Workout Tips for Swimmers to Use Outside of the Pool

Training a Fish Out of the Water

For competitive swimmers to be on top of their game, it’s essential to train both inside and outside of the pool. Yet, many swimmers don’t fully understand the benefits of dry land training and focus on the wrong types of exercises. Or, even worse, they don’t train outside of the pool at all.

So how do swimmers avoid feeling like a fish out of water and get the most of their workouts on dry land? To dispel the myths and realities, Avidasports sat down with Scott Hedges, former swim coach at Cranbook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. and Jason Dierking, assistant director of Olympic Sports
Performance at the University of Louisville.

What are the benefits of dry land workouts?

Dierking: “You can develop a lot more strength training on dry land than in the pool. Dry land is also a great place to create muscle balance by training muscle groups not commonly used in the repetitive movements of swimming in a pool. By training your less used muscles and creating a more balanced
body, it helps prevent injuries.”

Hedges: “I spent most of the dry land time with my teams focusing on strength and developing explosive power. You have to be quick and explosive during races and training on land can help build those skills quickly. Training outside of the pool is also a great way to build camaraderie amongst the team and
break up the monotony of two-a-day swims from time to time.”

How often should swimmers train outside of the pool?

Dierking: “I think the answer to that question depends on the time of year. At the collegiate level, during the off-season we typically train our swimmers three to four times a week outside of the pool. During those workouts, we focus more on cardiovascular and overall fitness. Once the swim season
begins, our dry land trainings go down to two or three times a week and we focus much more heavily on strength training since the swimmers are getting more cardio in the pool.”

Hedges: “At Cranbrook we would have eight practices per week. In addition we’d have another two to three dry land workouts sprinkled in, with Sunday being a full rest day. Typically each of our dry land workouts would be 45 minutes to 1.5 hours long.”

What muscle groups should swimmers isolate during dry land workouts?

Dierking: “Swimming is a total body sport; it’s hard to single out one muscle group. The power areas are leg and hips (gluts and quads) and the upper body region of chest, lats and shoulders. However, a lot of our attention in dry land training goes towards our swimmer’s core. The core is what transfers energy
and we want to make sure that there aren’t any energy leaks between the power areas of the upper and lower body.”

Hedges: “When working with younger swimmers, we typically tried to build overall strength. Many young swimmers aren’t fully developed and lack muscle mass at younger ages. The upper body and shoulders are typical injury areas for younger swimmers, so we’d work on building strength to prevent injury. We’d also work on leg strength for pushing off the walls and starting blocks as well as the core muscles (abs, back and obliques) to help swimmers pull through the water. You want to pull with your body and not your arms.”

How should dry land workouts differ for sprint swimmers vs. long distance swimmers?

Dierking: “For the most part, our workouts are the same, but there are slight differences. When weight training, distance swimmers should focus on doing more reps of a lower weight since they are trying to build consistency and muscle endurance. Sprint swimmers are the opposite. They should focus on
heavier loads with less reps to build their explosiveness and power.”

Hedges: “We’d basically follow the same model Jason mentioned, except not until swimmers reached the high school level. Once in high school, most of our swimmers followed the same training plan regardless of what events they swam. We never focused on lifting large amounts of weight. It was more
about creating proper technique. There were times when a sprinter might lift a higher weight with less reps, but it was rare more rare at the club level.”

What are some examples of strength training exercises that swimmers can do at home?

Dierking: “At Louisville we have our swimmers climb rope and do other rope exercises as well as pushups with various different grips. We also do a lot of single arm overhead presses with kettle bells. I love these exercises because they build strength while maintaining posture and freedom of movement.”

Hedges: “As I mentioned earlier, with younger swimmers we would work on building muscle development and overall strength. Bench press, lat pull downs and overhead extensions are great exercises. They isolate the upper body and are a great way to help build strength and muscle in swimmers who are still developing. My favorite land exercises are ones that force swimmers to work against their own body weight, like pushups. It helps them get strong and also promotes balance.”

What are some examples of cardio exercises swimmers can do at home?

Dierking: “There are a lot of great cardio exercises for swimmers. Running up hill, running stairs and biking are some of the obvious ones, but swimmers can also see a huge gain in cardiovascular fitness by swinging ropes, jumping rope (standard ropes or weighted ropes), boxing and also shadowboxing. All of these will accelerate their fitness outside of the pool.”

Hedges: “Typically we never did a lot of cardio training outside of the pool at the level I coached. “As long as we had adequate access to pool time, most of the cardio work happened there. However, if we were short on time in the pool, running was our most common exercise, both sprints and long distances.”

What precautions should swimmers take before their land workouts to help prevent injuries?

Dierking: “Injury prevention comes down to movement quality. We do a functional movement screen on each swimmer to identify any mobility issue that could cause injury and then we design their workout around their individual needs. For instance, if one of our swimmers has bad ankle mobility, advising them to do heavy squats could cause a serious injury. In addition, before each workout we put every swimmer through a warm up routine that includes stretches and movements that focus on hip, core and shoulder mobility and stability.”

Hedges: “Stretching has a huge impact on the effectiveness of a workout and it accelerates body recovery and overall flexibility. Always stretch both before and after every training session and stay properly hydrated.”

What are the most common mistakes swimmers make when training outside of the pool?

Dierking: “The most common mistake I see is poor technique and trying to lift too much weight when weight training. I can’t stress enough how important it is to not only train for strength but also for muscle balance. Swimmer should make sure they are training muscles they don’t commonly use to create a balanced body. Using improper technique and overloading with excessive weight does nothing besides put swimmers at risk for injury. There is no tangible benefit.”

Hedges: “I think it’s important for every swimmer to know and understand their own ability level before any land workout. Middle school swimmers don’t have the same abilities as high school swimmers and high school swimmers can’t handle the same workload as a collegiate swimmer.”

What is the best piece of advice you give swimmers about training on land vs. in the pool?

Dierking: “I tell our swimmers to prioritize quality and skill development in their workouts. Overly intense training outside of the pool only leads to poor practices in the pool and it stunts their total skill development. Sometimes less can be more, so it’s important that swimmers don’t get over anxious and
try to accelerate their fitness too quickly. Make sure to not over do it and allow proper time for rest and muscle recovery.”

Hedges: “It’s easy for athletes to work hard, but it’s challenging to justify the purpose and outcomes of each workout. Make sure you work with your coach to set clear goals and milestones and measure the progress you make towards achieving them each and every time you train.”

More about Jason Dierking and Scott Hedges

Jason Dierking is in his third year as an Assistant Director of Olympic Sports Performance at the University of Louisville. In this role, he works directly with men’s and women’s swimming/diving, men’s soccer, field hockey, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s golf, and cross country. Dierking comes to
Louisville from Indiana University, where he served as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the four years. He also was a graduate assistant strength coach at IU from 1998-2001. During the summer of 2000, Dierking worked as the strength and conditioning intern at the Olympic Training
Center in Lake Placid, NY, where he helped train athletes that were preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Dierking earned his master’s degree in exercise physiology from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree in adult physical fitness from Eastern Kentucky University.

Scott Hedges is head of operations for Avidasports. Prior to joining Avidasports, he was the swim coach for the prestigious Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan from 1994-2009. While at Cranbrook, Scott led his swim teams to set new school records and numerous champions.

In addition to Scott’s experience at Cranbrook, he has been head swim coach at the Birmingham Athletic Club, the Hilltop Swim Club and was also a Birmingham Blue Dolphin’s assistant coach for two years. He was selected, by his peers, as the All-Area Coach of the Year in 2001, 2004, and 2008. Scott was also named Coach of the Year by Cranbrook’s Booster Club in 2004. He has been named Michigan’s Girls Swimming Coach of the Year, State Championship Meet Coach of the Year, and Zone Coach of the Year.

His teams consistently placed top in the state and finished each season with at least 90% of the team members setting personal bests.Under Scott’s leadership, Cranbrook swimmers achieved: All-American status (43 swimmers) and All-state honors (117 swimmers). Scott is a former collegiate All-American swimmer himself.