Strength & Conditioning
The strength and conditioning community is far too fractioned; proprietary training programs and secrecy hide the inner workings of many sports performance coaching theories and facilities. At Ruthless Performance, we find this idea entirely backwards—this mentality is a sign of some fragile egos and insecurity within the industry. To do our part in mitigating this, we’re going to start a new on-going series where we’ll deconstruct some aspect of a selected program from one of our Ruthless Performers. Hopefully this will help coaches and athletes get a better idea of programming and the science of sports performance, regardless of their affiliation with Ruthless Performance.
Our inaugural installment of our Internal Program Review begins with a look at Day 1 of a male, college swimmer’s dryland training program. First, we’ll provide some context…
This swimmer is in between the freshman and sophomore season of his collegiate swimming career. Currently, we’re training him 5x per week. Most workouts have their own day of the week, but occasionally he’ll do doubles if schedule conflicts are present.
As you can see in the figure, his programming is currently changing every 4 weeks and his workout week can most easily be broken down as follows, note that each day is not specifically ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ but rather these ideas denote the dominant exercises for that particular day:
Day 1 – Lower Body
Day 2 – Upper Body
Day 3 – Conditioning
Day 4 – Upper Body
Day 5 – Lower Body
For our Internal Program Review, we’ll examine day 1…
1. Box Squat
More than 80% of athletes that we see on a regular basis have some box squat variant somewhere in their training macrocycle, usually this is on a recurring basis as well. The box squat provides a variety of benefits, going into detail here would be too great for the scope of this article. If you’re interested in learning more about how to box squat as well as their benefits, I would recommend performing a quick search for Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell and the Box Squat.
In this case, we’re slowly reintegrating the squat into his program after having some time off following his long swim season. Here, we’ve added the box squat as a means to help assist in developing leg strength, posterior weight shift (integral to developing a proficient and technically sound squat) and building muscle to subsequently assist in force production coming off of the blocks and during turns.
2. Hanging Straight Leg Raises
A crucial component to any strength and conditioning program developed by Ruthless Performance is a substantial element of force transfer in various planes. In our A2, which is paired with the A1 (Box Squats), we’re emphasizing this force transfer, and we’re doing so specifically in the Sagittal Plane.
With the Hanging Straight Leg Raises (HSLR), we’re also building the anterior chain, specifically the abdominals. Though swimmers are no stranger to ‘core’ exercises, they can be unfamiliar with lower-repetition strength-dominant work in the abdominals like this. Whether its poolside after practice or at-home at the behest of their coaches, swimmers frequently train with high repetition crunches, sit-ups, or poorly performed planks.
Exercises like the HSLR are rarely given at Ruthless as these can place too much emphasis on the Rectus Femoris which already receives ample stimulation during regular swim practice. But unlike with Bent Leg Raises, the straight leg variation provides more stimuli to the abdominals, which can partially explain why it is much harder than bent leg variations (also worth searching, but beyond the scope of our review: passive insufficiency).
Something also worth noting with the HSLR is how we manipulate this to maximize efficacy. With most weighted exercises, this is done via an increase in resistance. With a bodyweight exercise like this, we are slightly more confined in our ability to progress this over a 4-week period. Therefore we’re slowly adding more repetitions to each set throughout the program.
3. 180 Hip Extension
If you’ve never trained with us, you’ve likely gotten familiar with this exercise being referred to as a ‘back extension’. This is partially a misnomer, specifically at Ruthless Performance as we actively coach a rounded upper back on this exercise to maximize glute input, while minimizing lower back activation.
The erector muscles already receive a great deal of stimulation any time the back/hips are being used as a fulcrum (which is close to any time you are doing a non-isolation/machine exercise). Additionally, the capillary network of the low back is rather poor, causing a slow recovery time. Doing low-back work in addition to all of this could be a decrement to performance rather than performance enhancing.
This can be progressed with weights or bands as needed, but a large emphasis should initially be placed on glute activation during this exercise rather than on a large range of motion (ROM). We typically encourage an external femoral rotation when possible, which further activates the glutes on this. When the glutes can’t contract any more on the hip extension, there is no reason to add more ROM.
4. Calf Raises
One of the benefits of working with an athlete with such frequency is that we can get into some details holding them back that would otherwise be unachievable on a 2x or 3x /wk program. With this athlete, poor calf hypertrophy is likely a weak link holding back lower body development. From a physics standpoint, mass can’t be added without a broad base of support. Consider the tyrannosaurus rex, with its massive legs serving as a point of contact and base of support, or in engineering the structure and shape of the world’s largest buildings.
Specifically, to build mass in the calves without taking too much time away from more pertinent programming, we focus on density. Through the course of the program, we’re trying to have this athlete perform more reps with the fewest amount of sets possible. It is very rare to manipulate the volume so drastically from weeks 1 to weeks 4, but this is precisely what is needed in this situation.
5. High Handle Sled Push
We rarely have our swimmers perform energy system training, but in this case, the athlete is out of season and will need to preserve some basic level of cardiovascular conditioning for when he returns to college in the fall. You can learn more about our theories and thoughts on energy system training for swimmers in our article aptly titled “Why Ruthless Performance Doesn’t Emphasize Energy System Training for Our Swimmers”.
The sled provides an opportunity to help generate greater ROM between the legs, build concentric strength, increase hip and ankle mobility, and is just a generally versatile conditioning tool. You’ll also notice that the distance is relatively short. He’s been performing these bouts between 6-10 seconds. This by no means will provide an amount of conditioning conducive to in-pool training and performance, but will help maintain and improve ATP usage at the end of a long workout, which transfers nicely into a strong finish in a mid-distance/distance event.
Have any questions about what you see or would you like further clarification? Send us your questions at info@RuthlessPerformance.com. Your question may even turn into inspiration for a blog or social media post.
Outside of a handful of technological advances in competition suits and some isolated factions of coaches and athletes, the sport of swimming is largely stuck in a late 90’s – early 2000’s mentality; which is a generous approximation on my part, as the sport of swimming in the 90’s-00’s wasn’t all that much better from the handful of decades preceding it. This old school training mindset included a great emphasis on high yardage in the pool, followed by a big taper leading up to important and championship swim meets.
The high yardage/ big taper approach certainly has its applications, but much like how swimmers took the alleged 10,000+ kCal ‘Phelps Diet’ leading up to the 2008 Olympics as an excuse to overconsume and under-nourish with empty-nutrient and calorie-rich foods, braggadocios swim coaches have hijacked the good intent of high-yardage programs, and now misinformed coaches are globally vying for title of who can put their athletes through the most pain.
Since the semi-archaic idea of mega-yardage programs still have some merit, I’d like to focus dryland training, the dated and frequently perpetuated fallacies surrounding this, as well as what Ruthless Performance does with our swimmers and what other high-level programs are engaged in from a strength training perspective.
This well-known Ruthless Performance philosophy regarding dryland training for swimmers leads many concerned parents and swim coaches to ask the Ruthless Performance staff about our programs. Since swimming requires so much cardio, shouldn’t that be a main part of dryland training?
Simply put, no. But here’s the longer answer…
In the past, dryland training has mirrored pool-based training very closely. This would include ideas like distance running and other high intensity-based conditioning routines (and if you’re lucky, some lackadaisically performed, poorly designed rotator cuff band complexes). Not only is this additional energy system training unnecessary (during the in-season), but it can also be burdensome, ineffective, and at worst, harmful to performance.
One of the main reasons we don’t program a large amount of energy system training in our swimmers’ training programs is because of the sheer volume of energy system work that swimmers get while in the pool. Most swimmers can get through a large part of the warm-up without realizing that they are engaging in conditioning already. Add the various work sets done through a workout, and then repeated on a nearly daily basis, and you have a recipe for fantastic cardiopulmonary function and sport-specific energy-system development.
The problem is that coaches too frequently confuse the cardiovascular demands of the sport of swimming with the cardiovascular demands of swim practice.
Running is one such frequently assigned dryland activity for swimmers, used as a means of developing cardiovascular function. This is in part, due to the perception that swimming is a sport which requires a lot of cardio—which it does. The problem is that coaches too frequently confuse the cardiovascular demands of the sport of swimming with the cardiovascular demands of swim practice.
Adding more conditioning work on top of what is done in practice is simply providing an athletes cardiovascular system with diminishing marginal returns on ability to practice; this is largely ineffective because of how quickly the cardiovascular system responds and adapts to training stimuli. A few weeks of pre-season practice and a base level of cardiovascular function is restored to the point where an athlete can successfully compete at meets and return to more rigorous in-season training. Since most events are over in less than two minutes, this style of dryland training can become redundant and inefficient.
Adding running or various other conditioning modalities on top of traditional in-pool training can yield greater performance; just not as great as swimming performance could be if we focused on some other modalities and training tools. This is a conversation for another day entirely, but all of the strength-based training that we have our swimmers perform help in a variety of ways. Our strength training does, in fact, enhance energy system capacities, specifically the phosphocreatine (quick anaerobic energy system pathway). This is the system which leads to faster starts, quick turns, breakouts, and even negative splits in distance events.
All this to say that strength training with minimal traditional cardiovascular input is the primary way we train our athletes and for good reason. Rather than simply packing on additional volume of similar work, we are building up muscles which help prevent overuse injuries, minimizing the impact of training stressors, improve reaction time, coordination, catch in the water and so on. This allows athletes the opportunity to train more optimally in the pool, which is the primary vessel for developing skill-specific capacities in swimmers.
Strength Training is an emerging field in the sport of swimming. As more and more coaches, parents, and athletes begin to understand the extent to which a strength training program can help drop swim times and reduce injury, the more I’m approached by a growing and widening audience about, not only the Ruthless Athletic‘s Dryland Training for Swimmers Program, but also, general tips for using land-based techniques to get better in the pool.
As this audience widens, the frequency of parents approaching me to develop programs for their age-group swimmers increases as well. There’s a great deal of misinformation in the mainstream media about various forms of strength training for swimmers in general, but even moreso for youth athletes and youth or age-group swimmers.
The information herein are some quick tips and answers to some very frequently asked questions which I receive from both parents, coaches, athletic administrators, and even these young athletes themselves.
Strength Training is NOT Detrimental to Youth Athletes
The idea that strength training is detrimental to prepubescent and pubescent athletes transcends the sport of swimming. Parents, coaches, and entire athletic staffs may fall prey to this line of thinking.
As mentioned in this fantastic piece by Mike Robertson: “the stresses in sport far exceed what happens in the weight room!” Mike goes on to say “For example, in strength training a good measure of strength would be if you could squat or deadlift 2x your body weight. In other words if you weighed 175, if you could squat and/or deadlift 350, you’d be considered strong…”
…And then follows with some information that most people intuitively understand, but seem to ignore with regards to strength training…
“However, the forces that you see in everyday events like running (4-6x body weight) and jumping (6-10x body weight) far exceed anything done in the weight room.”
Speed and Agility Drills are Overlooked for Swimmers
Injuries in the pool are actually rather rare. Swimmers may develop chronic, or overuse injuries from their time in the pool, but the likelihood of sports injuries increases as an under-prepared swimmer finds themselves in a precarious position on land.
Often times, swimmers may find themselves in a pick-up game of football, volleyball, or some other higher-impact land sport where an injury could occur. Because these swimmers are so unprepared for this medium (court, field, track, etc.) they run a higher risk of injury than their friends who may participate in some of the various land-based sports.
While preparing for these kind of extenuating circumstances may seem like overkill, the number of coaches who’ve showed up to practice to then be faced with an injured star swimmer from similar circumstances to the aforementioned example is astronomical.
The Goal of Strength Training is Not the Goal of Swimming Practice
Swimming coaches tend to have misconceptions about the goals of strength training; a problem propagated extensively within the field. Coaches tend to want land-based exercise to replicate what is done in the pool, however, while the goals of both are the betterment of the athlete, the applications are entirely different.
Because pool workouts develop skill work and energy system development, coaches mistakenly believe strength training should be done in a similar way, usually with little rest, high heart rates, and in a manner which replicates the actions of sport; this view is plainly wrong.
Land work should help restore optimal function to the various joints and postures which the swimming strokes can hinder. By spending hours in the pool completing high yardage training, then coupling this with ‘sport specific work’ (such as swim cable trainers), you are effectively exacerbating shoulder and hip ailments common to overuse injuries.
To have the most effective ‘sport specific’ strength training, a program should consist of various counter measures. This ensures a neutral posture onto which the swimming coaches can pack on yardage and intensity. Doing so in addition to more of the same exercises on land will definitively lead to pain, burnout, and injury.
Consider the above when trying to formulate a program for your youth athletes. Remember, Ruthless Athletics does offer coaching services to individual athletes, as well as, entire sports teams. For more information on these services, swim team consulting, details on any of the various other services provided, or to simply ask a general question, feel free to reach out at RuthlessAthletics@gmail.com.