workouts to fit their stroke styles. These modifications are slight changes within a general theme. For example, if the team is working through a set of lunges, breastrokers may opt for lateral lunges whereas flyers, backstrokers, and freestylers may choose forward or reverse lunges. If the team is set to do core strength, back and freestylers might perform bicycle crunches and side planks while breastrokers and flyers might try pikes and knee tucks on a swiss ball.
Swimmers will have different strength and conditioning goals depending on their races. Dryland training can be easily customized with exercises that replicate a swimmer's stroke, distance, and performance needs in the water. Swimmers should start optimizing their training today to build strength that translates to greater performance.