Believe or not, there are many people, including coaches and swimmers, that question the value of strength training in swimming, particularly in distance swimming. They may have a point. After all, there are a lot of strong people that cannot swim very fast, nor sustain speed for very long. Also, not all swimmers that use strength training have noted significant improvements in their times from that additional work.
So how important is it to have strength training be a part of your regimen? For sprinters who want to be competitive, I would say it is vitally important. However, just as in your swimming training, the type of strength training one does can play a huge role in the success or lack of.
What makes swimming so interesting and somewhat unique is the paradoxical relationship between the forces that slow us down (frontal drag) and the forces that propel us (biomechanics of propulsion). In most sports, the stronger one gets, the further one can hit the ball or faster one can run or harder one can hit. Not always so in swimming.
With swimming, the relative value of adding strength is greater when one is younger, smaller and slower than it is when one has gotten bigger and faster. The improvement in speed attained from the natural growth and additional strength from going through puberty, for example, may be greater than at any other point in the career of a swimmer.
Once a swimmer reaches a certain size and speed, however, gaining additional speed by purely adding strength (and size) becomes more problematic. The physics of frontal drag simply get in the way. With the density of water some 800 times greater than air, the sensitivity of frontal drag forces to minute changes in the shape of the human body, including arms and legs, moving through the water, particularly at speeds of good swimmers, is extraordinarily high. The sensitivity of adding speed from additional strength at this point is relatively low.
In other words, if we put aerobic conditioning aside just for a moment (albeit fully understanding how important this is), if one had to choose between spending more time getting stronger versus swimming with less frontal drag, ie better technique, I would choose the latter any day.
Does this mean our days in the weight room are over? Hardly. In order to swim fast, one needs to be strong. The key is to develop swim-specific strength in the correct swimming motions and positions that also create the least frontal drag. That is the tricky part, because in swimming, the pulling and kicking motions of the arms and legs that create the most power also contribute more to frontal drag, resulting in a slower swim. In order to swim fastest, we have to learn to avoid the temptation to go to the motions of power and find the motions of least frontal drag, even though they are not as powerful. Then we have to become stronger in those positions. That is what I mean be swim-specific strength training.
To help accomplish this, I have been working with VASA, the swim bench company in Vermont, to try to improve on their existing model. The first prototype that we completed last week, adds several new and unique features to their existing ergometer model. Though I cannot provide any details yet, I am really encouraged that the new model will enable a swimmer to develop the correct swim-specific strength that is vital to swim faster, while simultaneously providing a full body workout.
Yours in swimming,
Related Video: Dryland Training with Erik Risolvato and Joshua Romany