TRC-Strength Training for Swimmers

2 Strength Training Exercises that Swimmers should avoid
Strength training in the sport of swimming is paradoxical. It is a must for swimmers to reach their full potential, but strength training doesn’t always result in the desired outcome for swimmers. Sometimes a swimmer gets bigger, stronger and slower.
In most land-based sports, if an athlete gets bigger and stronger, he or she gets better. With more strength, one can jump higher, run faster, throw harder and hit harder. Yet in water-based sports one can get bigger and much stronger, but swim slower. The reason for this is the unique relationship a swimmer has in water between their physical shape and the drag forces that slow them down.
In teaching swimming technique at The Race Club for 14 years, I have come to appreciate the extreme sensitivity of altering the shape of the swimmer’s body and the resultant change in frontal drag forces. What may seem like relatively small changes in a swimmer’s size or shape or technique, particularly with certain parts of the body, can have a profound impact on the frontal drag forces that they cause.
When considering what is the most desirable shape of a fast swimmer, the forces of both propulsion and frontal drag come into play. Building the strength to increase propulsion while keeping the swimmer’s drag coefficient low to minimize frontal drag are both desirable. When it comes to frontal drag, there are two muscle groups that stand out as potentially being in harm’s way. Because of the pulling motion, this is especially true in freestyle, backstroke and fly. One is the Biceps muscle and the other is the Pectoralis Major muscle. For two reasons, we rarely see these two muscles become highly developed in elite swimmers. First, these muscles are not as important in the biomechanics of the high-elbow pulling motion when compared to other muscles of the shoulder and upper back. Second, if overly developed and large, those two muscles will add a considerable amount of frontal drag force to slow the swimmer. 
With the pulling motion of the arm, it is the upper arm, not the lower arm nor the hand, that causes most of the frontal drag force. In order to cause drag, an object must be moving forward. The bigger the object and the faster it moves, the more drag it causes. The upper arm is wider and is moving forward longer and faster than the rest of the arm during the pulling motion. A big Biceps muscle just gets more in the way as the arm moves through the water trying to generate propulsion.
The same is true of the Pectoralis Major muscle. A large Pectoralis Major muscle simply adds more girth to a swimmer’s body moving forward, resulting in more frontal drag. Back in the 1960s, a world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle, Don Havens, was born without a Pectoralis Major muscle on one side of his chest. One of the greatest freestylers of all time, Peter Van den Hoogenband from Holland, was born with a chest deformity called Pectus Excavatum, a sunken chest. Both deformities likely helped those swimmers by reducing frontal drag. 
Two well-known exercises that help develop those two muscles are biceps curls and bench presses. If you want to swim fast, avoid them. People that bench press or curl a lot of weight usually don’t swim fast. That is the strength paradox of swimming. Speed in swimming depends on the ability to generate much propulsion from both the pull and the kick while minimizing the frontal drag forces. Big Biceps and Pectoralis Major muscles add more to frontal drag than they contribute to propulsion.
At The Race Club, we believe in building swim-specific strength without disproportionately adding to the frontal drag forces. When designing your strength program for swimmers, keep that in mind.
What other strength training exercises should swimmers avoid doing? Want to know which exercises? Check out our entire Strength training series with Alabama Men’s Head Swimming Coach, Coley Stickels, on our Lane 3 Race Club subscription. 
Yours in swimming,
Gary Sr.

Responses

  1. This is a great article. Do you think that having wider forearms would be valuable for swimming faster? There would be an increase in frontal drag upon entering the water, but it seems that it would be minimal, because the arm is in a low drag position. However, a wider forearm could increase propulsion during the pull.

  2. Great question. I suspect that you are right. The forearm contributes some percentage of the arm propulsion…though much less than the hand. My guess that a bigger forearm with a small bicep would be advantageous. Caeleb Dressel has pretty big forearms and it seems to serve him pretty well.

  3. What you’re saying would seem to make sense but a couple of the top sprinters in the world right now, Manaudou and Proud, might disagree. I haven’t seen their top secret strength programs, but I would wager they both incorporate bench press. I saw a video from a few years ago where Proud talked about wanting to put on as much muscle and gain as much strength as possible, and these days he resembles a bodybuilder. Not only do they have the more commonly seen big backs and wide shoulders, they have big biceps and pecs. Nathan Adrian has also added 10-15 pounds since his gold in 2012 and teammates have witnessed him benching 150 pound dumbbells. In a video in the lead-up to London he said his weight was about 217 which allowed him to move through the water with less drag than if he was 230. Fast forward to 2016 and he was up to 230. Somewhere along the line he decided more power and size was worth the increased frontal drag. The trade off is interesting and I wish I could hear from them or their strength coaches on the decision to put on so much size, and why they bench press.

  4. Proud and Manaudou specialize in the 50, where they can get away with more girth (drag) and propulsion. Nathan is getting so big, I am concerned about his ability to sustain his speed in the 100. We shall see. He is one tough competitor….but frontal drag is an enemy. Peaty gets away with more girth (he likes to bench press) because breaststroke is a ‘stop and go’ stroke and the biceps do not get in the way as much during the breaststroke pulling motion.