Water Polo Training: Underwater Combat

Water Polo requires a unique set of physical tools to succeed and an athlete must go through unique preparation to ready their body for grueling games. Water Polo combines swimming, throwing and grappling, in an extremely unstable environment. Great players must have strength, power, endurance and toughness to succeed. Located in Orange County, California, Juggernaut is in the nation’s hotbed for water polo and we train collegiate to youth champions and All-Americans.

One of Juggernaut’s High School All-Americans in action.

Upper Body Training

Without being a great swimmer, it will be nearly impossible to be a great water polo player. Tremendous lat, shoulder and upper back strength is necessary to be a powerful swimmer, shooter and be to be able to ward off defenders.

Chin-up and Pull-up Variations

These should be the foundation of your water polo training. Lat strength is the key to a powerful swim stroke, strong shot and maintaining shoulder strength. Our best and strongest polo players are often able to perform 30 or more reps with their bodyweight and over 10 reps with 50 or more pounds of external resistance.

When you spend your life in a speedo, shirts are always optional

Pressing Variations

Due to the high volume of throwing and passing that is required, I avoid overhead pressing variations with my water polo athletes. As with many pitchers, volleyball players and swimmers, lots of water polo players will come to us with pre-existing shoulder conditions. Because of this, my favorite pressing variations for water polo players are using the swiss bar, fat bar and neutral grip dumbbell pressing. Unilateral pressing variations are also excellent because players will often have to create separation and push off a defender with one arm while making a shot or pass with the other. My favorite supplementary pressing and repetition effort work are blast strap pushups and crazy bells presses. Due to the unstable nature of these exercises they build great stability in the shoulder girdle and protect the athlete from injury in the future.

Medball Throws

Light medball throws are a great option to build shooting power and develop strength in the shoulders. We start nearly every training session with medball throws. We begin with throws standing at the wall, throwing with one hand against the wall and catching with the opposite hand. Catching the medball off the wall builds strength in the eccentric phase of the shot and corrects muscular imbalances from the repetitive motion of passing and shooting. Athletes will also take one and two handed overhead throws from kneeling, lunging and standing positions. As with any throwing athlete, a powerful shot is not reliant upon the shoulder alone. A strong shot in water polo is a full body coordinated effort that is largely driven by a strong core and the ability to achieve great extension in the low back and elevate out of the water. Try this medball throw variation to build your shooting power.

Lower Body Training

When I first began to working with water polo players, I had them doing very traditional lower body training, squatting, deadlifting, GHRs, etc and then this happened…

Kroc better watch out, I think I’m ready to get on stage

Yes, that’s me in a speedo (please contain your excitement). I went with one of the teams I train to a master’s water polo tourament, The Desert Duel, at Arizona State University and I played water polo…granted I played for about 90 seconds in a real game, but I got in a bunch before games to throw the ball around and swim. A key part of water polo is the “egg-beater,” a very unnatural motion used to tread water and elevate your body out of the water to have a more powerful shot. In my brief water polo experience it became rapidly apparent that being a strong squatter doesn’t help your egg beater (neither does weighing 300 pounds, but that’s besides the point).

Upon returning from this eye-opening, mind-expanding water polo trip to the desert, I significantly changed the lower body training for my polo players.  I do still include the squat and deadlift in their training to build general strength, but the bulk of their training is focused on the following.

Cossack Squats

Egg beating requires great flexibility and strength in the hip, groin and knee and no other exercise will build that like the Cossack squat. We will perform these with both heavy weight and for high reps. Egg beating is a very unnatural motion but the Cossack squat will do a good job of building the necessary power to elevate out of the water and maintain health in the knee and hip.

The ability to elevate out of the water is a key to great goalkeeping.

Sled Dragging and Prowler Pushing Variations

If your have ever used the sled or prowler you know the feeling of the lactic acid bath they can give your legs. Water polo players have to tread water, egg beater and swim for nearly 30 minutes straight in a game and will often play 3 or 4 games in a day at tournaments. This requires great strength endurance in the legs. All types of sled dragging and prowler pushing will teach your athletes to rapidly develop force and build the lactic tolerance necessary to succeed in the water. I particularly like lateral sled dragging variations as they target the muscles most responsible for egg beating.

While strength in the weightroom is important to the water polo player, builiding specific lower body strength in the pool is paramount. Egg beating while holding weights above your head and band resisted swimming are two of the options with the best dynamic correspondence to water polo.

Dryland Conditioning

Total body strength and power endurance is a must to be a successful water polo player. Players must be able to burst out of the water or into a sprint at any time, even though they may have been already swimming for several minutes.

An exercise that will help athletes call on that explosive strength even in a fatigued state are Litvi-Prowlers.

Water Polo players are warriors in the water. They need a wide array of physical skills, many of which are vastly different from those of land athletes. Look critically at the needs of your athletes and maybe even jump in with them to gain a new appreciation and understanding of the demands of their sport.

Be Sociable, Share!

About the Author