The Three Best Lifts for Sprint Freestyle Swimming

The Three Best Lifts for Sprint Freestyle Swimming

I am fond of a good thought experiment, specifically one that forces me to examine beliefs gained through experience, intuition, and the development of mental models, not through corporate education. Said another way, I enjoy exploring questions that force me to distill the reasons why I believe without resorting to “expert authority” to justify my response. I know what “they” would say and why...but what do I believe, and why?

Inspiration for today’s thought experiment is courtesy of The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan (Gary of Keller Williams Realty fame), one of the best works on personal productivity and business success in the last 15 years of the genre. As the title suggests, Gary and Jay encourage the reader to drill down to just one thing (at the expense of others, yes) focusing their energy to a fine point for maximum results. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend doing so; while it is unrealistic for most of us to do one thing (Gary had a team to handle the rest), there is value in applying this thinking to our personal and professional lives. The One Thing question helps us focus, limit distractions, and make better decisions when the opportunity cost of several options can add up to significant changes throughout a professional career.

Thus, to the thought experiment: What is the one lift that benefits sprint freestyle swimming the most? The One Thing? What one lift would you choose for your sprint types if you could only choose one? What is the most important movement? Yes, one could argue this is highly individual based on the strengths and weaknesses of specific athletes, but for the sake of the thought experiment, let us assume we are talking about sprinting in general.

While Gary and Jay focus on business success in the book and narrowing one’s workday focus, I thought it a fun experiment to apply the principles in the book to swimming and to sprinting specifically. If I had to choose one lift, and could only choose one, what would I choose and why? For the sake of value and substance in an article worthy of publication, I expanded the list to three, and today I’ll discuss my three favorite strength training movements for sprint swimming.

Of note, full disclosure: I designed the title for maximum clicks, yes, and is intended for SEO optimization, attention, and perhaps a bit of debate/controversy as well. Clickbait if you will. The truth of the matter: these are my favorites for the current day, though they might not be the best. If you ask ten different high-level sprint coaches to name their three favorite lifts, you will receive a variety of answers. It would be hard to make the case any one coach is wrong. A growth mindset says: “there is no best way; we’ve found a great way for now, but there must be a better way, let us find it.”

Also of note, I lean on the side of a generalist in the weight room, that is to say, I believe the weight room is where we build a solid base of total body, general strength and power. It is our job as coaches to then take that general strength and find the specificity and transfer in our power work in the pool. Having said that, I do believe transfer from the weight room straight to the pool exists, and yes, I do believe certain movements are much more applicable to sprint swimming than others. In my humble opinion, the principle of specificity is far too often taken to the extreme; to a place where coaches and armchair strength gurus scrap otherwise beneficial movements because they aren’t “specific to swimming” and may not recruit motor units at the exact joint angles or the exact firing rates of pool swimming. To those types, I would say: a reverse hyper is more applicable and beneficial (see transfer) to swimming than a bicep curl - feel free to prove me wrong.

The Movements:

1. Trap Bar Deadlift

2. Clean

3. Pull-Up

Of note: Variations abound in the strength world, and there are countless ways we can tweak the core movements above to produce subtle changes in outcome. It would take a far longer and much more in-depth article to cover them all. Know that I include the variations in my thinking, and for the most part, find many of them worthwhile tweaks.

Consider then:

1. Trap Bar Deadlift and variations

2. Clean and variations

3. Pull-Up and variations

The variations are within reason and based on expert mental models. While the example is now cliche in the strength world, I’ll use it here to make the point; a trap bar deadlift is good, a trap bar deadlift variation on a wobble board...not so much. Variations, yes, within reason. Commonsense variations such as hang clean or power clean, regular vs. ballistic trap bar deads, and weighted or unweighted pull-ups echo my line of thinking.

The Methodology:

While I bent Gary’s One Thing rule a bit by choosing three lifts for the sake of the article, I did drill down to The One Thing in choosing each lift as it relates to the details of sprinting. To arrive at my three, I first broke down the 50 (in this case SCY, though I find the 50 LCM a better event in every way) into what I believe are the three most essential components:

1. Start

2. Swim

3. Turn

I then chose my favorite lift for each component, or what I believe is currently the “best” movement for the specific part of the race. Finally, I chose movements with transfer potential to other components of the race; in a perfect world, each lift provided transfer to the start, turn, and swim, though I was unable to hit this goal for the three lifts mentioned above, with pull-ups providing little if any transfer to the turn.

Again I should note: these are my favorite lifts and what I believe are currently the best, though I am always searching for new and better, and my mind is up for change. Should there be better options, by all means, we should incorporate them. I decided on these three lifts through a combination of art, science, and experience over 14 years of coaching sprint types at the Division I level. Experience - what worked well over the past 14 years, and what did not? How to balance risk and reward? What lifts proved themselves over and over again? As for the science, here I considered joint angles, range of motion through the movement as it relates to the start, turn, and stroke, the rate of force development, neuromuscular coordination, and the metabolic/hormonal response. And finally the art. The art of coaching is where the experience and the science combine to form intuition or feel/belief if you will. There are instances in coaching where we know something to be efficacious, even though we cannot pinpoint exactly why it works. Belief is a powerful component of training. When coaches and athletes believe in a particular movement, it will undoubtedly produce excellent results, even if the science is not 100% in agreement.

1. Start - Hang Clean & Variations

I like the hang clean and variations for a start for several reasons. The following are in no particular order of importance:

The start and hang clean are closed-chain kinetic movements. Thus, the transfer between the two (I believe) is higher than in an open-chain action. I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of training movements, not muscles. Even the most diehard anti-transfer types would have a hard time convincing elite-level coaches there is no difference in start transfer between a hang clean and a leg extension, or a power clean and a leg curl. That is not to imply I believe the clean a perfect transfer, of course not, but certainly there must be more transfer to a start than from the aforementioned leg curl.

The start features four contact points on the block between the two hands and feet, and we see the same four contact points in similar joint angles on the start. For this and other reasons, I like the hang clean over a lunge or single leg squat/deadlift. Force on the hang clean is directed into the ground by the legs and the bar by the arms and back; likewise, the start features legs and arms/back directing force against the block. Said another way, the start is a total body movement initiated by the four contact points, using a large variety of muscle groups, and we see similar action in the clean and variations.

The clean also correlates well with vertical jumping ability, and some research shows that training programs utilizing the clean and its variations do improve said jumping ability. The science is undecided here, and many strength coaches split on the matter, but if I were going to err, I would err on the side of cleans improving a vertical jump, yes. I cannot prove as much, and again the research is split, but when I run through the logical progression in my mind, it makes sense to me. Jumping ability is, of course, essential for a great start, and while the clean may not transfer as well to the horizontal plane and a broad jump, I believe the vertical jump correlation is enough (as well as the other benefits) to choose the clean as my favorite lift for a start. The above is not to imply that I believe the clean is the best movement to train a vertical jump, nor that I believe the vertical jump is the best predictor of starting power or overall success.

A note about “research”

I have quite a few controversial thoughts on research and the importance we as a sport place on the topic. Perhaps another article for another time. The short of the long story: While I will speak of “research” in this article, I will not cite any, and that is by design. Again, I am to the point in my career where I am more concerned with why I believe something than what the “research” says. I want you to embark on the same journey, to examine why you believe and not rely on what the “research” says. As mentioned above, the “research” on cleans and vertical jumping ability is mixed; therefore, attempts at quoting such “research” is futile at best.

That not to say I am anti-science, much the opposite; I am extreme in my questioning (good science) to the point where I “believe half of what I see and none of what I hear” to quote the ultimate skeptic proverb.

A simple case in point: As a former CSCS and current NSCA member, I subscribe to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and I’ve built up quite the collection over the years. Filled with research, some of the studies are well-designed and make sense logically, while some fall far below the efforts of mere undergraduates in just a moderately demanding Exercise Science program. There are numerous poorly designed studies. Contradictions abound, and you can easily find “research” to justify your previously held beliefs regarding myriad subjects. One can find “research” to prove whatever point they so desire…so what’s next? Sound familiar? Thus, I will mention research where applicable. I will not cite research.

Two thoughts to leave you with regards to research:

1. If you’re debating someone or wrestling with your own beliefs, starting a response with “but the research says” is intellectually lazy. Assume there is opposing research to justify the opposite view. Assume both studies are flawed. Now can you make your point or defend a belief? Can you formulate your thoughts without first resorting to research?

2. Rather than quoting research to formulate your beliefs or engage in civil discourse, ask the following instead:

A. What makes sense?

B. What is logical?

C. What does my intuition say?

Consider how I would approach the clean/vertical jump dilemma we see above. In my mind, I’m thinking the following (excuse the grammar as this is my actual thought process in words, not published writing) :

1. Ok some studies show it helps vert and some that show it doesn’t...throw it out. Reset. Clear the mind.

2. What makes sense? What is logical? How to simplify and break down the complexity? What is a vertical jump? Triple extension into the ground of hip/knee/ankle with toes as well...also a counter-movement into the ground with arms/legs to initiate the jump...extreme power and RFD needed to jump as high as possible...intent to move is maximal...effort maximal...

3. What is a clean? Countermovement down...initiate...not as deep as the vertical jump counter, but ballistic. Ok now explode...hip/knee/ankle through the toes into the ground. Arms/back/shoulders shrug/rip as well...RFD...depends on the load/intent...intent to move? Load/mindset as well...but assume maximal if the load is high enough. Effort...same...instruct them to move at max effort??...yes...

4. Now reset again. Clear the mind. Are the movements similar? Are we putting force into the ground against resistance? Are we getting the triple/quad extension of hip/knee/ankle/toes? Ballistics? Stretch reflex? Countermovements and motions? Yes to all. RFD and efforts similar? Intent to move? Yes to all if coached properly...

5. Ok...initial conclusion...I cannot be absolutely sure the clean and its variations (love ballistic trap bar deads as well) will increase vertical jump height...but I’m going to err on the side of yes in my programming, and I’m certainly going to take the clean over a leg extension or other open-chain movements.

I apply this same line of thinking to most challenges in swimming and strength training. While not foolproof, I’ll gladly trust this internal dialogue and thought process over two opposing and poorly designed “research” studies from the lab.

To clean correctly under “heavy” loads requires a high rate of force development, and I believe it trains a higher rate of force development. The ability to generate force quickly and achieve maximal explosive strength is, of course, of the highest importance for a great start, and the clean is a great way to train fast-twitch fibers to generate force quickly. In nine complete seasons of program history here at Liberty, every sprinter we’ve coached to sub 23.00 in the 50 free (yet to recruit a sub 23,00, trained them all) could also hang clean at least 150 lbs., with our team record at 185.

Now we know a great hang clean does not always make a great 50, and a fast sprinter may not always have a great hang clean...but I would be willing to bet the correlation is high if we could somehow test or poll every sub-23-second women’s 50 free in the country. Again, the above thoughts on research. Never say never and never use the extremes or exceptions to justify the is intellectually lazy to use such logic. I am not saying one must hang clean well to have a great 50. Surely we could have developed just as many sub 23.00 sprinters over the years without Olympic lifts...but do I think it helped us? Yes.

My favorite clean variations:

1. Power clean from the floor

2. From various box heights

3. Time-based with a Tendo unit

4. From a whistle start. This variation is what you would think...clean from a take your mark....whistle! Why not incorporate the reaction time of the horn into the clean?

5. DB and KB variations

6. Paired with jumps of various kinds for PostActivation Potentiation

7. My ultimate clean variation incorporates the actual start into the training. I write about such complex/PostActivaton Potentiation training in my book and include an entire chapter on strength training for sprint swimming. Imagine a bar with bumper plates on the pool deck behind the blocks. You might go three rounds of:

3 x Hang Clean @ 65% with Tendo Unit - fastest possible bar speed

1 x 15 Dive Max from flat or relay start

A further thought to the above, my favorite “lift” for a start is a resisted start itself, and this past summer, I “invented” a resisted start machine that we use 2-3 times a week in our sprint program here at Liberty. It’s a great little device for developing specific starting strength, power, RFD, intent, etc., and the feedback from our women and my stopwatch is quite positive thus far. I’m looking to bring the machine to the market and therefore haven’t released it yet, but look for more information soon. Until then, the clean and variations for a start it is, and for the reasons mentioned above.

2. Turn - Trap Bar Deadlift & Variations

When considering the turn, the explosion off the wall is my primary focal point, and I see the squat and trap bar deadlift as by far the two best movements. Both mimic the push off the wall with similar joint angles and the triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle. Both train a closed-chain movement. Both the squat and deadlift are excellent for building overall lower body strength, and their many variations useful for training power, RFD, etc..

How then is one to choose between the two? Here at Liberty, we squat and deadlift, because choosing one would be to miss the myriad benefits of the other. But for the sake of this article and the thought experiment? How does one choose between the two when considering the push off the wall from the turn?

While a close call, the trap bar deadlift wins for me over the squat for the following reasons:

The trap bar dead is safer, featuring a lower risk yet still a high reward. It is far easier to simply let go of the trap bar handles at THAT POINT than to fall into safety bars on a squat rack...or worse. Moving over a bar is far safer than under a bar, and if the benefits are similar, and I have to choose one, I’m selecting the trap bar every time.

The trap bar deadlift works the upper body as well, and I believe there is more transfer to other parts of the 50 free than with the squat. Consider the engagement of the back and shoulders, also movers in the freestyle stroke. A stronger upper body also helps with ripping the block with the arms on the start. We do not see the same type of upper body motor unit recruitment from the squat. Said a different way, I believe the trap bar deadlift is excellent for the turn, sure, and also the swimming stroke and the start. The squat has a hard time making the same claim.

The trap bar is also useful for ballistic movements and is far easier to learn and safer than the squat. Surely you’ve heard of jump squats with a bar on the shoulder or witnessed their execution - The risk/reward isn’t worth it, in my humble opinion. I like the arms for added shock absorption rather than a bar on the back for ballistic movements; thus, the trap bar wins here as well. And of course, as with the regular movement, one can simply let go of the trap bar during a ballistic movement for safety purposes, and you can program the drop into ballistic training as well.

Assuming you only wanted to train the concentric explosive movement of a trap bar jump, simply instruct the athletes to let go of the trap bar handles at the top of the jump. You get all the benefits of concentric explosion without worrying about landing with the load. I’m envisioning a way to mimic this with a squat jump and a bar on the shoulders, and while it is possible, I wouldn’t want to teach it, nor would I want to be responsible for programming such a movement.

Negligence is real, and more coaches in the swimming and strength training world need to understand that movement selection, programming, and teaching matters in terms of liability.

I like several variations of the trap bar deadlift, and we use them often with our sprint types here at Liberty. Among my favorites are the explosive jumps mentioned above, ideally with a Tendo unit, and the myriad single-leg variations. Ballistic single-leg dumbbell deadlifts are great for transfer to an explosive start as well and are a safe alternative to the same movement performed as a single-leg squat with a bar on the shoulders. As with the ballistic trap bar movements, for added safety and to only work the concentric explosive movement, simply drop the dumbbells at the top of the jump. Just be sure to drop them away from the feet - think failure on a farmer’s walk!

On a side note, I often hear what are actually single-leg deadlifts referred to as single-leg squats. If you have a bar or dumbbells overhead or on the shoulders, you’re executing a single-leg squat. If you have dumbbells in your hands with arms down, you’re doing a single-leg dumbbell deadlift. Said another way, I believe the placement of the load/hands determines whether a squat or deadlift, not joint angles. Not many agree with me on this point as the terminology is ingrained the strength world lexicon, but I like pointing out the difference, and I like to give the deadlift credit where credit is due.

As with the hang clean, one can get quite creative with programming, incorporating a trap bar into a power workout in the pool. Imagine a set of:

3 x Trap Bar Deadlift @ 65% with a Tendo Unit, fastest possible bar speed

1 x 10-yard MAX BLAST turn

3. Swim - Pull-up and Variations

It is hard to beat the pull-up for a sprint freestyle movement that benefits the stroke. There are a plethora of upper body lifts from which we could choose, and here is where I’m sure we would see quite a bit of diversity in responses from elite-level coaches. Try as I may, I cannot find a better all-around upper body lift than the pull-up and variations for sprint freestyle specifically. I like overhead lifts, and I like rows of various kinds, and I like simulated freestyle or fly pulls on a cable machine or similar pulley system. But if I had to choose just one, the pull-up is king for me. Among several reasons:

While I tend not to focus on muscles, and would rather concentrate on movements instead, the pull-up works the prime movers of the freestyle stroke and not just the lats. Assuming we incorporate chin-ups as a variation (and we do), you have the engagement of the entire upper back, shoulders, and arms in general, including the pecs, biceps, triceps, deltoids, rhomboids, teres major/minor, and so on.

The pull-up is safer than other upper-body movements that might challenge for the top spot. Consider again the difference between the squat and the trap bar deadlift...much easier to let go of the trap bar handles at the first sign of distress; the same concept applies to the pull-up. Overhead movements with bars, dumbbells, or any bench press movement cannot say the same. Said another way, it is challenging to hurt yourself doing pull-ups, and the biomechanics of the movement and the physics involved separate it distinctly from other upper body movements.

The pull-up is a great equalizer in terms of its honesty; that is to say, it is a good measure of an athlete’s upper body strength/power to body weight ratio, and as we know, this is critical for sprint swimming success and in swimming in general. A big bench press doesn’t tell me many pull-ups can the same athlete complete? That will tell me more about how they’ll fare in a sprint where one must still “come home” on the last 25. In general, and certainly more often than not, I know we’re going to get faster if we can maintain our body weight and increase our max number of pull-ups. The same holds for a one-rep max pull-up with weight; I cannot honestly say the same about the bench press.

I believe the pull-up offers a bit of transfer to the start as well, and here is an area where we get creative here at Liberty. We teach our sprint types to engage the arms fully on the start, ripping the block and using the arms/back/shoulders to help move the hips and center of mass forward. Think a luge start in the Winter Olympics - we’re looking for that kind of force generated from the upper body at the start. Now replace pull-up bar with the starting block and you can see the similarities. While the joint angles and pulling motion is different, I do believe there is transfer. On the extreme opposite side, imagine doing a start with no arms whatsoever - clearly, the arms provide propulsion to explode off the block.

As for the creativity, we’ll often do pull-ups from a whistle start here at Liberty, with an authentic “take your mark” .... then explode vertically on the whistle with maximum power output and rate of force development. We haven’t yet, but a Tendo unit attached to the hips would be even better. Now we’ve quantified the movement, we’ve made a game of it, and sprinters love beating their numbers.

Of the variations, we’ll go traditional pull-ups, chin-ups, weighted efforts of both, second counts where we might go one second up and three seconds down slow, pull-ups and chin-ups with a foam pad between the knees at 90 degrees for core engagement, and a host of other variations. The creativity is nearly limitless, and both the swim and strength coach can put their minds together to explore the possibilities.

One of my favorite PostActivation Potentiation sets for pull-ups that we do often here at LU:

3 x whistle pull-ups with plenty of rest between efforts, looking for maximum power output - get up FAST!

1 x 15 Dive Max from a flat start

The trick is to teach them to transfer the pull-up rate of force development and power to the starting block, and when mastered, you can see them getting off the block faster - no watch or high-speed camera needed.


And there you have it, the hang clean, trap bar deadlift and pull-up are my favorite lifts for sprint swimming, and the above thoughts, why. Having said as much, the beauty of our sport, as I mentioned previously, is that if you ask ten different high-level sprint coaches the same question, you’ll reserve a variety of answers. The range in beliefs is fascinating and shows the diversity of programming in our sport. There are myriad ways to swim fast, and swim/strength coaches are getting it done across the country in various ways.

Feel free to leave a comment and let me know where you disagree. I am always open to new ideas and love hearing differing viewpoints. Above all, I wish you the best with your training - swim fast!

Book Review - Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World by David Epstein

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