Jan 29, 2015
Making Waves

By going against the current of traditional thinking, this author has developed a unique and effective strength and conditioning regimen for the Auburn University men’s and women’s swimming teams.

By Bryan Karkoska

Bryan “PK” Karkoska, MEd, CSCS, SCCC, is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of Olympic Sports at Auburn University, where he has worked with the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams for the past 19 years. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When I first started training the swimmers at Auburn University in 1994, I felt like I was working with fish out of water. As powerful and skilled as they are in the water, swimmers are generally less adroit out of it. While there certainly are exceptions, these aquatic athletes are not always comfortable with the exercises common to today’s strength and conditioning regimens–especially when compared to other college athletes.

I also felt like a fish out of water myself as I had little knowledge of or experience with the sport. But I was young and full of enthusiasm for training anyone who was willing to give me a chance.

At that time, David Marsh was Head Coach of the men’s and women’s teams, and no one had ever been assigned to handle strength and conditioning for his athletes before. Working with Coach Marsh, I developed a training approach that can be summed up by the well-known acronym: K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I train swimmers the same way I train other athletes, using basic bodyweight exercises and Olympic lifts to develop strength while adding sport-specific exercises where appropriate.

But keeping it simple does not mean making it easy. We challenge our athletes inside and outside the weightroom to develop both their own individual strength and team bonds. We have even created special training circuits to drive home the importance of team in a sport that focuses on individual performance.

Our goal is to maximize results when our athletes toe the starting blocks in championship meets at the end of the year, and the results speak for themselves. Auburn’s 13 total NCAA Division I team championships–eight for the men and five for the women–is the third best in NCAA history, and all have come since 1997.


My philosophy for training swimmers developed out of the work I was already doing with the other sports I worked with at the time, mostly basketball, volleyball, tennis, cross country, and gymnastics. My ignorance of swimming actually served me well when I began working with the team. Coach Marsh was not a big fan of the traditional swimming training methods of voluminous pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and medicine ball activities. Instead, he had a vision that if I could make them better athletes, he would make them better swimmers.

We began with fundamental movements centered on the Olympic lifts–cleans, snatches, and jerks. We also included basic strength movements that complimented these exercises, such as squats and pulls, basic bodyweight movements, and plyometrics. This approach helped develop athletic ability and body awareness in swimmers who lacked athleticism, which usually translated into more productive water training.

From there, we followed a standard linear progression model–as the athletes became proficient in a movement or gained strength, they graduated to the next exercise in the series. This sequence followed my basic understanding of the collegiate season’s progression. However, once the swimmers began their championship tapers, I let the coaches call the training shots, as I do to this day.

The more time I spent around swimmers, the more I appreciated their work ethic. I watched a lot of practices, asked a lot of questions, and even attempted to learn some of the strokes. This helped me to create some stroke-specific exercises that I use today as part of our supplemental work.

These starting points formed the core of our training regimens. I have certainly made some adjustments through the years based both on my increased knowledge of the sport and input from the team’s coaches, including current Head Coach Brett Hawke. But the underlying structure is the same now as it was when I first began nearly 20 years ago.


Our training calendar runs from the start of classes in August until the end of the competitive season in March and is composed of seven blocks lasting four to six weeks each. The first three blocks comprise our training phase and focus on work capacity (Block 1), strength (Block 2), and power (Block 3). The second and third blocks overlap with the early part of the team’s competitive schedule, which typically begins in mid-October. During this time, we do not reduce intensity in the weightroom for these competitions, but there may be a drop in total volume and frequency due to travel and meet days.

Our competition phase starts in December with Block 4, which consists of individualized work around the end of the fall semester and finals followed by limited strength work during the team’s annual Christmas training trip. After the swimmers return to campus, we focus on power and stroke-specific work (Block 5) followed by separate taper blocks for the Southeastern Conference championships (Block 6) and NCAA championships (Block 7). During the competition phase, we taper athletes’ work individually based on the instruction of the swimming coaching staff.

Block 1–Work Capacity: We employ a mix of training modalities in this block, including strength training in the weightroom and speed, agility, and conditioning work outside it–which is known in the swimming world as dryland training. The highlight of our dryland training is our circuits.

These circuit sessions are not about developing strength or endurance, they are about building a team. Despite the logistical challenges of accommodating 80 or more athletes at once, the whole team–both men and women–perform circuit sessions at the same time.

We regularly divide the team into smaller groups for competitive circuit sessions where they have to work together to succeed. We deliberately avoid using our usual groupings by event. This way, a male sprinter, for example, gets to see how hard a female distance swimmer is working, as they may rarely see each other while training in the pool.

During these circuits, we use every type of activity in our training toolbox, including bodyweight exercises, weight and cardio machines, med balls, barbells, dumbbells, and more. The exercise lineup varies from year to year depending on the makeup of the team and the specific goals of the coaching staff.

The activities are intended to create duress and push our swimmers to test their limits. Failure is accepted because if the athletes don’t learn to push beyond their preconceived limits, we will have problems getting them to achieve their full potential.

We also get to see how the athletes handle failure, both in themselves and others. It’s important to know who will respond by trying harder and who will shirk from the challenge. We want to find out who will rally behind a struggling teammate and who will leave them on their own.

In an attempt to push our athletes out of their usual routines and into uncomfortable, challenging situations, the structure of these circuit sessions differs from the standard arrangement of sets and reps with prescribed work-to-rest ratios. Throughout the years, we have employed a myriad of methods, such as no-clock circuits, multiple-set circuits, no communication sets, reverse-order sets, and memorization sets.

Another unique aspect of these circuit sessions is that many carry a special theme to set a different atmosphere. For example, we sometimes use an intrinsic theme, where the athletes are expected to motivate themselves. The strength coaches will only communicate with the athletes as needed for safety and even wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact with them. One year, we used a Tour de France theme, where swimmers competed for our own versions of yellow and green jerseys and other awards. Never before or since have I seen athletes compete so hard for a 50-cent T-shirt. Other common sources for themes include video games, television shows, and movies.

From the outside, these themed circuits may seem hokey, but I believe our athletes buy into them because they understand the purpose behind them. They are willing to put the work in and embrace an otherwise silly idea because they know it will help them get better in the pool, just as it has for the athletes who have gone before them.

In addition to dryland circuits, our team lifts twice a week during the first block. Although the whole team works out at the same time, we do split the athletes into groups. We have all of our newcomers, both incoming freshmen and transfer students, lift as one group so they learn how we train and compete. This also gives us an opportunity to teach them proper lifting techniques before advancing them to higher loads.

Block 2–Strength: This block builds on the work capacity gains established in the first block. We eliminate our high-intensity dryland work, including our circuits, and limit strength-training activities outside the weightroom so we can focus on building strength in it.

Another change in Block 2 is the frequency of lifts for certain groups. At this time, we establish group assignments based on each swimmer’s event distance. Our sprinters do two days of major movements and one day of bodyweight training using suspension modalities. We used to have sprinters lift weights four days a week before going to three days a few years ago to accommodate the type of training the swimming coaching staff does with these swimmers in the water. Last season, we reduced it even further to two lifting days.

Our distance swimmers train three times a week during Block 2, with one day of lifting, a second day of dryland training, and a third day of competitive dryland training and med ball exercises. This routine balances the need to maximize strength training gains without compromising their water training, which is based more on endurance than strength.

Workouts in Block 2 are designed around a constant reinforcement of the Olympic movements progressions. During this time, we start including endurance sets of back squats into the squat routine for the day.

We also add plyometric movements into dryland workouts, such as box jumps, squat jumps, and bounds, both non-loaded and weighted. Additionally, we use several types of horizontal and vertical medicine ball throws.

Block 3–Power: The third block culminates our training phase and features the highest intensities of the schedule. We are coming off several weeks of hard weight training, so our athletes are well prepared to make gains.

During this block, the focus remains on Olympic lifts and strength movements, such as squats and presses. Our middle-distance swimmers lift two times a week prior to afternoon practice while our sprinters lift three mornings a week before their power swims. The distance swimmers do one morning of dryland training.

At this point, we also begin integrating our freshmen and transfer students into their event groups, although we may still alter their programs somewhat based on their ability and training levels. For example, we may use a smaller set of exercises and emphasize technique over intensity until the newcomers have caught up to their teammates.

Block 4–Transition: With the end-of-semester academic demands during this block, we pull back on the athletes and give them a chance to recover. They do enough lifting to maintain the gains they made in the previous blocks, but most work is done on an individual basis when the athletes are available instead of in groups.

This block also includes our annual Christmas training trip, where the focus is on high intensity and high volume work in the water, so we ask little else of the athletes at this time. In addition, the quality of the facilities on the road varies greatly from year to year, so it is often difficult to do much more than limited dryland sessions.

Block 5–Power and Stroke-Specific: Once the swimmers are back on campus, we pick up right where we left off in Block 3. The emphasis returns to building power, especially for the sprinters, who lift three afternoons a week. The middle-distance swimmers lift twice a week while the distance swimmers will hit the weightroom two or three times a week based on the water training loads set by their coach.


Since we are nearing the heart of the competitive season, we focus more on Olympic lifts and plyometrics as opposed to strength-building movements. This past season marked the first time that we did not do any squats during the competitive phase of the training schedule. The change was made at the request of Coach Hawke, who wanted to “freshen” the athletes’ legs and increase their ability to do quality training in the water.

This is also the time of year where we introduce some of our stroke-specific movements. Among the athletes’ favorites are medicine ball throw-downs that replicate each stroke’s hand entry in the water. For example, we will have a freestyle swimmer stand on a box and catch the ball at the height at which their hand enters the water. Then, keeping the elbow high, they throw the ball back down. For the backstroke, the swimmer reaches to catch the ball to their side and throws it using an S-type movement.

Blocks 6 & 7–Taper: We set aside this time beginning in February for two different taper blocks, one leading up to the SEC championships in late February and another leading to the NCAA championships in late March. The taper blocks are highly individualized to each athlete, and the swim coaches determine who will do strength work, when they will do it, and the specific exercises they will perform. The decisions are based on their performance in the water, practices, and the likelihood of success at the championship meets.

These blocks require a lot of adjusting on our part as we move away from a structured training model to a highly changeable plan that reflects the needs of individual athletes. At this time of the year the psychological often outweighs the physiological. My understanding of swimming has allowed me to bolster the athlete’s belief that their taper is going in the correct direction and that the plans will prepare them to achieve their maximum ability.

Many times I also act as a sounding board for the younger athletes and allay their concerns by telling them about past athletes who have followed the same path and accomplished great things. Our long tradition of success provides plenty of examples for our swimmers to follow.

Of course, our plan is only as good as the athletes who follow it. We spend a great amount of time educating the athletes about our workout regimen so they understand and believe in it. With the talented swimmers and outstanding coaches we have at Auburn, a little belief can go a long way toward upholding our tradition and achieving our lofty objectives.

Sidebar: A Floating Max

Rather than assign a specific amount of weight for our swimmers to use in each exercise, we use “floating maxes” for all of our major strength work. Due to the volume of work they do in the pool, some athletes may not be able to hit what I would normally assign as a prescribed weight for a particular workout. Instead, I specify a percentage range of their max, and they choose the exact weight. The ranges are determined by the type of exercise, number of sets and reps, and intensity needed to reach our training goals.

As long as they stay within the proper range, which I can quantify through logged progressions, the athletes will continue to progress within the training block. This floating max also gives them the freedom to go beyond what would be their prescribed weights on days they may be feeling strong. This will help them handle higher loads and intensities as the block progresses.

With auxiliary movements, which are typically not major strength movements, I allow the athletes to self-prescribe their training load based on how they feel. This has little impact on the accumulation of training effect, because most of the exercises lack the intensity of the major strength exercises.

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