Mar 5, 2018
Sport Specific: Broad Strokes
Joel Smith

With three carefully cultivated training cycles, the offseason program for University of California men’s and women’s swimming has a wide reach.

Before moving to stroke-specific lifts, Cal swimmers like Noemie Thomas master basic “human” movements.

Planning the offseason strength program for University of California men’s and women’s swimming is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, tasks I’ve had as a sport performance professional. Why challenging? One clear factor is that swimming takes place in the water, and weight training happens on land. On top of this, adding excess bulk in non-key muscles, creating non-favorable ratios of fast- to slow-twitch muscles, and changing joint coordination patterns and length-tension relationships loom as potential pitfalls when bringing swimmers into the weightroom.

To avoid these complications, my fall offseason programming-which typically runs from September to December-is very precise to the general and complimentary needs of the aquatic athlete. I start by laying out the benefits I expect to see from training and mapping out key considerations to remember. Then, I split exercises into easy-to-manage categories and break the time period into three defined training phases.

There may be a lot that goes into the offseason regimen for Cal swimming, but it all comes down to having a clear picture of why we do what we do in the weightroom. Each step is necessary to help the program maintain the elite level that has become its hallmark, and that’s the rewarding part. The men’s and women’s squads have won seven national titles collectively since 2009, and both teams finished second in 2017


The most important principle guiding my offseason program at Cal is this: Strength training is merely complementary to swim ability-it cannot create good swimmers but only boost the talent and skill they already possess. How can offseason weightroom work enhance swim performance? I aim for five main benefits:

Potentiation of neurochemical processes: For swimmers who compete in 200-meter distances or under, potentiation is one of the biggest perks that the weightroom has to offer. Lifting heavy can boost dopamine and testosterone levels, which can immediately improve swim performance. I’ve seen swimmers walk out of the weightroom after a heavy strength set, jump right into the water, and turn in red-hot times. This heightened level of nervous system functioning can last for several days, depending on the intensity of the weightroom stimulus.

It’s important, however, for the potentiation to come from movements that utilize the muscles swimmers rely on, such as those in the upper body. For example, a swimmer may see a greater payoff in the pool after heavy upper-body work rather than squats.

Enhanced general coordination: Many swimmers have a limited sport background, so they sometimes lack a high degree of movement literacy. Strength training is one of the best ways to improve this. The simple act of lifting weights can improve muscle control and increase capacity for fine or skilled movement. In addition, some of the more complex exercises in the weightroom, such as the Olympic lifts, can offer an advanced level of coordination.

Improved muscle size and maximal force output: Most added muscle size in the offseason takes place in the Type IIa fast-twitch muscle fibers, which offer a combination of speed and endurance qualities. Once swimmers stop lifting in their tapering phase, these fibers turn into Type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers-those most closely associated with short-burst speed performance. This transfer is responsible for the boosts in speed and power often seen while tapering.

However, keep in mind that increased muscle size can be a blessing or a curse for swimmers, depending on where the muscle develops and how big it gets. For the majority of swimmers, excess gains are not an issue, since they lack the genetics for extreme muscle hypertrophy. But some athletes are gifted in the muscle-building department and must keep their barbell volumes in check or risk bulking up too much.

Connect between lifting and sport: Just going in the weightroom and performing actions that resemble swimming is not beneficial without linking them to an athlete’s stroke. Sport-specific weightroom movements must be backed by coaching and instruction, so athletes can connect exercises to what they do in the water. This can inspire buy-in.

I provide the necessary coaching and instruction mostly through breathing patterns and thorax positioning. At times, the swimming coaches will also assist me in the weightroom by connecting our movements to things they see in practice.

Confidence and social cohesion: Since swimmers spend most of their practice time submerged in water and somewhat isolated from their teammates, the weightroom provides a place where they can assemble in the offseason and train in a more social manner. They are free to move around, converse, and encourage each other in various lifts, allowing for bonding among team members.


With my sights set on these gains, I then turn my attention to the specific elements I must include in our offseason strength training. I take five factors into consideration when writing our program:

Event distance: For distance swimmers, there is a sweet spot for strength work. The best endurance swimmers are typically strong, but the strongest are not necessarily the fastest. So in terms of programming, our distance athletes lift heavy in the offseason, but they don’t respond well from a nervous system perspective to high volumes of barbell work. Instead, we might have them perform circuit-style training.

Sprint swimmers, on the other hand, can often tolerate high volumes and intensities. We push them a little more by incorporating barbell work, medicine ball throws, and jumps.

For middle-distance swimmers, I train some with a sprinter mentality and others with a distance mentality-it depends on the training age of the athlete. In general, mid-distance swimmers use moderate to heavy weights for much of the offseason, but I monitor their response to loading their spine with a barbell. They also do less jumping and ballistic work than sprinters.

Neurochemical profile: There are three types of neurotransmitter groups that determine swimmers’ offseason weightroom experience-whether they are dopamine dominant, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) dominant, or serotonin dominant. To find each athlete’s neurochemical profile and zero in on an optimal workout, I start with their race distance and then make observations based on their personality type, responses to standard weightroom loads, and responses to various swim workouts from coaches.

As a general rule, pure sprinters are typically dopamine dominant, while almost all mid-distance and distance athletes are GABA dominant. Some distance athletes, however, are more on the serotonin side.

Once we have a good idea of each athlete’s neurotransmitter profile, we program their offseason accordingly. Athletes who are dopamine dominant usually need significant barbell work to reach their highest swimming potential. This is because they thrive off of overcoming obstacles and taking risks. In addition, they tend to have highly charged nervous systems that benefit from having many motor units activated.

Swimmers who are GABA dominant typically do well with consistency and less volume of intensive training. They benefit from some barbell work, as well as circuit training or deck dryland setups, given that these activities address a full spectrum of muscle groups.

Serotonin-dominant types thrive off of consistency and predictability in training. They often respond well to little or no barbell work. Instead, they see results with circuit-style training that includes dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight movements, mobility, and medicine balls.

Training age: Whether a swimmer is a freshman or an upperclassman makes a big difference when it comes to exercise selection, volume, and progression during our offseason programming. As a rule, we gradually include general strength with our freshmen-too much strength and size too soon can harm their coordination in the water. So in the early fall, freshmen follow a lower-volume training scheme, focusing largely on slow tempos and isometric holds, as well as mastery of basic bodyweight movements. I’m finding that more and more freshmen enter college with barbell training experience, but we ensure that each athlete’s techniques fit with the technical requirements of our program.

Swim practice: Our offseason training is only good if it complements the swim coaches’ plans. I coordinate with our coaches regularly to determine when certain muscle groups will be targeted in the water. For example, if they have a heavy kick day planned, I might switch our weightroom activities from heavy leg work to small potentiation emphasis.

I also adjust my offseason strength training plan based on when we lift. Since we typically hit the weightroom prior to swim practice at Cal, I can focus on strength. I have a broad spectrum of techniques to utilize, and we often use movements that improve neural output.

That being said, I must not lose sight of athletes’ total volume of work. One to three sets of strength exercises is fine, but anything more could be detrimental to swim practice.

Stroke considerations: Our short-axis (breaststroke and butterfly) specialists benefit from a greater dose of unilateral training early in the offseason. This is based on the idea of working an athlete’s weaknesses first and then focusing on their strengths later. Using the same philosophy, our long-axis (freestyle and backstroke) specialists do better with a mix of unilateral and bilateral motor patterns. Unilateral weight training is particularly good for these athletes because it takes some of the brunt off their spines.


Using these considerations, we are able to choose the optimal exercises for Cal swimming’s offseason program. Many athletes want to dive right into exercises that will improve their stroke, but I ensure they have a mastery of the basic “human” movements and related commensurate strength levels before making any specifications for swimming.

The human movements include the squat, hinge, pull, press, hang, and bridge. I put handstands in this category, too, since the ability to transmit force from extended arms through the spine connects to what swimmers do in the water. Over the years, I’ve found the most accomplished swimmers have good competency in the human movements.

Performing these actions using slow tempos can be extremely helpful for revealing weaknesses in the core. For example, a 100-meter freestyler whose spinal alignment falters excessively 30 to 40 seconds into a super slow eccentric push-up will often demonstrate the same tendencies late in a race. Breathing-based spinal work from the Postural Restoration Institute is one of the best fixes for these weaknesses because it complements the trunk firing in its natural state. But the athletes’ own neuro-reflexive learning process will also lead them to achieve the right positioning without overly tensing compensatory muscle groups.

Once the human movements are mastered, we connect them specifically to swimming. I do this by utilizing the human movements with the same posture and positioning that a swimmer uses in the water. A handstand, overhead press, and push-up can all be catered to swimming by making sure the hips, lumbar spine, thoracic spine, and neck are aligned and stacked.

With our movement base firmly established, I organize our offseason exercises into three categories: power, strength, and connection. Regardless of an athlete’s stroke, 40 to 70 percent of their program will be primarily strength, but the rest depends on the swimmer. A sprinter will perform more power exercises to feed their dopamine types and build more fast-twitch muscles conducive to their event. Yet, a distance swimmer will do more connection-based exercises because they don’t respond as well neurologically to extended volumes of heavy strength work.

Power for swimmers can be trained in many ways. Some of the movements I include in this category are:

• Dumbbell snatches

• Hang cleans

• Barbell or dumbbell split jerks

• Seated box jumps

• Vertical jumps

• Vertical medicine ball heaves

• Pneumatic jump squats

• Jumping pull-ups

• Medicine ball slams

• Explosive push-ups into an airborne streamline position.

Much of our power programming focuses on jumps because swimmers with a good vertical jump are generally better off of the wall and blocks, which is important for short-course performance. The number of jumps each swimmer does often depends on their foot structure, as flat-footed athletes will experience more stress when jumping than those with a more neutral arch.

The strength lifts I use for swimmers are pull-ups, dumbbell bench presses (for freestylers), and hex bar dead lifts. Pull-ups in particular have the greatest transfer to swimming capability, and good swimmers are generally good at pull-ups. We vary our pull-up grips to engage a wide variety of muscles and joints. For instance, the pronated pull-up grip has been regarded as superior for swimmers because it gets more out of the lats than grips that utilize the biceps or forearm muscles. In addition, it trains muscles that have more similarity to the catch portion of a stroke.

Dumbbell bench presses also transfer well to swimming. These movements innervate and recruit the motor pool of main stroke muscles, help in potentiating pool performance, and increase the total amount of usable muscle fibers in a stroke.

Moving to the lower body, hex bar dead lifts are one of the most beneficial strength movements for swimmers. We use front squats as well, but hex bar dead lifts are more concentric, don’t load the spine as much, and are less limited by ankle mobility restrictions.

Other strength exercises incorporated in our offseason program include:

• Barbell step ups

• Skater squats

• Standing overhead presses

• Rear-foot elevated split squats

• Slideboard or physioball hamstring curls

• Horizontal or TRX rows

• One-arm rows.

Connection movements are used to create body awareness, coordination of the primary trunk and spinal muscles, and better firing patterns between the arms and legs. One of our go-to lifts in this category is the lying opposition plate twist. This yields a helpful read on an athlete’s rotational capabilities-good swimmers generally have good rotational control of their spines.

Another connection exercise we commonly use is the hanging leg raise. Though simple, it can bring up weak points in an athlete’s deep trunk and anterior chain. Swimmers who are unable to perform this movement well will compensate with the big movers in their arms and legs. This could lead to a taxing, self-limiting style of swimming. Some of our other connection lifts are:

• Unilateral slideboard push-ups (linear and frontal)

• Ab wheels (standard, multidirectional, and staggered)

• Dead bugs

• Slideboard lateral squats

• Physioball jackknifes

• Physioball or TRX stir-the-pots.

In addition, there are two subcategories within our connection movements-contextual connection and medicine ball/dynamic connection. Some of our contextual exercises are cable freestyle, backstroke connector, and wide straight-arm lat pulldown fly. These can link key core muscles to motions in the arms and shoulders that translate to swimming. Over-under pass, 180 twist pass, kneeling backward overhead exchange, overhead tricep pass, chest pass, and standing hip pass are some of the movements that fall into our medicine ball/dynamic connection category. These exercises improve the ballistic and reflexive firing of key trunk movers.


Combining our guiding principles, considerations, and exercises, I assemble our fall offseason program. The men are in the weightroom three or four days a week, while the women train two or three days a week. This is set by my head swim coaches in line with their total program philosophy.

The offseason is broken down into three training cycles. First, we have our introduction and transition phase, which runs for six weeks. Everyone is always eager to start strength work in September, but it is very important to start gradually in terms of volume and intensity. Too much of either early on will hurt the swimmers’ ability to adapt to the next phase and take away from the effectiveness of later strength and power cycles. Additionally, when intensity is high early in the offseason, it is difficult to reduce it later and still see results.

Instead, the introduction and transition phase starts simply, utilizing a small number of exercises and gaining mastery over them, rather than trying to fill each workout with every lift in the book. It’s composed of limited power activities, strength work with slow or isometric tempos, and a good dose of connection-based training.

After the introduction and transition phase, we have a six-week strength stage. This is the meat and potatoes of our offseason program. It improves swimmers’ ability to apply force in context of posture, proves good potentiation, and sets up the power phase.

The strength cycle includes a balanced dosage of power, strength, and connection lifts. We typically use the same exercises for the entire stage. Pull-ups are incorporated once or twice a week, and some form of weighted push or press is performed twice a week. For lower-body development, athletes typically squat, hex bar dead lift, and split squat once a week. Olympic lifts, modified Olympic lifts, and other power work derivatives are done twice weekly.

Finally, we have our power phase, which runs for three weeks. I want our strength and power phases to blend seamlessly, so I create power complexes out of our strength work, usually in the form of French Contrast Training. This is an exercise complex of four lifts: one heavy strength, one slow explosive, one fast strength, and one fast explosive. Because of the high neural demand of this approach, I either schedule two-week cycles or change the exercises completely every two to three weeks.

At Cal, the weightroom comes alive for swimmers in the offseason when we have a good design that fits with their total training schedule, keeps them safe, improves their coordination, and gets them stronger in important pathways. Although it is difficult to design a good offseason strength program for swimming, the rewards are well worth it.


Below are sample weightroom sessions from each of the three offseason phases for the University of California men’s and women’s swim teams.

Introduction and Transition Phase

Tempo Romanian dead lift, 3×3 at 50 percent of one-repetition maximum (1RM)

Sled push, 3×15 meters at 100% 1RM

Double arm battle ropes, 3×25 at 100% 1RM

Band pull-up iso hold, 3×20 sec at 60% 1RM

Medicine ball partner over-under, 3×10 at 60% 1RM

Tempo ab wheel, 3×3 at 60% 1RM

Rear-foot elevated split squat, 3×8 at 60% 1RM

Seated plate twist, 3×20 at 60% 1RM

Back extension, 3×4 at 60% 1RM

Weighted Spiderman push-up, 3×12 at 60% 1RM

Strength Phase

Weighted pull-up (pronated grip), 4×4 at 80% 1RM

Medicine ball double-arm slam, 4×3 at 100% 1RM

Hex bar dead lift off low block, 4×4 at 80% 1RM

Seated box jump, 4×1 at 100% 1RM

Dumbbell incline bench press, 3×6 at 75% 1RM

TRX row, 3×6 at 75% 1RM

Multidirection ab wheel, 2×8 at 60% 1RM

Slideboard hamstring curl, 2×8 at 60% 1RM

Opposition plate twist, 2×10 at 60% 1RM

Power Phase

Hex bar dead lift off high block, 3×2 at 80% 1RM

Box jump, 3×1 at 100% 1RM

Hang clean or dumbbell snatch, 3×3 at 50% 1RM

Assisted jump, 3×3 at 100% 1RM

Heavy weighted push-up, 3×3 at 80% 1RM

Clap push-up, 3×2 at 100% 1RM

Quick dumbbell bench press, 3×3 at 50% 1RM

Medicine ball overhead pass, 3×4 at 100% 1RM

Hanging leg raise, 3×5 at 60% 1RM

Physioball hamstring curl, 3×5 at 60% 1RM

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS, is in his sixth year as Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of California, where he works with men's and women's swimming and men's tennis. At Cal, Smith has trained the 2014 NCAA champion men's swim team and coached multiple Olympians, gold medalists, and a world record holder. Prior to Cal, Smith was a track and field and strength coach, as well as a lecturer in human performance at Wilmington College. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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