Training Swimmers

Usually on EliteFTS, you hear about training those in the “power” sports, but rarely do you read about training a potential champion swimmer. I was lucky enough to train two sisters who were excellent swimmers. One was 13 years old and one was 16 years old. Their father spent a lot of money taking them to swim coaches and events and paying for their training, but he always neglected the obvious training—strength and conditioning.

These girls will most likely be major players in the swim world one day—the 13 year old more so than the 16 year old. They have solid times and have success in that sport, and with the proper training in addition to their coaching, they will make a name for themselves.

When I had these girls, one thing I noticed right away was their lack of muscularity and power. I set out to change that the best way I knew how. This was a daunting task because I’ve never swam competitively, worked with a swimmer, or looked into training one. I wasn’t about to let that deter me from this though, so I did my homework, combined that with my experience, and developed a comprehensive strength program that would assist them in becoming more powerful athletes. I wasn’t so focused on general conditioning because both girls log a ton of hours weekly in the pool. I didn’t feel the immediate need to get them in shape, but I did feel the immediate need to get them stronger.

What I know about swimming is that coming off the wall is the difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer. Being explosive is the key, so I had them work on lower body strength doing front squats, trap bar deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and jumps of various types and exercises to strengthen the hip flexors for kicking through the water. At first these girls had pathetic vertical leaps, but after several sessions, there was a marked improvement and their lower body strength went up rather quickly.

The second area of concern was their upper body, namely the shoulders and back. As we may know, swimming requires a powerful stroke through the water, which is facilitated by having a strong back and shoulders and mobile rotation through the shoulders. Many swimming injuries are rotator cuff related—often tendonitis. Knowing this, I set out to train their upper bodies as I would a baseball pitcher. This meant using neutral grip presses and hand walking exercises (in the plank position); using the Free Motion cable machine to strengthen the “rotational muscles;” doing “hands supinated” chin-ups or inverted rows (TRX, blast straps, or laying down), pull-downs to the chest (never behind the head), and push-ups; and doing various overhead medicine ball throws from a stationary position or moving/jumping.

Another area of concern was the core. Swimmers need to have a strong, stable core to be able to stay stable throughout the race, hold that position without tiring, and be powerful through those strokes. If their core is weak at all, it will greatly hinder their success. Using various leg raises (which not only work the abs but also the hip flexors) and plank holds for time (to build static core strength), I felt maintaining a strong core would complement the rest of their body.

I double checked my regimen with an old friend who was an excellent swim coach, and he said it was solid. So I went about my business for my sessions with them. During this time, I noticed a marked improvement in strength, power, and mobility. I was sure to warm them up using a dynamic and static warm up and cool them down with stretches that kept them loose to avoid any tightness as a result of the strength training.

In the twelve sessions I had with them, they improved their gym performance a great deal. Their dad was always watching over the sessions, and I had to take a lot of time to explain to him what I was doing and why. Several times he told me that other swim coaches recommended the same exercises for them, but they never did it. This reinforced my belief that an athlete’s parent is never the best choice to be a “strength coach” for their children.

I also noticed that the father was the kind of parent who seemed to live vicariously through his children. He pushed them hard, and a few times I wanted to tell him, “They are kids. Relax.” But overstepping my bounds in regards to my thoughts on his parenting isn’t in my job description.

All in all, he was very pleased with the training and so were they. I wish I had a happy ending to this, but there isn’t. I didn’t see them through to a state championship. Every time they were in the gym without me, he had them doing behind the neck pull-downs, heavy barbell curls, and other exercises that I felt were counterproductive to their end goal. I actually had a talk with him about that once when I witnessed it. He agreed to stop with the exercises that would actually hurt them instead of help them.

When it came time for them to renew their training contract after the twelve sessions, he felt that spending the money on technique coaching would serve them better than working with me. Even though the girls loved working with me, he had his own ideas about getting them more pool time and less gym time. Therefore, I lost them as clients. No matter what I said to him about proper training or getting stronger, he was hell bent on having it his way. I never saw them again in the gym.

Even though I did my homework, improved their fitness and strength, and—by his own admission—improved their times in the short period I had them, they were no longer mine to work with. We can’t win them all, can we?

Regardless of how this ended up, I took on athletes in a sport I had no real knowledge of and analyzed the situation to develop the best program I could, one that I felt would help them with their swimming careers. I only hope that one day the father realizes these girls will need a lot more than pool time if they are to compete at a higher level. I hope he takes the proper action to make that happen.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into always wanting to work with football, baseball, basketball, soccer, or lacrosse players. Educate yourself about all sports and know the methods of training for all of them. One day a parent may show up at your door with a swimmer as well, and being prepared to train them could mean a new revenue flow and a chance to help mold a champion from a good athlete.

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