Digging Deep into Resistance Training for Swimmers

By SwimSwam Partner Content
October 13th, 2020

Courtesy: ONEswim.com, a SwimmersBest brand.

Regardless what style of swim training you tend to use yourself, you are aware of the idea of ‘resistance’ training. In this article we will break down the concept of resistance training and dig deep into what methods may fit your team the best and how to progress your program carefully forward. For 20+ years, colleges have used Power Towers and various pulley/bucket systems, but the cost and frankly, storage space required, continues to keep the use of Power Towers out of most age group teams and most individual training processes. But there is far more technology available now that lends to the use of resistance training which should draw the attention of any swimmers from the ages of 11 through adults. The problem is that the translation of HOW to use these other options have typically been lost and so most teams mis-use and mis-understand the best way to use resistance gear. These alternative resistance methods include; parachutes, long stretch cords (that can be maxed out at 25 yard or 25 meter), drag socks/Power Bags on the legs or feet, but also simpler devices like paddles can also be used as part of a resistance program. And now strap resistance technology like the Power Slider provides a small package with a very unique form of resistance.

In a moment we will cover a brief review of the physiology of why resistance training works so well for swimmers that have good form and conditioning and thus why you should consider it for yourself or for your team. But first we should review what resistance training is NOT. It is NOT the use of these products. The easy misconception of resistance training is that you take your normal workout and add parachutes or add long cords and you will get the intended purpose, but in fact you could just be wasting your time. Some great examples:

Many believe that Resistance Training can only be done with 1 swimmer per lane. While Power Towers are typically only for 1-2 swimmers per lane, we often swim with 3 per lane with Long Cords. The ONE Power Slider can have about 4 swimmers on the same resistance line. Other resistance methods such as parachutes, Power Bags, paddles, and the like can be used with as many as 8 per lane. There is no reason to avoid Resistance Training on the false belief that it is only for 1 swimmer per lane.

Swimming with a parachute that is too large for the swimmer to swim ‘all out’ will mean they are just swimming slower as water spills out of the sides of the parachute. The slower you go with a parachute, the less it does for your physiology. Instead you should only use a parachute that allows the swimmer to swim at full speed for short distances. Long distances with a parachute have minimal value compared to shorter distances with smaller size chutes. Once a swimmer proves to themselves that they can swim all out with a small chute, then you should have a quick change parachute that can just be clipped on and off for a fast turn around and swim with the same degree of effort for increasingly larger parachutes for that same short (25-50 meters) distance.

Most teams that have a long cord (stretch cord that can extend the length of the pool) only have 1-2 intensities that they use for everyone in the group. This means that nearly all swimmers will not get to the other side of the pool and instead the game is to see ‘who can get the furthest’ on the cord. This means you just get to the end of your ability and swim in place with very little cardio effort. This can have some value in helping training novice swimmers how to engage more muscle and maybe have a better catch technique but it largely defeats the real value of swimming ‘all out’ for 25 yards at the very maximum potential of your ability. Swimmers should be on cords that are just within the upper limits of their ability to reach the far wall so that they are going ‘all out’ from start to finish and thus pushing the very maximum height of their effort level and their resistance level. So it is critical to use a wide range of intensities of Long Cords that have the ability to offer some length adjustment in the tether (to ensure they can reach and ideally FLIP on the wall) so the swimmers can constantly be pushed to the top of their limits.

Most teams only use drag socks on their feet and just ‘swim’ for far more yards than they should. This adds excess knee bend as they just slog through the water. Instead they should be using Power Bags on their calves for anything over 25 or 50 yards and then when the bags are on their feet they only swim (or ideally kick) ‘all out’ 25 sprints which will require nearly perfect technique (minimal knee bend, max glute engagement, minimal ankle bend) and maximum cardio effort.

Portable and small alternatives to Power Towers such as the Power Slider are devices that can be attached under the lane line or just above the lane to offer a variable resistance level by tensioning on a cord that is attached to the swimmer. Swimmers can not be allowed just to crank these down to the easiest settings all the time so they look cooler than the other swimmers but must be trained to push their upper limit for short distances and then to swim without the device with the same level of effort.

The physiological reasons for ‘resistance’ training for swimmers is complex but I will try to wrap it up in some simple terms. It starts by the brain sending signals to nerves. The nerves send signals to motor units (composed of muscle fibers). This makes muscles engage and your body move. One nerve can only tell so many motor units to fire so many muscle fibers. When we hit that capacity and train past the available muscle fibers, we start to develop more muscle fibers. This makes our capacity grow and over time we increase our capacity. This makes swimmers faster. By adding resistance methods to our training, we hit our maximum capacity nerve engagement faster. This means your body adds more nerve engagement over our capacity, thus making us faster over time.

But there are other reasons to add resistance to our training. Many swimmers will start to learn to use the techniques they have been taught to find better ‘power’ engagement. But it can be just as often that novice swimmers may revert to worse technique by shortening their stroke or not using an Early Vertical Forearm. Another advantage can be that many swimmers will find how to engage true power in their strokes by activating the muscles throughout their body. So Resistance Training is good for our physiology, our technique, and our physical ability to connect our maximum power properly.

Digging Deeper into the Types of Resistance:
From here out I want to dig deeper into the various types of resistance and I am going to lay it out in a progressive order. If you are new to resistance training, start at the beginning and slowly add more and more methods and equipment as you progress. Remember, the goal is to push your capacity to increase muscle fiber development. That can only be done if the EFFORT is engaged by the swimmers to reach that ‘capacity’. Just because you are using the right equipment does not mean that the capacity will be reached at all. All equipment can be cheated even by swimmers that do not realize they are ‘holding back’.

Dryland Tools: So let’s start with the least obvious but maybe most important type of resistance… dryland tools. Swimmers are experts at looking like they are breathing hard when swimming in the water so we are never sure if they are giving us 75% effort or 99% effort. Heart rate monitoring can waste valuable time and is not practical to do that often. So while heart rate monitoring is an ideal way to confirm the exertion level of each swimmer, it is also counterproductive and time consuming. With dryland there are a lot of cardio exercises that can not be cheated as easily. A good example of a dryland device that is hard to cheat is the Dryland Kicking Assembly. This device is a very low cost configuration of stretch cords to engage the kick. It not only cranks up the heart but it trains a very elongated leg, recovery muscle engagement, and can do a lot with the core muscles at the same time. This is great to build the leg muscles just before kick races in the water. Another example is the ONE Fingertip Paddles and stretch cords. Unlike normal stretch cords, these engage from the very tips of the fingers so you don’t just drop your elbow for easy and junky stroke repetitions. Instead the fingertip paddles will help develop better technique while firing up the precise stroke muscles just before racing in the water. This is far better than just yardage and will help translate the proper technique and power engagement when the swimmer hits the water. Here is a detailed article that will dig into ways to combine quality dryland work to build swim-specific muscle engagement orders. A third example is Battle of the Beast Ropes which can provide a host of upper body development but also plenty of cardio exercises that can push a swimmer to the cardio capacity just before an in-water swim for time.

Mixing Dryland and In-Water: There are lots of ways to connect ‘effort’ in dryland to push a swimmer to the edge of their capacity when they hit the water for a race immediately after. You can learn tons about this method that I call Train Savage which adds high cardio intensity exercises on dryland with all-out effort in the water. Suspension systems have a wide range of uses that will crank up the cardio while also targeting a range of muscle. Simple things like sandbags can be very hard to ‘cheat’ when they are on your shoulders and you are doing stairs or squat/jumps. Get the heart, legs, and upper body moving at the edge of capacity and THEN race for time in the water. This method has not been historically listed as a ‘resistance’ technique for swimmers but will clearly grow in popularity very quickly. This is a far more efficient process for swim training using a ‘resistance’ or ‘capacity’ slant and idea if you have less pool time per practice than would traditionally be desired. It can also help ‘socially distance’ larger groups by having some spread out around the deck and others in the water.

Stopwatch: Maybe this is obvious for some of you but not for all. As I have reviewed already in this article and other articles, ‘effort’ is one of the hardest things to confirm and quantify. Anything below a swimmer’s seed time is technically not the ‘all out’ you asked for. However, unless you are training with USRPT methods, we can all agree that hitting your best times over and over in practice is not practical. And that is where it all falls apart…. How much is ‘good enough’ when we say that ‘below seed times are acceptable’? Are they giving us 95% effort or 75% effort… or worse? A stopwatch can HELP resolve this and ensure some level of effort, particularly when you can compare to other swimmers in the same group doing the same workouts. But what is not often realized by many coaches is how essential it is to record times when you use resistance in-water gear. A parachute can provide almost NO resistance if you go slow enough. Setting a goal for a 50 Freestyle with a parachute that is X seconds slower than their seed time is the better way to integrate resistance equipment. Then you will be surprised how the same swimmer can hold 98% of that parachute time with a larger and larger parachute. Give the normal swimmer increasingly larger parachutes and they will mentally go substantially slower and slower. Get out the video camera and tell them it will be posted on social media with a stopwatch and they can give you nearly identical times with each size chute. Use any trick you have to create the effort you need. But without pushing their capacity regularly, resistance training can be a waste of time.

On-Body Equipment: The next stage of resistance training involves simple tools that you wear on your body such as fins, paddles, Power Bags (in feet, calves, arms, hips), and Power Chutes (parachute on your hips). Fins and Paddles increase the surface area of the hands and feet and thereby create resistance in the movement of the limbs. But just like any form of resistance, if this means that the swimmer moves slower than their max capacity, it will work in reverse. Swimmers can easily swim ‘fast’ with paddles and/or fins without exerting additional force or effort. This defeats the purpose. Therefore, the perceived effort must be measured by use of a stopwatch or other measurement of performance to ensure they are providing the desired degree of resistance. Power Bags are mesh ‘socks’ you can wear on your feet, your calves, your hips, your arms or drag as a parachute. Like Fins and Paddles, this provides additional surface area but in a wholly different way as it comes to impacting the technique and tempo of a stroke component. While the Power Bags can also be used in a lazy way and swimmers can mentally ‘shut down’ thinking they are going to go slow, they should be only used at maximum effort for short distances. Ideally, they are used on the calves for moderate distances to get swimmers to kick fast and with minimal knee bend. Then they can easily be dropped over the feet or fins to hang down off the end of the limb for very short distances with maximum tempo and effort. Equally the Power Bags can be used over the forearms and/or hands to add resistance to the arms.

Power Chutes: The Power Chute is unlike any other parachute. It is a mesh fabric that is worn over 2 elevated devices on the hips which pull the mesh out away from the body. The faster the swimmer moves, the more the Power Chute opens up and increases the resistance. The most noticeable impact is the moment that a swimmer is leaving the wall (their maximum speed aside from their dive entry) when the chute will open up and provide the greatest level of resistance. During normal stroking the resistance of the PowerChute is greatest when worn on the underwater side of the stroke (stomach for Free, Fly and Breast, or on back when on Backstroke). When worn on the top side of the stroke the swimmer is encouraged to get their hips up and swim fast to keep the Power Chute out of the water so it provides little added drag. But when work on the underside of the body it acts as a parachute in some ways. However, a normal parachute spills water out of the sides which means it will be easier as you go slower. But the Power Chute is mesh and provides a proportional degree of resistance in relation to the speed of movement.

Parachutes: Standard pull-behind parachutes max out your peak forces. The largest peak on most swimmers’ stroke is just as the arm in pointed straight down to the floor of the pool (for Free and Fly), or when pointed directly to the sides (Back). This means that parachutes will provide their maximum level of resistance at the peak of each stroke. So they will help improve the ‘power phase’ of most strokes by ‘pulling back’ the most in the front part of the ‘catch’. However, parachutes also can nearly stop resisting entirely on the back half of the stroke if the swimmer has not developed significant levels of power in the outsweep phases of their strokes. This can be seen by watching a parachute from the deck and with many swimmers you can see the parachute surge forward and then almost appear to stop. This ‘lurching’ affect will also cause the parachute to slide sideways which irritates swimmers when it does not stay straight behind them. If a parachute is the right size for the speed, power and effort of the swimmer, it should stay near the surface and directly behind the swimmer constantly. The more it raises and lower or moves side the side, the more it can point out flaws and weaknesses in a stroke cycle of each swimmer. However, parachutes by themselves are not resistance training if they are not being pulled with maximum effort capacity for that swimmer. Anything can be drug as a parachute such as small sponges tied to a rope, mesh bag, or a bucket to make sure that the object being dragged is something the swimmer is capable of pulling at their maximum effort. A big parachute isn’t going to do much and encourage effort if it is too large for the swimmer and they are just barely moving through the water. This is the problem with parachutes in most swim programs… swimmers were introduced too early or with too large of a parachute and their impression is that parachutes = go slow. That is not resistance training or the real value of a parachute. Like all resistance equipment they should only be used at maximum effort and a very high rate of speed. Start VERY small for the swimmer and let them see that what they are dragging can be pulled extremely fast for 25 yards and then repeat. The trick is to convince them that they can swim equally as fast as you increase the size of the object they are dragging. The ONESwim Parachute features a quick-change carabiner so that you can interchange the size of the chute in only 2-3 seconds. This way you can have them swim at max effort with the smaller (8”) chute for 25 yards a few times and then quickly change to the second size (10”) and race with the same effort. They will be surprised that they can go almost equally as fast with the larger chute. Depending on the level of the swimmer, you can do this to move them to a 12” and a 16” chute size. Once they (and you) realize they CAN swim at maximum effort with a certain size chute, you are started down your path to a great form of resistance training. However, bear in mind that parachutes mostly improve the POWER of the power phase of their stroke and will do less with the outsweep phase of their stroke. You can dive (from the deck not blocks) with parachutes safely if you start with the chute in your hand and drop it in the water as you lock your arms for the entry. This method provides a maximum speed at breakout and will encourage them to carry that speed for the full length of the pool. Wall pushes tend to encourage the swimmers to go slower and slower until they are more advanced and stronger.

Long Cords (25 yard or meter Stretch Cords): Stretch cords that will allow you to swim the full length of the pool (25 yards or meters) can be the next level of valuable resistance training. The ONE Long Cords are really 2 half length cords that clip together so you can use 2 combined for full length swims or half a cord for resistance turn practice or breakout practice and they have nearly endless uses as resisted dryland battle ropes. From a technique standpoint, Long cords force you to improve the power of all phases of your stroke (catch, power, and outsweep) as you will loose ground during any weak phases of your stroke. Unlike parachutes which just stop resisting during the weak phases of your stroke, Long Cords are constantly pulling you backwards and will cause you to lose ground with each portion of your stroke that is weak. The further they are stretched out (i.e the closer you get to the wall), the more they pull back and the more power a swimmer must engage to all phases of their stroke. The novice mistake is to just ‘windmill’ the arms faster and faster in order to cut out the weak outsweep and add more and more of the more powerful catch phases of their strokes. This will allow swimmers with poor outsweep technique to gain some ground but typically just burns up their cardio before they make enough distance to matter. One side benefit to Long Cords is that they can help swimmers ‘over race’ by pulling them from the far wall much faster than they are capable of swimming on their own (initially). The goal is for them to maintain that initial burst speed for the entire 25 yard race back to the starting wall. However, be forewarned. MOST teams use Long Cords entirely wrong. Since there are stretch cords (tubing of some sort), it is the diameter of the cord that makes up the level of resistance. So they come in 4-6 sizes of resistance. The cheapest way to buy Long Cords is to buy the hardest cord and just see how far each of your swimmers can get on the cord, with no intention of most of them ever reaching the far wall. This is a terrible use of Long Cords and it trains them to spin their tempo instead of improving their technique until they reach the far wall. And more importantly it trains them mentally that cords are more of a toy to just get a few inches further than the other guy. Instead Long Cords should be purchased so they are just below the swimmer’s ability to reach the wall (not above their ability). You must have the right resistance to ensure the swimmer can (when fresh) reach the far wall. This is the key to resistance training… matching the gear to the effort and skill of the swimmer. Once you know what their max capacity is, you can repeat it over and over so that they must always dig deep enough to high their max effort every time they use that product. Having a swimmer ‘spin’ on the end of a cord with no intention of them reaching the far wall is completely the wrong approach.

Power Towers (Bucket Pulleys): When a swimmer is pulling a large bucket of water higher and higher in the air, they have a clear mental picture of what they are doing and it has a motivating factor to help them improve every phase of their stroke technique and power. However, for non-college swimmers, this is often as much mental as it is physical. For non-college swimmers, they are often limited in the amount of weight they can pull into the air. This will result in almost NO pull-back on the swimmer. They can learn that they can slow down for a few strokes to recoup and they won’t really go backwards much at all (like they will with a Long Cord). In the end they do have to muster up the effort to pull that bucket high enough to get them to the other side of the pool. This lack of ‘pull back’ is a limiting factor to Power Towers but does not negate the value they can bring to a quality resistance program. It is easy to see that a long cord stretched out 25 yards drags you backwards at a very fast pace, but with buckets and pulleys, there is very little (if any) return speed. The advantage of such systems is the total exertion that must be applied from the wall push to the wall finish. Long Cords only engage the last half of the lane distance and they are constantly getting harder. Bucket systems require the same level of power for each foot of distance that you gain moving forward. This puts them in a unique category of resistance tools for sure. They clearly have value as many colleges use them regularly for their sprinters. But they take up a ton of deck space and have little value if you are renting lanes, etc… and have not place to store them between practices. ONEswim.com will soon have a very compact design that will provide the same performance but with a very compact system you can carry and store.

Power Slider: The Power Slider by OneSwim is a completely new form of resistance. It starts with a flat webbing strap that is connected under the lane line to both ends of the lane, or above the pool with the strap connected from the backstroke bars. Attached to the strap is the Power Slider which is a tensioning device that can be clamped down tighter and tighter onto the flat webbing strap. The swimmer is connected to the Power Slider with an adjustable length tether. The Slider ensures you can swim at your max capacity non-stop by swimming back and forth with normal flip turns. This is similar to a Power Tower bucket pulley except: 1) the tension never changes when swimming BOTH directions of the lane, 2) there is no ‘pull back’ of any sort in the Power Slider, 3) a bucket can be cheated by ‘resting’ for short periods of time and slowing down but the Slider can be nearly impossible to start moving again if you do not maintain a constant speed and power, 4) the Slider can be changed with a simple twist to make changes in resistance levels instant. What makes the Power Slider so unique is that it can NOT be ignored or cheated. A stopwatch can be ignored for a single rep out of 10, but the Slider requires maximum effort at all times. This makes it the optimum piece of resistance gear by enforcing full capacity effort. Because of this constant form of resistance, the Power Slider is the ideal way to improve on your technique power through the full stroke. Multiple Sliders can be added to a single strap as long as all the swimmers on the same strap stop at the end of each length (25 or 50) and return in the reverse order. An optional stretch cord greatly increases the effort during the breakouts.

So there are no longer any excuses not to experiment with different types of resistance. Regardless where you are in the process of adding resistance methods, there is always room to amp up your program with new forms of resistance. Rest assured, resistance WILL grow in popularity and importance in our industry. It is as important as any other training method now and in the future. Hop on board and get started! For more information you can email us at bethany@swimmersbest.com or visit www.oneswim.com.