Recently a swimmer friend emailed me the link to this article and asked my perspective on it. Since it comes through an authoritative source (US Masters Swimming) it carries some weight in the minds of swimmers.
The article is ” Strength and Size: Getting stronger doesn’t have to mean getting bigger”
It sounded like a benign topic, but the author added a bit more on ‘neurological benefits’ that I had some reservations about. You can read the article if it interests you, then read my response to it below…
It is an interesting take on the topic. I was actually surprised to hear him point out the neurological benefit to weight work – but I felt what he said was a bit misleading. I can only debate it from my non-medical-professional understanding. So, let me apply my reasoning and leave it open to debate or correction.
First of all, as a rock climber (who currently spends his time in the water, not on the rock) it is easy to observe among rock climbers that strength doesn’t need to translate into bulk – climber bodies tend to have a high strength-to-weight ratio. This may be partly a ‘natural selection’ process because bulky people will likely not go far in rock climbing, and partly because the very nature of the activity builds sinewy, flexible strength. I would bet elite rock climbers could win more pull-up competitions than elite swimmers could.
And, of course, there are a variety of weight-training approaches which affect muscle development differently. Some are bulk-inducing, some are not. Some approaches create the type of muscle cells needed for swimming and some do not.
I would tend to be cautious about weight-training that does not mimic the range of motion and conditions those muscles and joints will be functioning in while swimming. Strength that actually converts into swimming speed and endurance is not directly about getting more muscles to fire – it is about getting the right muscle groups to fire together, in the right sequence and right timing, with just the right amount of force. Swimming strength has to develop in union with movement precision. All movement is training the brain, yes, but what the author of that article did not point out is that the brain is memorizing and strengthening the specific motor control circuits for a ‘push-up’ or a ‘pull-up’ or ‘bicep curl’ not the motor-control circuits needed for the unique assembly and choreography of the swimming stroke (or a particular part of the stroke cycle). Swimming effort is done against an unusual medium (water) that is explicitly unlike any materials used and forces resisted in dry-land weight training (gravity, elastic bands, friction resistance, solid surfaces, etc). Building muscle cells can be generic to a degree, but training better neuro-motor control must be extremely specific.
Consider elite musicians: we don’t find pianists and guitar players lifting finger weights to improve agility though they are required to play a flawless concert with heroic endurance – they train for complete motor-control and the necessary strength follows as a product of the intensity of their technique training. (With a TI friend I recently watched the DVD of the Pink Floyd concert in Earls Court 1994. Wow. They played over two hours per night, 14 days in a row with one day off! Now that is precision with endurance.)
And this is what I do – no weight training – I just increase the intensity (the complexity) of my technique training in the water which brings muscle development along by necessity. With neuro-muscular metrics (what I call Complexity Multipliers) technique training can be made more neurologically and physically demanding to an infinite degree.
Basic Lesson: weight training needs to mimic the activity of swimming as much as possible in order to translate into a supplemental benefit. Keep in mind that it is easy to find muscular people, even regular swimmers, who cannot translate that power into fast or easy swimming.
That doesn’t necessarily conflict with what he said in the article, but I put emphasis on the unique neuro-muscular considerations for swimmers.
My concern is that people try to solve their swimming problems with power before they have solved it as far as possible with technique. Strength is the amount of power available, technique is the ability to apply that power in the precise place, at the precise moment, and in the precise amount. So, my general approach, and that of TI (in my perspective) is that we first help the swimmer maximize the use of the power they already have available, before deliberately increasing the power supply.
To use an analogy: if I am counseling someone who has a money-management problem – let’s say they are deep in personal debt – the first step is not to help them acquire more money so they can carry on with their debt lifestyle. We know that a person who mis-manages a small amount of money will simply mis-manage a large amount of money too. No, I must first help this person remove the habits that waste money and replace it with good habits. They must learn to live carefully within their financial means and be responsible with every penny. And once that habit of economy is in place, then I can guide them to acquiring more money and use it wisely, while preventing future debt problems when the stakes are even higher.
The thing to keep in mind about being wasteful with energy in an athletic activity is that energy-wasteful movements are often also injurious or destructive movements, even if that injury does not emerge until later. So, dealing with wastefulness in a swimmer (which is completely a technique issue) is not just a preference, it is an ethical imperative from my coaching perspective. Giving an energy-wasteful swimmer more strength is basically increasing that swimmer’s risk of injury. It is exactly what was done to me by my coach when I was 15 years old and forced me out of swimming for three years (or else get surgery). It is ignoring the bad habits and magnifying the consequences of the problem, not making them go away. It was only after I found Total Immersion that I learned how to recognize then solve my wasteful/injurious movement patterns.
More strength does not necessarily make a swimmer faster – only technique makes a person faster. A swimmer’s strength is completely dependent on his technique to be delivered effectively and without causing injury.
So, #1 – yes, swimming-appropriate dry-land weight training could be beneficial to a citizen (master) swimmer, but I think it needs to be done with a great more understanding than is often given to it, even by those who have a successful competitive swimming background. The older we get the less forgiving our bodies will be for sloppy mechanics.
And #2 – no, it is very hard to get the swimming-specific neuro-motor benefit from weight training because it is not imitating the actual choreography of swimming movements under conditions that are completely unique to movement in water. Muscle cells are ‘dumb’ – they just turn on/off and get more numerous, while brain training is about learning how to control energy distribution and muscle firing in a way that is specific to what is required for moving forward (easily) in water.
It is likely that those who already have impeccable swimming-specific motor-control will receive benefit from weight training proportional to the amount of effort they put into it. The others may end up able to apply more power with poor mechanics thus setting up higher risk for injury.
Brain training in Total Immersion practice is more than just teaching muscles to fire with precision – it is foremost concerned with teaching the body to find the path of least resistance forward before trying to applying more power to go faster on that path. There is no point taking the harder way forward through the water if the swimmer doesn’t have to. It’s also simply more dangerous to take a harder path forward. So, even before training muscles to generate more power, we are training the body to detect and stay within that path of least resistance, then fire muscles with precision within that critical zone.
Needless to say, weight training does nothing to help a swimmer find that path of least resistance forward.
Learn to swim smarter before you try to swim harder.
So I don’t mean to pick a bone with this professional who likely brings a lot of benefit to his athletes, including weight training guidance. It’s just that this article does not tell you enough to get you going successfully or safely. I just want those of you who regard my coaching advice to exert a great deal more care in choosing your weight training approach than reading a few blog posts about it.
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I am a Level 2 Triathlon Coach and also a British Weight Lifting Level 3 coach and have some observations. Training with weights should make you stronger, you become a better swimmer by practising the efficient skills of swimming and applying them to your stroke. I prescribe weight training programmes for athletes in many different sports and the core of these programmes does not alter that much. Differences, especially for masters athletes, will depend upon age, injury, mobility and other factors. All things being equal a stronger athlete should be healthier and more functionally fit than a weaker one, but a skilful swimmer will outswim a stronger, less skilled athlete.
As we age, after 35 or so, maintaining lean muscle mass and mobility become very important and should take priority in our training. Remember we are not swimmers, but athletes who swim. We will spend more time swimming than other sports but our main aim should be the preservation of function and fitness which will enable us to be active, healthy humans who swim well.
Awesome article! I’ve been an on and off competitive swimmer(although you can never really stop) and took to weight training in my spare time. This article really helped!
Thank Alex for letting me know it is an encouragement. I know the article doesn’t show what beneficial weight work we should actually do (there is a lot of room for debate on that!), but hopefully it guides us into making wiser choices when we look at the options available.