Jan 29, 2015
Strokes of Genius

At this perennial NCAA Division III swimming powerhouse, the strength and conditioning regimen is designed to optimize functional power and maximize transfer from dry land to the pool.

By Gregg Parini

Gregg Parini is Head Men’s and Women’s Swimming Coach and an Associate Professor at Denison University. A seven-time NCAA Division III Coach of the Year, he can be reached at: [email protected].

Competitive swimming is a power sport. With the exception of extreme distances and open-water events that are highly aerobic in nature, success is determined primarily by an athlete’s power and speed. Even the 1,650 yard (1,500 meter) freestyle–the benchmark distance event in swimming–is mostly an anaerobic and power-centered event.

As Head Coach of the men’s and women’s swimming teams at Denison University for more than two decades, my approach to developing that power in our athletes has evolved considerably. When I was a younger coach, my program focused on isolating and developing individual muscle groups through traditional weight training. This produced definite strength gains, but didn’t address the need for coordinated total-body movement that makes muscular strength functional.

Power in swimming is about more than just strength–it’s about the ability to produce forward propulsion through the water by applying that strength efficiently. Our athletes today use a combination of dry-land and pool training to optimize their swimming performance. We follow a systematic approach that builds strength while also focusing on balance, core stabilization, and coordination between muscle groups. And our competition results give us confidence this approach is working: Denison swimmers are consistently among the fastest in NCAA Division III, and this past season, both the men’s and women’s teams claimed North Coast Athletic Conference titles.


A core belief of our training program is that to swim faster, athletes must build systemic strength and power in five parts of the body:

• Hands • Elbows • Shoulders • Hips • Feet

Developing coordinated strength and power between these parts allows athletes to apply maximum leverage in the water while maintaining proper body position and coordination throughout the swimming motion. Optimal body position and coordination are rooted in superior core strength and balance, and enhanced with muscular strength in each of those body areas.

The coordinated, powerful movements we seek are analogous to those a gymnast makes when powering through a routine on the rings, bars, or floor. The skills a gymnast uses to move his or her body through space with coordinated power are the same ones that swimmers use to move through the water with maximum speed and coordination. In this way, swimming is nothing more than gymnastics in an aquatic environment–balance and power determine the quality of performance.

Our training approach takes this philosophy into account, particularly during dry-land training. In the pool, our athletes improve the efficiency of their stroking technique, develop timing, and focus on countless other details that help separate the elite from the rest. But during dry-land work, they use a gymnast’s emphasis on total-body coordination, functional strength, stabilization, and precision of movement.


Technique refinement improves speed by maximizing an athlete’s ability to apply pulling force in the water. Strength training and conditioning improves speed by enhancing the swimmer’s raw horsepower through skeletal muscle and nervous system development. For college level swimmers, who generally have sound technique and mechanics in the water, improving horsepower yields the biggest increases in speed.

Our training and competition season at Denison lasts 24 weeks, beginning in late September and ending in late March. We break our training into a series of six distinct, four-week mesocycles, each consisting of three weeks devoted to increasing training loads and intensity and one week focused on energy regeneration, or a reduction in training volume and intensity that allows for physical recovery. This training plan encompasses our water and dry-land sessions throughout the training year, and each mesocycle has a specific goal:

• Mesocycle 1: Fitness/Strength • Mesocycle 2: Strength • Mesocycle 3: Power • Mesocycle 4: Power/Speed • Mesocycle 5: Speed/Peak Preparation • Mesocycle 6: Peak Performance

Every week, the swimmers have two dry-land sessions that last approximately 105 minutes each. Given our heavy training load in the water–up to eight additional sessions weekly, depending on the time of year–we believe this dry-land workload is more than adequate for addressing our strength and power needs, while not putting the athletes at risk for overuse injury. It’s essential for swimming programs to consider training demands both in and out of the pool to prevent overtraining, which can hamper development and pose serious health risks.

In addition to increasing our athletes’ horsepower, core strength, and balance, our dry-land program is designed to improve overall joint stability and strength. We target both primary-mover muscle groups and stabilizer groups around key joint areas.

For swimming, primary movers in the upper body include the triceps, biceps, deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, and latissimus dorsi. The key stabilizers include the levator scapulae, rhomboids, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major, and teres minor. Strengthening these smaller stabilizers not only builds a stronger joint and foundation from which to develop power, but also reduces the risk of injury.

The shoulders in particular withstand a great deal of stress throughout a swimmer’s career, making them especially susceptible to overload and injury. The nature of swimming places the most intense stresses on the ventral side of the body, resulting in overdeveloped frontal musculature. To offset these strength imbalances and help protect our swimmers from injury, our strength regimen targets the dorsal stabilizers.

These same stress and imbalance issues do not apply equally to the lower body. While the hip and knee joints are important in swimming, they are subject to less stress than the shoulders overall. However, maintaining the health of these joints is still important, so our strength program targets hip adductors, abductors, and rotators, including the sartorius, pectineus, gracilis, gluteal muscles, and tensor fasciae latae.

A typical dry-land session for our swimmers involves five components: dynamic warmup, ring training, weightroom work, plyometrics/abdominal work, and static stretching/cooldown. (See “Dry-Land Session” below for details.)

The dynamic warmup lasts approximately 15 minutes and is quite comprehensive. Our seniors lead their teammates through movements such as jogging, stepping, lunging, and rotating to engage the joints and muscles and elevate the heart rate.

Ring training is the best illustration of our belief that swimming shares much in common with gymnastics in terms of the demands it places on the body and the skills and attributes required to excel. Exercises with free-hanging rings play a critical role in developing the connective, systemic strength and power our swimmers need, while also building strength in the key stabilizer muscle groups. These exercises involve the athletes working against their own body weight and promote a focus on core control and moving the body in powerful, coordinated ways.

Another advantage of ring exercises is that it’s easy to change the complexity and difficulty level by simply increasing the duration, manipulating body position, and making other minor adjustments. In this way, the athletes can customize their training to best address their own strength, stability, and coordination needs. This type of work is very taxing on virtually the entire body–legs, abs, back, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Rather than work toward a fixed number of repetitions with each ring exercise, we use time benchmarks. This way, athletes who are more proficient in a certain movement can challenge themselves to perform more and more reps in the allotted time, while those who struggle can focus on continuing to perform the exercise for the full duration while gradually increasing their reps.

As we progress through each mesocycle, we adjust the work-rest ratio to account for muscle adaptation and growth. Typically, each exercise in the first week is performed for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of rest. We progress to a 35:25 ratio in the second week, and 40:20 in the third week before a testing protocol and a reduced workload for recovery and regeneration in the final week of the mesocycle.

The testing involves a timed circuit of short runs (totaling 2,000 meters), 55 pull-ups, 55 burpees (similar to a basic squat thrust), 55 push-ups, 55 squats, and 110 full sit-ups. These tests provide us with objective feedback on the swimmers’ overall fitness progress in terms of power levels and aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

While we place a heavy emphasis on ring work during dry-land training, it’s important to remember that our athletes are swimmers, not gymnasts. Most of them are performing these exercises for the first time, so the coaches keep a close watch to ensure they are using proper form, completing each exercise as prescribed, and not doing anything to put themselves at risk for injury. Athletes are not allowed to increase work duration or complexity until they can complete the basic version of an exercise correctly.


The weightroom portion of our strength and conditioning workouts includes exercises that target the prime moving muscles for swimming. We incorporate variations of the bench press, power clean, overhead press, lat pull, leg adduction, and cable cross punches and pulls. Like in the ring sessions, each exercise is performed for three sets. A typical rep pattern for a single mesocycle of lifting work looks like this:

• Week one: 3 x 10 at max load • Week two: 3 x 10-8-6 at max load • Week three: 3 x 8-8-6 at max load • Week four: Testing

As we move through the mesocycles, our goal is to see each athlete increase the amount of weight they can competently manage, making the lifting sessions progressively more intense. We also add some twists to the exercises to make them more complex and challenging–for instance, when the athletes perform dumbbell presses, their back rests on a stability ball instead of a traditional bench. The element of instability helps develop balance, muscle reaction, and core strength.

Our plyometric work focuses on developing strength and explosiveness in the lower body. We mostly use Vertimax training platforms and aerobic steppers (step boxes), which enhance jumping power and coordination between the lower-body unit and the upper body.

The number of sets and reps remains fairly consistent–typically three sets of 15 jumps each per session–and we manage training loads by increasing resistance against both the arms and the legs with the platform’s tension system. We also incorporate changes in jumping height goals and take-off points with the steppers.


Overall fitness levels developed through dry-land training play a pivotal role in improving swimming performance. With that in mind, we focus on fitness testing in several forms to track progress both in and out of the pool.

Starting on the first day of practice, the athletes are tested on pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, burpees, and 200-meter runs to establish baselines. After that, we re-test monthly as described above at the end of each mesocycle.

While there is no perfectly predictable rate of carry-over from dry-land testing to performance in the water, it does allow the coaches and athletes to measure improvements in fitness levels. The tests tell us about each swimmer’s ability to move their body with competence, speed, and power, and also show us how hard they’ve been working in the weightroom. But we view the results on an individual basis–we understand that some athletes who make the biggest gains in the pool won’t show as much progress on land, and vice-versa.

As we enter the fourth mesocycle, usually around our winter break in mid-December, our attention shifts increasingly toward swimming-specific testing. While overall fitness remains a priority, improving swimming fitness–and thus speed–takes precedence. Timed swims become a bigger part of our training sessions, since maximum speed is the ultimate performance goal.

Despite this shift in focus, we still do not abandon dry-land work in the latter half of the competitive season. Dry-land training during our fourth and fifth mesocycles is characterized by a reduction in total work output, while we aim for higher power levels in all dry-land stations. We emphasize faster limb velocity through each exercise, and choose movements that most closely replicate the speed at which swimmers move their arms during a race. For example, in the bench press, our breaststrokers will choose the heaviest weight possible that still allows them to move at a cadence that mirrors their optimal stroke. These rates are measured and monitored using stopwatches.

A final note on our training schedule involves gender differences. Overall, our men’s and women’s teams train very similarly throughout the season–the protocols described in this article apply to both. The only significant difference occurs during our final (sixth) mesocycle, which falls in the four weeks leading up to our championship meet.

At this time, we typically eliminate almost all dry-land work for our men three weeks before the championships. The women, meanwhile, continue strength training up until seven to 12 days before the final meet. Experience has shown us that most men need the additional time to recover from strength work, and they reach their power peak within two to three weeks of cutting out the dry-land components of their workouts. Our women generally reach their power peak within seven to 10 days after eliminating dry-land activities.

When dry-land work is eliminated from the training program, all our athletes continue their power development in the pool. This leaves them poised for championship performances at the time of year when it matters most.


This breakdown shows the exercises used in a typical dry-land training workout for the swimmers at Denison University.

15 minutes: Dynamic warmup Activities include: Jogging Arm swings Side steps Lunges Trunk rotations 30 minutes: Ring training Activities include: Dips Trunk rotations Pull-ups Body rows Hand stands

30 minutes: Weightroom work Activities include: Bench presses Power cleans Overhead presses Lat pulls Leg adduction Cable cross punches and pulls

20 minutes: Plyometrics and abdominals Activities include: Vertimax exercises Step training

10 minutes: Static stretching and cooldown Activities include: Easy walking with arm swings Shoulder stretches Abdominal/lower back stretches Triceps stretches Hamstring/groin stretches Forearm/wrist stretches


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