Jan 29, 2015
From The Top Down

Unlike working with land-based athletes, training water polo players means starting at the shoulders instead of the legs.

By Dr. Brandon Marcello Brandon Marcello, PhD, NASM-PES, NASM-CES, CSCS, USAW, is Director of Sports Performance at Stanford University. He oversees the athletic performance enhancement programs for Stanford’s 35 varsity teams, and also works to develop sport-specific strength and conditioning, rehabilitation, nutrition, and recovery programs for the softball and women’s water polo programs. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Most of the time, sports performance coaches are charged with training land-based athletes. The tried and true philosophy of addressing things from the bottom up works wonderfully since land-based athletes require powerful lower bodies.

But when it comes to training water polo players, this method isn’t applicable. Sport requirements dictate the athletes throw, catch, and play defense–all the while staying afloat in the water. These athletes don’t have the luxury of being able to push off the bottom of the pool for power. So instead, we must take the opposite approach and train these athletes from the top down.

While the following is a glimpse into our performance training techniques for Stanford water polo athletes, it is important to note that there are thousands of ways to train–many of them very effective. Ours is just one way of doing it, but it’s a method that has helped our women’s team never miss the NCAA Division I Tournament.

No matter the type of athlete a coach is training, development of their regimen should be based on program-wide training methodologies and goals. In the case of Stanford Sports Performance, our methodology revolves around training movements, and we have three overall goals that are followed in a very particular order: Decrease the potential for injury, improve performance, and educate our athletes about why we train the way we do.


Water polo combines two activities that tend to have high injury rates: swimming and overhead throwing. As a result, our players are at increased risk for upper extremity injuries, making our first training goal a major challenge.

Since water polo athletes recruit the shoulders for just about everything they do in the pool, including swimming, throwing, catching, and defending, the shoulders tend to be one of the more problematic areas for them. Many strength coaches give most of their attention to the shooting or passing shoulder, but addressing the sculling shoulder is equally important. Although the sculling shoulder isn’t performing much overhead throwing work, it acts as a stabilizer and constantly assists in keeping the athlete afloat and elevating them out of the water.

In the weightroom, our athletes perform the traditional battery of exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff and surrounding musculature. However, it is important to also implement exercises that ensure soft tissue quality and proper inhibition and activation of that musculature to prevent the development or further development of dysfunction.

Thoracic mobility is an issue that needs to be addressed in almost all athletes, but I believe a big emphasis should be placed on thoracic mobility when working with aquatic athletes especially. Many of them have hypomobile thoracic spines as a result of the repetitive swim strokes and altered breathing patterns utilized while swimming.

If the thoracic spine is able to achieve its correct range of movement, the body has more lumbar and scapular stability. But if the thoracic spine is not able to move freely, the body will compensate elsewhere–usually finding that lost movement in the low back and scapula-thoracic regions. In some cases, the glenohumeral joint can be impacted and contribute to a rotator cuff or labral injury. Soft tissue work is one way we combat this problem.

I also see a lot of movement deficiencies in water polo athletes. Players are suspended in water and there are no hard surfaces to act as a force generators or stabilizers, so deficiencies are not surprising. And these subtle problems can be hard to spot. Even when a deficiency is present, an athlete’s body inherently still finds a way to perform the movement. However, problems arise when the deficient movement is repeated over and over. Left uncorrected, it will create further dysfunction in the body and increase the likelihood that the athlete will sustain an injury.

To find these deficiencies, we analyze our water polo athletes using Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen. But we are looking for different types of deficiencies than we see in our land-based athletes.

Compensatory patterns are some of the most common deficiencies we find in water polo players. Due to the high volume of swimming these athletes do for conditioning, the most common compensatory pattern is front-to-back with an overdeveloped anterior musculature. To fight this imbalance, the team’s training program is augmented with a number of pulling variations, which work the posterior portion of the body, to “even things out.” Our athletes generally train at a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing.

One of the more obscure imbalances seen in water polo athletes is between their left and right sides. This happens not as a result of the shooting and passing occurring on one side, but rather as a result of the athlete breathing only on one side as they swim instead of both. Single-sided breathing can contribute to a myriad of compensatory problems, such as increased risk for shoulder injuries and too much stiffness in the thoracic spine. Using one side of the body more than the other increases the development of that side.

Think of what happens if you are always throwing with your right hand. The same principle holds true for swimmers who breathe on just one side. This can lead to an overdevelopment of the musculature on one side of the body and an underdevelopment on the other side, which can in turn lead to impaired anatomical function and muscle activation through the entire trunk and sometimes even the shoulder. Focusing on breathing work such as proper diaphragmatic breathing is recommended to help offset this imbalance.


Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” From a programming standpoint, I couldn’t agree more. I consider the pre-workout routine the most important part of our workouts.

Ours is designed to prepare the athlete by creating an anatomical and physiological environment conducive to accepting the training that is about to take place. The pre-workout program is divided into four segments: tissue preparation, pillar preparation, mobility, and synchronization.

Tissue preparation includes both an activation and lengthening component. During tissue prep for activation, we employ self-myofascial release techniques like using the foam roller, massage stick, or posture ball. Athletes not only spend time working to improve the quality of their tissue, but also applying pressure to overactive areas such as the pec minor and hip flexors. The goal is to inhibit the muscle slightly before moving on to the lengthening phase.

Increasing the length of the soft tissue is important as the overactive areas generally live in a shortened state and will remain in this position unless forced to do otherwise. To lengthen tissue, we use either traditional static stretching or active isolated stretching (AIS). Breathing is a vital part to the success of AIS methods because we base our static stretches on cycles of breathing rather than number of seconds an athlete holds the stretch.

The pillar prep phase could be termed activation because the focus is to “turn on” the areas that are often under-active as a result of their over-active counterparts. For example, we might employ gluteal-firing exercises because water polo players often have over-active hip flexors. This phase also contains exercises to activate the trunk or pillar to ensure proper firing during the workout.

Mobility exercises increase joint motion. It should be noted that these exercises pertain only to joints that are lacking the movement they should otherwise have. Two of the main regions we focus on are the hips and thoracic spine.

One of the great things about mobility exercises is that improving mobility in a restricted joint, such as the hip or thoracic spine, will decrease mobility in typically hypermobile adjacent joints. For example, improving hip mobility should result in less joint movement in the knee and lumbar spine. And improving thoracic spine mobility should result in decreased movement in the lumbar and scapula-thoracic joints.

Synchronization ties everything together. During this phase, the entire body is recruited so that proper movement and timing takes place. Synchronization exercises include rolling patterns and medicine ball work when appropriate.

Now that the body is prepared to accept training at a higher level, our athletes move toward more traditional weightroom exercises and movements. In general, our program has components of explosive power, lower body strength, upper body strength, core strength, and prehab work.

The team trains in the weightroom three times a week for eight weeks during the developmental season. Each daily program consists of six or seven exercises divided into three series. And with the exception of explosive, high neural work, exercises are paired together or part of a superset to make a series.

The first four weeks of the program are designed to build a foundation. I operate under the assumption that every athlete has a training age of zero the first time they walk in the weightroom since they haven’t yet trained in our system here at Stanford. This is something I learned from my longtime colleague and friend Joe Kenn, who was recently hired by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

The first series (A) focuses on lower body strength. Early on in the program, athletes perform a squat variation all three days, and a single-leg variation two of the three days. Later, the hamstrings are emphasized with several deadlift variations.

The second series (B) includes upper-body variations with a unilateral pulling emphasis. Variations of a push-pull exercise on the Keiser functional trainer, as well as single-arm stability lat pull downs, provide a lot of “bang for your buck” as they promote upper body strength and core and shoulder stabilization.

The third series (C) emphasizes core strength and stabilization. The exercises in this series are comprised of a lift or chop variation as well as Pallof anti-rotational presses. While the arms are performing the movement, the main emphasis is on the trunk and scapular areas, so I look for aligned posture and very little movement in those areas.

The lift and chop variations follow a very particular progression in difficulty and are not performed under a time constraint. Once an athlete is able to perform the variation with correct and sustainable movement, they are moved on to the next progression.

In the second four-week phase, we introduce the trap-bar dead lift (TBDL) and sled pushing into the program. Because grip is such an important component of playing water polo, the TBDL and its paired partner, the Romanian deadlift, allow for simultaneous development of lower-body musculature and grip strength. I do allow my athletes to use straps, but only for one of the exercises at a time, alternating which exercise they use straps for each week.

We use the sleds for what I call movement facilitated strength. This means that a particular movement (in this case pushing a sled) allows for the facilitation of strength. Heavy sled pushing relies on leg strength and trunk and shoulder stabilization–all of which are extremely important for an aquatic athlete.

For explosive power, which we concentrate on in the second phase, I use the Vertimax with underclassmen. If an athlete is able to safely progress to an Olympic lifting variation when they are a junior or senior, they may do so only at that time.

Through the entire eight weeks of our developmental training program, I also keep an “Individual Prescription” (I-Rx) for each athlete. This is how our program can be individualized for each player.

An athlete’s I-Rx can be used for a multitude of purposes, including concentrating on a particular area that has proven problematic for a certain athlete, like tight external rotators. Or perhaps another player might need an I-Rx for extra rehab with the sports medicine staff for an injury or preexisting condition. In this instance, the I-Rx portion of the workout can assist in expediting the athlete’s return to play.

Today’s athletes are much more inquisitive then those of the past. It is not often that you find athletes who ask, “How high?” when you say “Jump.” Instead, they ask, “Why?” I’ve found the best method for athlete buy-in is to take the time to explain to them what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it is going to make them a better athlete. If you can explain to the athlete your methodology and the process you are taking them through in a way they can understand, they are more likely to comply and achieve better results. Though their work in the weightroom is vital, what athletes do after they leave is important, too.

To learn more about Stanford’s athlete self-care program, look for “On Their Own” in the blog section of our Web site.

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: