This is continuing from How To ‘Lift Weights’ In The Water – Part 1…
The Primary Form Of Strength
At this point in the essay, the main lesson for everyone is that stroke length is the foundation to speed and the better you are at achieving a suitable stroke length and preventing its decrease under fatigue, the truly stronger you are as a swimmer. Being strong enough to reach and sustain your optimal stroke length is the first and primary form of strength you would be wise to develop.
I devote a lot of blog space to discussing the skill side of stroke length and any regular student of our program will know that skill-building and continual improvement on this is necessary. But let’s get to the part about ‘lifting weights’ in the water to get stronger.
Stroke Length = A Single Lift
If you are lifting weights in the gym (under the guidance of an exacting trainer), a good lift only counts when you take the full weight, through the full range of motion, with best form = you have completed the lift. Your best equivalent to this in water is to move your body mass forward the same full stroke length, with best streamline form.
In the gym, the weight is fixed, and some part of the body is fixed in its position, so it is easy to tell when you’ve successfully moved that full weight through the full range of motion, and if there is a mirror or trainer watching, to make sure you do it with good form. In the water, the whole body is moving, so it is hard to tell if you’ve moved your whole body the full distance on an individual stroke, and difficult to tell if you did it with best form. So, instead of measuring a single stroke, you measure by counting the total number of strokes it takes to reach the other wall (assuming a strictly consistent push-off and glide distance). Your technically best-stroke should carry you a certain distance, then you count how many of those best-strokes it takes to get you to the other wall.
As you swim along and reach the other wall and notice your stroke count was below your best, it might be difficult to recall which individual stroke was substandard. But then again, once you start training this way, you’ll likely become much more sensitive to irregularities in each stroke, and you’ll sense that you made a mistake even before you get to the wall and verify it by your stroke count.
Another trick is to by knowing (from stroke counting experience) where your stroke count should be at different points along the length, you can get some indication that your stroke length is on target, better, or worse, as you reach each of those known points. The count at that point alerts you if things are going especially well or something is failing. It gives you some form of feedback on your stroke length performance while you are in the act of swimming, as opposed to swim watches which report data only after you’ve finished swimming. When you get to a known marker in the pool (like a vent or marker you’ve placed on the bottom), you’ve been counting strokes and know what your number should be at by that point, quickly assess what just happened so you can either protect what was working well or correct what was not in the strokes ahead.
Recall that strength is your ability to move your body mass forward a certain distance on each stroke.
So, becoming strong in the pool is about being able to move your body mass forward a certain distance on every stroke, for hundreds or thousands of consecutive strokes. If you quickly lose stroke length and no longer move through the full range of motion on the stroke, then you are not sufficiently skilled and strong. You now know exactly what you need to work on.
Choosing Stroke Count Like Choosing Weight
Here is a way to work on strength through stroke length training.
In the gym, you might choose a 40 kg weight and be able to lift it just 3 times before your muscles fatigue, you risk failure, and need a rest. You might choose a 25 kg weight and be able to lift it 15 times before the muscles need a rest. You might choose a 15 kg weight to lift 25 times before the muscles need a rest. The higher the weight, the fewer the repetitions you can handle before acute fatigue.
Let’s say your body dimensions, level of skill and strength allow you a range of stroke counts (in a 25 m pool) between 16 and 21 strokes per length (SPL) (and you can think of yourself When Choosing Your Optimal Stroke Count).
In the water, you might choose to hold 16 strokes per length (in a 25 m pool) for just 2 lengths (50). If you can hold 16 for the first length and then feel it getting really challenging to hold that for the second length, then you’ve probably chosen a good stroke count challenge for that repeat distance (2x 25 m = 50 m). If over a series of practices you do a series of these 50s with this stroke count requirement, you are going to provoke strength increase.
Perhaps you choose to hold 17 strokes per length for 8 lengths. It would be too easy to hold this for just 50. So you use this to challenge yourself on 200. In the exact same way, if you can hold 17 for the first 6 lengths and then feel it getting really challenging about 75% of the way through, then again, you’ve probably chosen a good strength building stroke count for this distance.
In the exact same way, you could choose to hold 18 strokes per length for everything length of a 1000 m swim. If you can hold that stroke count for about 75% of the way before it gets really challenging, then you’ve probably chosen a good strength-building stroke count.
Failure In Form Is The Primary Indicator
What provokes the increase in skilled strength is your determination to do whatever it takes to keep the assigned stroke count to the end, except for distorting your form to get there because failure in form is the primary indicator of your current skill+strength limit. A rise in stroke count points out that failure has occurred. When you are given notice by the count that failure is creeping in, double your attention on certain parts of your length-affecting skills and/or double your attention on giving best muscular effort in those final strokes. You may allow yourself ‘three strikes’ or three failures in requisite form, resulting in an unacceptable rise in stroke count, before you call it quits for the set. Then you can assess whether that failure was more due to a loss of strength or a loss of precision.
The longer the stroke length, the more challenging it is for your skill and strength to maintain it for consecutive strokes. The stroke length is a comparable way you can measure the ‘weight’ or ‘resistance’ that your body faces in the water. Choose the amount of resistance by choosing the stroke length that is an appropriate challenge over the number of strokes you plan to take per repeat.
The kind of fatigue and failure you experience in short distances (less than 2 minutes) like on 100s, 50s and 25s, will be of a different blend than the kind of fatigue and failure you may experience on longer repeats lasting more than 2 minutes, like on 200s and especially beyond that. Just as in lifting weights of different amount and number of repetitions provokes different kinds of strength, choosing different stroke counts and repeat distances builds different dimensions of the strength you need as a swimmer, depending on your particular event.
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash
Lifting Weights In Water For Power
And now let’s talk about lifting weights in water to get more powerful.
Recall that strength is your ability to move your body mass forward a certain distance on each stroke, within a fixed time frame.
This means you must do the same kind of assignment as you did in the strength building sets, but you must now add a time component to it. The most effective way is to use a Tempo Trainer and require yourself to maintain both stroke count and execute each stroke with the chosen tempo interval. This puts a greater load on both the muscles and the neural system.
For that series of 50s with a stroke count of 16, you may add a tempo constraint that you can hold for about 75% of the distance before you start to feel the threat of failure. Note: I must point out that this is not, by any means, meant to be a ‘sprint’ because in a sprint you would be using a shorter stroke length (on the shorter end of your stroke length range) combined with a faster tempo (on the faster end of your tempo range). This is the opposite – a longer stroke combined with a tempo that might likely be slower than your cruising tempo.
And choose an appropriate tempo likewise, for the 200s with a stroke count of 17, and for the 1000 with a stroke count of 18. You are burning the desired pattern into your nervous system in the first 75% of the swim, and the first half of that entire set. Then in the last 25% of the repeat, you are having to dig deep to resist failure to the end. This extreme, skill-focused effort is what infuses power into your swimming form, rather than wreck it. The work you do in this last 25% is what provokes your brain to speed up and increase precision of the neural circuitry around your form, to recruit more available muscle fibers to help out, and to increase the size of all those muscle fibers.
In other words, the quality of the work you do in that fatigue-state is a great part of what determines whether you become an efficiently-faster swimmer or just a tired one through this process. As I hope you can see, just lifting weights in the gym, or swimming more laps with a high heart rate is not going to do much of this for you.
A Final Caution
Just as you need to be wary of abrupt injury when lifting weights near your maximum, you need to be careful doing repeats with stroke length near your maximum. When you are doing work that requires most of your maximum strength there will be a lot more stress on the joints, and when you add a time constraint that will increase the stress further. Maximum stroke length assignments need to require your absolute best technique to protect your joints.
Those who are less practiced at this need to be cautious because you are, likely, not so strong in your joints and thereby more vulnerable to these stresses. Those who are more practiced at this need to be cautious because you are, likely, stronger and a little mistake in form combined with a greater force can more easily produce injury. Whether in the gym or in the pool, when channeling greater forces through your joints than they are used to, you need to be careful and gradually build up the ‘weight’ or stroke length challenge.
Because of this I would prescribe this kind of power work only after I’ve worked with a swimmer through some months of technique training, then some months of strength training around those skills – as I have described in Time To Expand Your Capabilities – Part 2.
More Resources On Stroke Length And Counting
- Optimal Stroke Count Charts
- When Choosing Your Optimal Stroke Count
- Can You Trick Yourself Into Longer Strokes?
- Small Steps Toward A Longer Stroke
- Being Streamlined Is Not Enough
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you know, sometimes some questions are popping up, when reading your GREAT blog:
– What are your suggestions to a student when negligence creeps in? For most of us first impulse will be: more power, my muscles start to get get tired. But it seems to me a hen and egg problem, because tired muscels lead to avoid our best streamlined bodyline and optimal application of power. How to differentiate that? Or is the intention we started the set already the decider until the end?
– In the gym we are working with very sophisticated machines, in best case. They should guarantee that the stressed muscles are working with constant load the whole way moved. Do you think its at least approximately possible to integrate this requirement into our stroke-moves, or would that become far away from the optimal path, grip and push? (Because IF we have a nearly optimal movement the only variable for constant load is different velocity along the moving path.)
Hi Werner, good questions.
1) Strength and control are intertwined, and you can’t develop one very far without having to develop the other. But it is very likely that, for sub-elite athletes, almost all failures in speed come from a drop in control before there is an actually complete loss of strength to back it up. I have experienced this phenomenon in rock climbing. There is a strong mental urge to give up well before the muscles are truly depleted, though the climber thinks it is his muscle, not his will.
But the great thing about this puzzle, when setting up a ‘make your stroke count no matter what!’ situation, is that the brain also has a very strong urge to conserve energy and find an easier way to get the work done. One one hand the swimmer let’s go of attention because their attention is tired, and so the form quality drops. On the other hand, when the form quality drops it gets much harder to hold stroke length and the work per stroke goes up, so, if this swimmer is disciplined (or being held accountable by the coach) to not give up, there is a strong urge in the brain to make that work easier, so reviving the attention and putting effort into restoring good form which will lower the amount of work per stroke. The set is designed to put the swimmer between those two urges – to give up attention because it gets tired and to find a way to make the work easier. We hope the swimmer will discover, through self-discipline, that holding attention to hold speed when fatigued is less costly than trying to hold speed with lost attention and degraded form.
2) In the gym, on such equipment, the muscles are working in a situation that is quite unlike what you deal with while swimming. It is useful to work on strength in the gym, and we can work on general strength there, but the way the body interacts with forces in swimming is incredibly different and unique. The choreography from ‘set the catch’ through the pull, to the finish has the body tapping or shifting into different muscle arrangements through that movement. That choreography is intimately influenced by the horizontal, weightless yet rotating mass of the body – something that absolutely cannot be imitated on land, vertical, under gravity. The resistance or loading on the muscles is changing because the shape and form of the swimmer is changing while moving through the motion. There is acceleration and deceleration along that time span which changes the resistance, which changes the loading. The nature of resistance of water is more like pulling on pudding or mud than pulling against a metal handle. The whole way the nervous system interacts with the differential resistance of water is different than when touching a hard, solid object with a small contact surface. The complexity, the intricacy, the uniqueness of the situation of the swimming stroke compels me to work on its ‘specific strength’ in the exact situation where it must become strong – in the act of swimming itself.