How to Set Up an Annual Strength Training Program

Setting up a strength training program for the season is a worthwhile endeavour, however many aspects need to be taken into consideration. A strength training program is there to aid your training, and must not impede the volume of endurance & technique work which you need to do to improve your swimming ability. Therefore, there are two aims of the training program.

They are to prevent injury, and to improve swimming specific strength. The latter must not be confused with bulking up. As a swimmer you need a specific type of strength. You need to be able to produce forceful pulls over a prolonged period of time. This is known as strength endurance. However, we don’t spend 48 weeks of the year in this one training phase. We split are training phases into manageable layers that get shorter and shorter over the span of the season. This is known as periodization training.

During the course of the training year, the training program is aimed to progress you from low intensity training with high volume (long duration) to high intensity and low volume (faster than race pace). Your volume of training will always be high for open water swimming, but your strength program will need to support your water program and not work against it.

The type of strength you will train during the season will change depending on what stage of the season you’re in. The two main types of strength you will train as an open water swimmer are Maximum strength and strength endurance.

There are five stages of a training program. The general preparation phase, specific preparation phase, pre competitive phase, competitive phase and than your transitional phase (rest) make up the different stages of your season.

General preparation phase

During the general preparation phase the objective is to build volume. The intensity of your swims is low, and your volume is high. These long slow swims are a great way to build up the type of endurance you will need to swim the channel or to achieve your swimming goal. The length of this phase will depend, but let’s say your aim is to swim the channel in June, and you start your training program in September, than this phase will last for the entire winter, and will end in January (5 months).

Your strength program at this stage of the season if you are a beginner to strength training should first assess the injury risks you face, and try to make sure that you have a phase in your training program lasting between 4 – 6 weeks of the first 5 months to try to correct any type of muscle imbalances that may exist due to lack of flexibility, strength imbalances, previous injury history or poor swimming technique. An example of this could be internal shoulder rotation to protect the rotator cuff.

It should also include exercise for general strength and conditioning to gain some improvement in over all strength. During this stage of the program the exercises do not have to be specific to swimming. This phase can be called a foundation phase. The repetitions should be of a high volume, 15- 20 repetitions, 3 -4 sets and should incorporate every single joint in the body.

Previous issues have shown examples of injury prevention exercises. A foundation phase training program would look like this:

Injury prevention exercises:

  • Wall angels
  • Internal rotation
  • External rotation

Conditioning exercises:

  • Side Lunges
  • Bent over row
  • Plank
  • Bridge
  • Press ups

After the first 4 – 6 weeks of the training program has been completed the program should focus on general strength if you are a beginner, or if you have been doing S&C work for at least 3 years than maximum strength. This phase of the program is really important. You do not want to get strong so that you can punch holes in walls. You want to be strong so that you can take forceful swimming strokes for a prolonged period of time. Your aim is to transition the general strength you build to specific strength that you can use in your swimming. The most useful type of strength is strength endurance which we will discuss later.

The greater the strength base you build, the better level of strength endurance you build for the end of the season. Maximum strength is the best form of strength to develop your strength base. However, maximum strength is very intense and is not something someone who is a beginner to strength training should be doing. It is something you should build up to over 3 years. That means that if you are unable to do maximum strength because you are a beginner than you can train general strength.

The general preparation phase of the program will last 3-4 months after the completion of the foundation phase. The repetitions will decrease from the foundation phase of 15 – 20 repetitions down to 8-12 repetitions, and 2 or 3 sets per exercise. The more exercises you do the less repetitions you will have to perform and you want to only do 45 minutes to an hour tops. It is important to gain a long term view of what we are trying to achieve.

Specific preparation

This is the second layer of your strength program. In total it lasts for 3 months. In this phase of the program the exercises become more specific to swimming. You should now be doing fewer repetitions per set with an increase in intensity. The general preparation phase built overall strength throughout the whole body to lay a strong foundation, but now we want to focus on the key muscle groups important to swimming performance. They will be the back, chest and glutes.

We also want to reduce the amount of exercise we do at this stage so that we are being really specific to swimming performance. We only want to do between 2-4 exercises per session. Due to the reduction in exercises we do more sets per exercise. This allows us to develop good strength for performance in the muscles that count. Another thing that will affect the amount of sets you do per exercise is the amount of repetitions you do. If you are a beginner you will have been doing 10-12 repetitions in your general preparation phase. You now want to do 6-8 repetitions with greater intensity. If you were doing maximum strength with 4-6 reps in your general preparation phase you want to be doing between 1-3 repetitions.  If you do fewer repetitions than you do more sets so adjust your program accordingly. For example:

General strength

Wide grip pull ups 5 sets x 8 repetitions

Pec Flys           5 sets x 8 repetitions

Hip extension 5 sets x 8 repetitions

Total sets 15

Maximum strength

Wide grip pull ups       8 sets x 3 repetitions with 5 minutes rest

Pec Flys                       8 sets x 3 repetitions with 5 minutes rest

Hip extension             8 sets x 3 repetitions with 5 minutes rest

Total sets 24 sets

Pre-competition phase:

4- 6 weeks before your competition you want to begin to transition your strength into strength endurance. We still want to keep to 3 exercises, but we want to now decrease the intensity and increase the repetitions. There is a lot of argumentation between strength experts as to whether it is worth training strength endurance, and if you do how many repetitions you use. Some people will say as high as 100 repetitions, I am going to go a lot more lower in order to protect the joint from overuse.

My example program is as follows:

Bench press                                         3 sets x 30 repetitions with 30 second rest

Straight arm push downs                    3 sets x 30 repetitions with 30 second rest

Bridge                                                 3 sets x 30 repetitions with 30 second rest

Competitive phase

You may have a number of events between June and August. Your main event may be in June and all the others are for fun. Your goal now is to maintain the strength you have built. If you stop strength training all together you will lose everything you have trained hard to gain, so drop your strength training from 2-3 a week down to just one day a week. Stay in your strength endurance mode.

Other tips

Try to learn a range of different exercises for the duration of the season so that you can change exercises every two weeks for best results. Your body adapts quickly so if you are doing the same program for longer than a month your gains will slow down.

Changes to your program don’t have to just be changes of exercise. You can do the same exercise but change from a narrow grip to a wide grip; you can use dumbbells instead of a barbell. Try it now if you don’t believe me. Do a 5 press ups the way you would normally do it & than do 5 press ups with a much narrower or wider grip. It should feel like a different exercise.

Gerald Smith is a Triathlon personal trainer in London. He is a presenter, personal trainer and fitness writer. He has written for some of the top fitness publications in the UK. Visit his fitness blog for indoor or outdoor fitness training, nutrition, goal setting and motivation.

Rick Ross

Rick Ross is a guest author at Hive Health Media.

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