The Best Strength Training Program for High School Swimmers

The Best Strength Training Program for High School Swimmers

I talk often with club and high school swimming coaches, and enjoy sharing training philosophies and thoughts about how to help our student-athletes, at any age, achieve their goals and ambitions both in and out of the pool. While on one such call with a YMCA coach last week, I fielded a question regarding strength training for the high school athlete, and what I thought was the best practice for the 14-18 age group. To say that I have strong opinions on the topic is quite the understatement, and I was thrilled to answer his question. To paraphrase:

“As a college coach, what do you want to see from high school swimmers in the weight room?”

Some 45 minutes later he had his answer, and I was well-prepared to speak longer on the topic. In my book on power training, I dedicate an entire chapter to strength training for sprint swimming specifically, and also talk at length about what I believe is the ideal strength progression for youth swimmers. Much of what the YMCA coach and I discussed is found in greater detail in the book, and while perhaps biased, I believe it a worthwhile read, one I highly recommend! In today’s article, I present the condensed version of that chapter and paraphrase my response to the Y coach. To say this is an important topic in swimming is quite the understatement, in my humble opinion, and my goal today is to move the needle in regards to how age group and high school-aged swimmers train, both in and out of the weight room.

A disclaimer: I speak only for myself and for our program here at Liberty, and while I believe this is the best progression and best route for youth swimmers to follow, other college (and club) coaches may believe differently. By no means do I speak for all college coaches, though having said as much, I don’t know many that disagree with my thoughts. If you are a club or high school coach reading this article, I do hope you’ll implement these suggestions in your program. What I write here is, in general, what we as college coaches want to see from your recruits in regards to weights, strength, power, and overall, functional athleticism.

I first responded to the YMCA coach with a question of my own, as I often do before I embark on a saga regarding training for swimming (yes, I purposely chose the word saga to describe how I speak to such matters). I find it beneficial to prime the recipient for my response; they are far more receptive to the message, and a question at the onset engages them throughout the dialogue.

“First, let me quiz you: Why are men faster than women?”

“Well, they’re stronger” was his response.

“Exactly,” I said. “It certainly isn’t because the high school boys in your program work harder, that is for sure!” (Yes, for the scientists reading this - there are other physiological reasons, but let us keep it simple for this article)

A hearty guffaw ensued, and from this point forth we were on the same page in regards to the big picture; strength is important. I then delved into to the details in regards to his question, starting with an example of two high school swimmers. All else being equal, suppose we had two recruits:

  • Both are 5’10

  • Both are sprint types

  • Both work hard, sleep well, eat to fuel the machine - not for taste, are of high character, etc. etc.

Recruit A is 23.5/51.0/55.5 in the 50/100 free and 100 back. She has a limited background in the weight room.

Recruit B is 23.3/50.5/54.9 in the same events. She has three years of a serious strength training background.

Again, all else equal, I told the coach am going to go for Recruit A every time. While recruit B is faster, sure, I know Recruit A has a much higher ceiling, and she’ll not only improve more in our program, she’ll be faster than recruit B after four years on the back end as well. The background matters, as we know, so much so that many recruiting services tout “has not lifted for power” or a similar message when showcasing their recruits. They know what excites college coaches, and tailor their message accordingly.

I went on to say that I love to see fast recruits with a limited strength training background, but I don’t necessarily want to see the same recruit without a background either. I continued:

1. A multi-sport background is a plus

We love pure athletes here at Liberty, and the more sports at a young age the better. Six years old? Play them all. I prefer age group types save the specialization for high school (or later). The benefits are endless, and as this is commonsense, I won’t list them here.

2. Movement patterns matter

It is amazing, as per just one example, how many high school swimmers cannot properly perform a free weight body squat with a healthy, functional alignment. What happens from age three to 18 that we slowly lose this ability? A three-year-old squats with perfect form. Is it too much sitting as we mature? Not enough play? Do we need standing desks in classrooms? Is Social Media to blame? Schools that take out recess for the sake of “education” certainly do not help matters, but that is where youth sports (hopefully) come into play. A high school athlete in any sport should be able to properly squat “to the grass,” as they say, and swimmers are no different. Move, and move in meaningful, athletic ways. General athleticism is good, and it is preferred.

3. Body weight is key

A high school swimmer should have command over her body. Pull-ups, pushups (elbows tight to the the shoulders!), free weight body squats, and planks are just a few of many movements that I prefer to see high school athletes master. To the point on movement patterns above, ideally, high school swimmers are not allowed under the bar until they can properly perform a body squat with near perfect anatomical alignment. It is logical that we learn correct movement patterns with body weight before we add external resistance, yes?

I continued, outlining my ideal progression and what I would love to see from every high school recruit: 

1. Gymnastics, early and often

When building the ideal athlete, in any sport, I cannot think of a better base than a well-rounded gymnastics programme. Not only are the three points above “mastered” at a young age, an added benefit for swimmers (and divers) is that they learn beginning to advanced tumbling skills as well. Tumbling is an ideal way to teach fast, athletic walls, and I would love to see all swimmers start with a gymnastics background.

Ideal Age Range: 3-12

2. Play (a lot of different sports)

During the 3-12 gymnastics range and beyond, branch out and play a multitude of different sports. Learn a variety of land-based movement patterns. Swim, sure, but please don’t give up basketball or volleyball just yet. Ask any collegiate sprint coach and they’ll tell you they would love the opportunity to work with a 5’10 former outside hitter. Relay starts anyone?

Ideal Age Range: 3-16

3. Introduce a body weight and med ball dryland program

The possibilities are limitless and should be explored at length. Pull-ups are ideal. Monkey bars and rings are better still. Reinforce and master proper land movement patterns. Continue with gymnastics style routines as needed, or desired. I advised against sit-ups or crunches. I explained that core “strength” as popularly referred to by swimming coaches, is a lie. What they really mean when they say core strength is actually core endurance. Endless sets of 50 sit-ups and crunches build endurance, not strength, and should be left in the 90’s, at that. It is amazing how many high school athletes can do 50 “sit-ups” but cannot hold a tight body line in a core bridge for more than 15 seconds without sagging at the hips. Show me a 60-second core bridge with perfect alignment; the transfer to fast swimming is much greater than performing 60 sit-ups.

I went off on a tangent regarding core strength a bit longer, referencing heavy front squats and so forth, but that is a different article for a different time. In summary: 50 repetitions of anything is not a measure of core strength; a one repetition maximum front squat or a weighted hanging leg raise of three repetitions certainly is.

Ideal Age Range: 12-18

4. Introduce the weight room

Yes, I concluded, I would like to see recruits with experience in the weight room, but that does not necessarily mean I want them to “lift weights.” What college swimming and strength coaches don’t want to see is the classic cart before horse syndrome, where high school athletes with poor movement patterns load with external resistance. Learn proper movements first, external resistance comes after. It is a challenge (and frankly a lot of work) to unlearn and relearn proper movement patterns once high school swimmers advance to a college weight room. I would much rather see perfect movement patterns with no weight than weight with poor movement. We can always add weight later, and we certainly do - it is hard to correct poor movements stemming from inactivity, swimming only, and a lack of proper coaching and guidance from age 4-18.

A good PVC pipe is your friend, and ideally, high school swimmers are introduced to proper strength training techniques with said pipe. Just a few of many selections that I prefer to see mastered in high school with a PVC pipe or broom handle before adding resistance:

  1. Front Squat

  2. Back Squat

  3. Nearly Anything Overhead

  4. Trap Bar Deadlift

  5. RDL/Good Morning variations

  6. Lunges and Subsequent Variations

Some will make the argument that teaching correct technique does, in fact, require external resistance, and yes, I will concede that such is the case when teaching Olympic lifts and other explosive movements. When learning a hang clean, for example, a PVC pipe won’t provide much of a benefit. Having said as much, learning proper front squat technique with the pipe gets you 1/3 of the way there. If you can front squat you can catch a hang clean. Learn the proper front squat with the PVC pipe first.

Ideal Age Range: 15-18

The aforementioned protocols elicited myriad “yes!” responses from the coach, and we were certainly on the same page and in agreement in regards to the best practices for age group and high school swimmers in the weight room. He knew the above instinctively, and I was happy to reinforce the beliefs he already held. This progression is rational, logical, and trust me, it will alleviate a plethora of headaches for your athlete’s future collegiate strength & conditioning coaches.

In conclusion, let me offer a brief summary of the question posed, and what I (and other collegiate swimming and strength & conditioning coaches) want to see from high school swimmers in regards to strength training. I’ll refer back to Recruit A mentioned above, as for a specific example:

  1. She has a gymnastics background - early and often

  2. She is an athlete and grew up playing myriad sports. She stayed with volleyball the longest before giving it up at 16 to focus solely on swimming. Better still, she was an outside, entering our programme with a vertical jump of 28 inches!

  3. Her movement patterns are precise. She has great body awareness and can control said body in space. She performs seven strict form pull-ups (sorry, cross fitters), and myriad other body weight exercises as well. Her flexibility and tumbling skills remain from her days in gymnastics.

  4. Introduced to proper strength training techniques by her forward-thinking club coach, she can perform a multitude of exercises (see movements) with perfect form.

  5. She matriculates fit, healthy, and with the aforementioned skillset.

At this point, all that is needed in a collegiate sprint program is to add resistance (and some Power Towers, of course!). She’ll improve faster, and will end her career faster, than Recruit B. More importantly, she’ll enjoy the experience of Division I college swimming to a much greater extent, and she has her parents, forward-thinking club and age group coaches, and her own hard work and determination to thank. A rewarding and successful collegiate career is sure to follow! 

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