team logo
   article archive

Who Needs Water: Improving Swimming Through Dry-Land Fitness

by Dan Frost

I started exploring the subject of dry-land exercises for swimmers a few months ago, mostly driven by pure necessity. You see, I am a U.S. Navy flight officer spending six months aboard an aircraft carrier about 6000 miles from home, and far enough away from any swimming pool. My goal is to come back from my deployment able to swim as well as I did before leaving. My problem is trying to do that without much opportunity to actually swim.

The value of other exercises and physical activities in improving swimming performance seemed to me to be a source of great debate. I have heard people say things like "The only way to being a better swimmer is to swim (faster)," but I know that all of the college swim teams do various exercises away from the pool. Nonetheless, many experts agree that there are certain dry-land exercises which can improve your swimming.

Terry Laughlin, famous for his Total Immersion swim camps, has what he calls his "Rule of 70." His principle being that 70 percent of swimming performance comes from swimming technique and skill; the ability to efficiently propel through water. The remainder (I assume) is fitness. It is important to recognize that there are two distinct facets of swimming performance: Fitness and skill.

I think of the skills of swimming as perishable, in that they tend to fade away without practice. In many ways, it is like learning to ride a bicycle or landing a plane on an aircraft carrierŠOnce you learn how to do it, you do not forget, but you do not perform either task well if you have not practiced for a while. We can only practice swimming skills in the water. However, remember that skill is only a part of swimming well. Improving fitness can be done both in and out of the water.

According to coach Ernest Maglischo in his book Swimming Even Faster (pg. 69-71), he states that "The major adaptations [in swim training] ... take place in the muscular system. Adaptations in the respiratory and circulatory systems, while probably contributing to improvements in performance, are not as important as those that are produced in the muscles." Here he explains that there are Central training effects which improve the cardiovascular system through various forms of exercise, and Peripheral training effects improving only the specific muscle fibers exercised.

Exercises away from the pool can help our swimming, particularly if they provide the peripheral training effects. That is, they must work, or specifically train, the same muscles used in swimming. Other exercises that do not provide peripheral training effects (e.g. running) provide central effects that help to improve general conditioning. College swimming teams routinely advocate general conditioning workouts in the pre-season and early season in order to get the body in shape before the long swimming workouts begin in earnest.

There are four different types of dry-land activities that can help your swimming: Stretching, Abdominal Exercises, Weight Training, and General Exercises.

Stretching is an activity that can be done practically anytime. Your ability to convert your mechanical energy into propulsion in the water depends in part on your flexibility, and thus your ability to move water faster and in the proper direction. Proper stretching also helps to keep your muscles warm and limber, reducing the chances for injury. Many books on swimming have chapters on proper stretching techniques (it can be dangerous if overdone). This is one task that I have found easy to do while on the carrier.

I particularly note Abdominal Exercises apart from resistance/weight training in general for two reasons. One reason is that the "abs" are a key aspect of swimming, being the source of power for proper body rotation, propulsion through the legs, and turning. The other is that no special apparatus or machine is required to do these exercises. I recommend performing exercises that are "spine-safe" in that they do not place undue stress on the spine and lower back. Instead of full sit-ups, use crunching movements instead. A company called Health for Life publishes a small manual called Legendary Abs II that I recommend because I have seen college programs like Stanford University pick up on the same exercises. I too have no problem doing these exercises aboard ship.

Many advocates of Weight Training advocate "circuit training" among various exercise stations. They also recommend specifically targeting the muscles like shoulders, back and arms for the peripheral training effects. Jane Moore, in her April president's letter to the WetSet, also advocated resistance training to combat the effects of aging. Again, many swimming books have sections on weight training, although not all agree on the specific exercises that should be employed. Maglischo, for example (p. 644), recommends against push-ups, military presses and dips because of the strain these exercises exert within the shoulder. If you can find a good fitness club or gym with a weight training room, there is usually a certified trainer there who can advise you on starting a beneficial program. Also, it is a good idea to lift after swimming if you choose to do both on the same day. I am fortunate enough to have two small weight rooms aboard my carrier, but rarely use them because I must share the facilities with 5000 other sailors. When I do get into the gyms, I use the machines for triceps presses, lat pulldowns, chest presses and leg curls.

There are a number of other exercises that I do aboard ship which should help my swimming to some degree. I have a pair of stretch cords that I use for resistance training either with swimming stroke movements or with pressing/pulling movements. Jogging on the flight deck or riding stationary bikes help with cardiovascular fitness and leg strength. Other fitness exercises often mentioned for improving swimming include the use of swim benches and medicine balls. Also mentioned are plyometric exercises utilizing powerful jumping movements.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you become a better swimmer as well as a more rounded athlete. Personally, I can't wait to get home and find out for myself if they work (My coach already wrote me to say that she'll be having 3000 meter workouts with 3x400IM descending at 5:00 A.M. when I return).
 back to top

Dan Frost is past vice-president of the Masters Aquatics Coaching Association.
Taken from Masters Aquatic Coaches Association, and reprinted from the Wet Set, July 1996.