Jan 29, 2015
Who Rules the Pool?

When it comes to water polo, the UCLA women do, thanks in part to an aggressive strength training program.

By Kerri Barrett Husbands

Kerri Barrett Husbands, MA, CSCS, is Associate Head Speed-Strength and Conditioning Coach for UCLA Athletics. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Water polo has long been thought of as a regional sport, with the nation’s strongest programs located on the West Coast. But over the past few years, women’s water polo has exploded, gaining in both popularity and participation throughout the United States. It is now the fastest growing NCAA sport.

The UCLA women’s squad is one of the most dominant in the nation, having won three NCAA titles (including the 2005 trophy) since the NCAA first sanctioned championships for the sport five years ago. The program has also produced numerous All-Americans, national team members, and Olympians.

Water polo is an extremely physical and demanding game. It incorporates elements from many other sports, including soccer, swimming, hockey, basketball, and wrestling, all while competing in the deep end of a swimming pool. It requires athletes to be adept at swimming, treading, and throwing, and involves a tremendous amount of physical contact between players.

As the popularity of the sport increases, so does the level of physical play. The players are becoming bigger, stronger, and faster. In response, athletes need an effective strength and conditioning program to develop the strength, stamina, and above all, the tremendous level of mental toughness required in this sport. Furthermore, this program should help prevent injuries, which are common in water polo.

Preventing Injuries

Because water polo players experience numerous injuries throughout the season, we start developing our strength and conditioning program by examining injury trends. Some of the injuries players sustain are the result of contact, but many others are from overtraining or muscle imbalances. Even though the sport is played in an aqueous environment, water polo players tend to suffer from noncontact injuries just as often as athletes in land-based sports do. We try to prevent many of these injuries by incorporating water polo-specific exercises into our off-season lifting program, limiting certain kinds of strength work in-season and focusing on flexibility year-round.

Shoulder: With a sport that incorporates both swimming and throwing, it is not a surprise that many water polo injuries occur within the shoulder joint. Two of the most common shoulder injuries are rotator cuff tendonitis and labrum tears. In order to prevent both injuries, we do a lot of overhead lifting in the off-season and preseason to develop strength and flexibility throughout the joint. We also incorporate a shoulder flexibility routine, which athletes perform before every workout.

Elbow: The elbow is another injury prone area, specifically the ulnar collateral ligament. In some players, we also see the development of bicep tendonitis. As part of our warmup routine, we perform stretches that focus on the bicep tendon. This helps alleviate stress on both the shoulder and the ulnar collateral ligament.

Back: Water polo requires a tremendous amount of core strength. We devote substantial time at the end of every workout to strengthening the core. With the addition of a solid core program, we have cut down on lower-back pain in our athletes.

Knee: The eggbeater motion used by water polo players puts a large amount of strain on the knee joint. Furthermore, players tend to be extremely tight throughout the external rotators, glutes, groin, and IT band areas, which can lead to knee pain. In order to prevent knee overuse injuries, we incorporate many groin and hip stretches into our program. Additionally, we perform some variation of the squat at every workout to help strengthen the hip-knee complex.

Preseason Training

We start our preseason training when athletes report back to campus at the end of September (UCLA is on a quarter system). We lift three times a week, and condition six days a week. The water polo coaching staff handles all of the pool conditioning, prescribing tough swim sets and additional water polo-specific drills. Two days a week, the team does dry land cross training that incorporates running and jumping. Typically, we have them play some sort of team game such as basketball, ultimate Frisbee, or touch football. These conditioning sessions give our team a mental break from the pool, help develop overall athleticism, and allow teammates to have fun together.

Our preseason lifting program is broken down into three cycles. The first four-week cycle is the metabolic phase, and it incorporates a lot of teaching. At UCLA, we believe one of the best ways to motivate athletes is through education. If our athletes fully understand each exercise and how it will help them in their sport, they buy into the program.

The metabolic phase is geared toward preparing the athlete to tolerate the more stressful training methods that will follow. It is designed to improve structural strength, flexibility, and conditioning levels, and to provide the base of training that is necessary to make gains in maximum strength, speed-strength, and speed. On two of the three days, lifts are timed, with 60 seconds of rest between each set. Along with giving the workouts structure, this helps build communication and teamwork. (See “Metabolic Phase”)

We spend a lot of time with our incoming freshmen during the metabolic phase, educating them on the hows and whys of the program. The first month can be difficult, as the incoming athletes have to adjust not only to a new school, new teammates, and a new living environment, but also to a demanding training schedule. So, we try to give them a lot of emotional support as well as being coaches during this time.

Following the metabolic phase, we shift into a six-week power phase, incorporating position-specific exercises into the lifts. The athletes are divided into two groups—goalies and field players—and the exercises take into account some of the special needs of the two very different positions. (See “Power Phase”)

For example, we perform a tennis ball reaction drill with our goalies to help develop hand-eye coordination and reaction time. The goalie stands facing a wall while her partner is directly behind her with a bucket of 20 tennis balls. The partner rapidly throws the tennis balls at the wall, varying the height, speed, and direction. The goalie must quickly catch each ball and place it in a bucket in front of her. As the goalies become better at the drill, we add in another visual stimulus, such as tennis balls of different colors. As the partner tosses the colored balls at the wall, the goalie calls out the color or places each ball in a bucket designated for that specific color. By introducing more stimuli into the drill, we believe the reaction time skills will better transfer into the pool.

The end of our power phase coincides with the end of the fall quarter. We usually test for improvements during that final week before we release the athletes for winter break.

Our third phase is an eight-week program (three weeks of which occur over winter break) designed to give that last push before the season starts in February. Athletes who live in the area train at our facility over the break, and those who live away from campus are given an explanatory packet on how to train at their home gyms or local high schools.

This final program builds on all our previous hard work and is very grueling. We purposely make the program incredibly challenging in order to build the mental toughness and swagger we want the team to carry into the season. In addition to heavy lifting, we also incorporate a tough medicine ball circuit into the program, and tack on stadium stair runs to the end of every workout. (See “Final Push”)

In-Season Lifting

During the season, the focus shifts away from the weightroom and into the pool. We continue to lift throughout the season, but we enter more of a maintenance mode, and only lift twice per week.

We also pay close attention to avoiding overuse injuries, especially to the shoulder. Every workout in the weightroom begins with an extended dynamic warmup and a long stretch, starting with band exercises to build shoulder flexibility and stabilization. The overhead lifts and bench pressing exercises are eliminated at this point in the year. Furthermore, at every workout we make sure to include at least two different posterior shoulder exercises.

At the end of the season, which coincides with the close of our academic school year, we meet with each athlete individually to help them set personal goals for the following year. Similar to winter break, we give each athlete a packet outlining a summer conditioning and lifting schedule. Since they’ve been through a preseason program, they know that the work they do in the summer will help set the tone for the upcoming season.

Warmup & Stretch

Throughout the whole year of training, every workout in the weightroom begins with a dynamic warmup and stretching exercises. The dynamic warmup accomplishes two goals. First, it prepares the body for the upcoming workout by increasing the athlete’s core temperature and consequently warming up the muscles. Second, it helps to develop the overall athleticism of the athlete. Water polo players are incredible in the pool, but some can struggle while performing dry land movements.

The dynamic warmup consists of the following exercises, each done as two sets of 20 meters:

  • High-Knee Skips
  • High-Knee Runs
  • Butt Kicks
  • Drop Skips
  • Lunge Walks
  • Side-Lunge Walks
  • Straight-Leg Walk
  • Straight-Leg Skips
  • Backward Runs

After the dynamic warmup, we go through a complete flexibility routine. We perform active/isolated stretching, and use a strap in place of a partner to save time. The flexibility routine consists of the following stretches, each done for 10 reps: Soleus, Gastrocnemius, Short Adductor, Long Adductor, Hamstring (foot dorsi-flexed), Figure Four, Hip Flexor, Stick Warmup, Pec Stretch (elbow bent at 90 degrees), Pec Stretch (arm outstretched), and Wrists.

To conclude, the addition of a sound strength and conditioning plan into any water polo program will contribute to the overall athletic development of your team. Additionally, it will help to prevent many of the overuse injuries seen in the sport, and also develop mental toughness. Water polo is a rapidly growing sport, and over the next few years, it is going to enjoy a vast increase in popularity and attention.

Table One: Metabolic Phase

The following is a sample week from the metabolic phase of our preseason program. Lifts on days one and three are performed using a timer, with 60 seconds of rest between each set. On day three, the last set of each exercise is performed to failure. If the athlete performs more than 12 reps on the last set, we bump the weight up for the next week. A dynamic warmup and stretching routine are done before each day’s workout.

Day One

  • Squat: Warmup x10

    3 x 10 at 60%)

  • DB Bench 3×10
  • Bent Row 3×10
  • RDL 3×10
  • Hammer 3×10
  • Lat Pull 3×10
  • Back Extension 3×10
  • Core Circuit

    Pillar 3x1min

    MB Russian Twist 3×50

    V-up 3×50

    Sit-up w/ Throw 3×20

    Jack-Knife 3×10

Day Two

  • Complex 5×5


    OH Squat

    Push Press

    Good Morning

    Bent Row

    Bar Curl

  • Bar Toss 3×10
  • Hanging Leg Raise 3×10
  • Back Extension 3×12
  • Shoulder Circuit 2×12

    Abd. IR to ER

    Lateral Rs

    Front Rs

    Ext. Rotation

  • Jack-Knife 3×15
  • Stability Ball Balance 3x1min

Day Thursday

  • Squat: Warmup x10
  • 2×10 at 65%

    1xfailure at 65%

  • DB Bench: 2×10 at 65%
  • 1xfailure at 65%

  • Seated Row 3×10
  • RDL 3×10
  • Push Press 3×10
  • Lat Pull 3×10
  • Reverse Hyper 3×10
  • Core Circuit

    Plate Walk 4xcarpet

    HLR 3×12

    Wrist Curl 4×15

    Standing Side Touch 4×10

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