As it turns out, the difference between first and eighth place can highly depend on how well a swimmer starts and executes his or her turns. Swimmers can achieve their fastest speeds off the start, so being strong in this area can be a game-changer in boosting performance and gaining an advantage over competitors. Turns are crucial to performance as well with the underwater phase making up as much as 30% of the distance covered in a race (1). Race analyses show significant correlations between start times and race times - the faster the start, the faster the race time (2). So, with that in mind, let's go over three key exercises to improve swim starts and turns.
1. Seated Box Jump
When you're pushing off the block or the wall, you don't get to take full advantage of a key part of force development on land, the stretch-shortening cycle. Simply put, this is when muscles and tendons stretch briefly before the muscle contracts. If you look at a counter-movement jump, you'll notice the arms swing down fast, and the athlete drops down into a half-squat before swinging the arms up and jumping high. Moving into the half-squat quickly pre-stretches the muscles to allow the athlete to take advantage of the elasticity of the muscles and tendons to assist in producing force away from the ground resulting in a higher jump than without it.
To train a swim athlete to be strong and powerful without that stretch-shortening cycle, we can just put them in a position where it can't be used. This is where the seated box jump comes in handy. If the athlete is seated to roughly a 90° position, then instructed to jump as high as they can, they have to rely much more on not only the force the muscle is able to produce but also the rate of force development of that muscle. The stronger the muscle and the faster it can contract, the better the push off the block or wall.
2. Barbell Front Squat Off Supports
If you take a look at turns underwater, you'll see that they look a lot like squats. We see flexing at the hip, knee, and ankle with a relatively straight torso to generate enough force to propel the swimmer against the resistance of the water and down the other direction.
As we covered in the seated box jump section, swimmers don't get the luxury of the stretch-shortening cycle in both starts and turns; they have to rely on muscle strength and the speed at which that muscle can produce force, which you may call speed-strength. Speed-strength is the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance (3). Strength is a critical component of speed-strength, hence the name, so building strength is vital.
Because swimmers will basically be in a squat at the time they push off the wall, training them to get stronger in that position from a dead-stop can be extremely beneficial. Often, we'll cue the athlete to move the weight as quickly as possible even though the weight is going to be much more resistance than what he or she would experience in the water. In research, the intent of moving the bar quickly can be very beneficial even though it may not actually be moving quickly (4).
3. Band-Resisted Broad Jump
Looking at most jumping in the gym, it typically takes place primarily in an up and down motion. Take box jumps, squat jumps, and hurdle jumps as an example of this. Few movements in the gym involve jumping forward except for the broad jump. The issue we have with the broad jump is that it causes a pretty stressful landing. Three sets of five broad jumps can lead to a lot of knee and ankle stress, especially with the competitive nature of many athletes attempting to jump further than their peers.
For the swimming population specifically, most of their athletic performance takes place in the water, which means they are not used to landing on the firm ground all that much. So, repeatedly jumping forward and landing is not a great idea. We use the band to take away a lot of this landing stress and still allow them to be explosive. Plus, again, we get the added benefit of a forward jump, which can be beneficial in building power off the block.
These three exercises can go a long way in producing better swimmers. The key is giving the right swimmer the right exercise at the right time. How and when we program these will depend on many factors including their rough swim schedule, swimming volume, upcoming meets, and feedback from their coaches regarding their performance in the pool.
1. Riewald, S. & Rodeo, S. (2015). Science of Swimming Faster. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
2. Cossor, J. & Mason, B. (2001). Swim start performance at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Proceedings of the Applied Swim Sessions of the XIX Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports, 70-74, San Francisco, University of San Francisco.
3. Mason, B., Alcock, A., & Fowlie, J. (2007). A kinetic analysis and recommendations for elite swimmers performing the sprint start. Proceedings of XXV International Symposium on Biomechanics, 385-388, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil: Federal University of Ouro Preto.
4. Verkhoshansky, Y. & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraining: Sixth Ed. Rome: Verkhoshansky.
5. González-Badillo, J., Rodríguez-Rosell, D., Sánchez-Medina, L., Gorostiaga, E., & Pareja-Blanco, F. (2014). Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(8), 772-781.