Jul 7, 2017
Starting From Scratch
Mark Wine

When training athletes who are new to the weightroom, it’s best to focus on the basics. That is what I did with the USA Synchronized Swimming team when I began working with them in January 2015,

I was shocked to discover that the athletes had never lifted before. As a result, although they were elegant and graceful in the water, they lacked total body coordination. Tasked with getting them ready for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, I knew we had a long road ahead. But by honing in on the sport’s demands and integrating a variety of training methods, the athletes are ready to compete at the highest level.

Don’t be confused by the makeup and flashy costumes — synchronized swimmers are high-level athletes who require a dedicated strength and conditioning program. The sport is unlike any other because of the myriad skills it demands of its athletes. A combination of swimming, gymnastics, and ballet, its athletes must repeatedly accelerate through the water, elevate from the surface, and perform complex poses that require great endurance, flexibility, and precision. On top of that, they must also have strong breath control, as some routines require them to stay underwater for up to a minute.

Since Team USA Synchro didn’t have an established strength program when I began my tenure, we started from scratch. Our overall focus was simple at first: balance and strengthen the body. I had the athletes complete a number of unilateral exercises and paired them with counter movements to ensure muscle symmetry and prevent overuse injuries. For example, we often did ankle-attached adduction along with abduction.

Once we developed a general training base, we started to incorporate traditional strength movements. We emphasized strengthening athletes’ lumbo-pelvic hip complexes (LBPHC) through compound exercises like squats, split squats, and Bulgarian squats, as well as isolation exercises such as medicine ball squeeze holds, band bridges, and clamshells.

I focused on the LBPHC because many athletes were experiencing shifted hips as a result of inactive gluteal muscles or one side being stronger than the other. The glutes are essential during the eggbeater motion — a form of treading water where the swimmers’ legs alternate one-legged breaststroke kicks. If the glutes do not keep the hips aligned, the adductor might take on more of a role, leading to possible strain.

Upon completion of a three-month strength-building phase, I added power movements to the swimmers’ regimens to develop the total body coordination, body awareness, and fine-tuned motor skills demanded by the sport. Since the USA Synchro athletes had never completed Olympic lifts before, my first step was teaching them how to properly transfer power through their quads, glutes, and lats using platform jumps and muscle pulls.

Next, we developed positional awareness with barbell movements. Anytime an Olympic lift called for a barbell, we had athletes start the motion with the bar at their hips. Then, we implemented snatch/clean retractions in the beginning of each lift, which required athletes to move the bar from their hips to directly below their knees. This taught them how to use their lats to reposition the bar at the hip line. Getting them comfortable with these movements early on allowed us to eventually implement full snatches and cleans.

Weightlifting is not the only form of power training we implemented. We also completed battle ropes to train total body coordination and upper-body power transfer.

In addition, resisted sprinting developed the swimmers’ fast-twitch fibers. However, we had to be careful when running because water-based athletes typically have looseness in their ankles and improper sprinting technique. Resisted sprints prevent them from striking through their heels, which forces them to stay on the ball of the foot. The load keeps their motion controlled, so even though they are moving as fast as possible, they are impacting the ground correctly.

Beyond building strength and power, it was important to make sure the USA Synchro athletes could handle the cardiovascular demands of the sport. Synchronized swimming requires both aerobic and anaerobic muscular processes. To train both, we included sprints with active recovery in the pool, high-intensity intervals on the bike, and high-intensity cross-training circuits. The latter often involved movements like battle rope slams, walking lunges, and 30-second sprints on the bike.

With a base in strength, power, and conditioning established, we will continue to follow this framework until the Olympics. As the Games draw closer, however, I find myself keeping a closer eye on the swimmers’ health. I usually have three workouts with them per week, and they undergo two or three additional training sessions a day, which consist of Pilates, dance, swim, synchronized swimming, and flexibility work. This schedule puts them on the brink of overtraining each week and can lead to burnout or injury.

We’ve tried to keep the athletes fresh by implementing extensive warm-ups, injury prevention, and recovery tools. The team’s warm-ups include jumps and movements with moderate resistance, such as spider lunges, push-up arm extensions, sky reaches, medicine ball slams, skips, overhead squats, and overhead split squats. The primary aim is to dynamically stretch the body, raise their core temperature, and prepare their muscles for lifting.

During weightroom work, we incorporate injury prevention techniques to correct each athlete’s specific movement imbalances and asymmetries. For example, clamshells are a staple in our training to ensure proper glute medius activation. Finally, once athletes are done with each lifting session, they break down their myofascial tissue via foam rolling or a massage.

Since I began training the USA Synchro athletes, I have seen a reduction in overuse injuries, as well as increased strength and power production. The athletes say they can feel the difference from our program and report it has improved their performance in the pool.

Mark Wine, CSCS, USAW, PT, PES, CES, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Team USA Synchronized Swimming. He's also the founder and Director of Operations at Functional Muscle Fitness, LLC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Team Haiti Polo.

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