Dryland Training

Dryland training is another source of confusion and mystery for most swim coaches. However, it has become an essential part of most swim teams. There are even multiple companies dedicated to providing swim teams personalized dryland regiments. In this section, we will go through some of the important concepts behind dryland training and its importance to swimmers, as well as an example of how dryland can fit into your regular swimming training. 

The big question is: What are we trying to accomplish with dryland training? Training the muscles for endurance and technique should be done in the water. On land, the only goal we should have is developing the nervous system in order to improve muscle fiber recruitment and build more power from the same amount of muscle. The focus is for dryland to help our swimming, not the other way around. Nobody on a pool deck cares how much you can bench and nothing done on land should negatively affect how we train in the water. 

Before we get into the complexities of senior dryland training, let's briefly go through what age group dryland training should look like. The goal with age group dry land is to improve body awareness and coordination. When we swim or perform complex physical motions, there is a huge amount of neural communication that travels downward from the brain to the muscles as well as upwards from the sensory nerves to the brain. Dryland in young swimmers should focus on improving the nervous system communication system. Simple contract-relax motions like squats, push-ups and sit ups help give kids a little bit more awareness and control over their bodies. The hope being that in the water they will be more able to improve their technique and change their swimming for the better. Worst case scenario, dryland can just be another avenue to build your team and have some fun playing games, stretching and telling stories. 

Senior swimmer dryland can be a little more complex if you want it to be. We will go through some of the tougher variations that can be applied to dryland training, but this is a supplement to the swimmers’ training, not a replacement. The main training for any swimmer should occur in the water. 

The concept of specificity demands that for any motion or activity to be athletically improved, you must train as close to that motion as possible to make the maximum gains. For example, the best way to get better at freestyle is by doing freestyle. That's not going to be possible on dryland, let's just admit it. But we can still improve the components of swimming by breaking down and training them individually. Our four major components are: Jumping, Pulling, Pushing, and Abs. Not running, not Olympic lifting, not cycling… Those do not resemble swimming in any way and so we think they should be avoided.

For example, a research study compared how effective pure squat training would improve leg press and leg extension performance. After 6 weeks of only performing squats, the participants improved their leg press performance by about 50% of expected and in fact did not improve their leg extension performance at all! 

Here are more details on the four swimming motions that we are going to train with dryland: 

  1. Jumping: Swimmers need a good vertical. On top of that, we need to be able to jump against the resistance of the water, and we need to do it without an eccentric reflex (like jumping for a dunk) which is very hard. You can add leg extension exercise to develop dolphin kicking. Breaststrokers should perform all jumping exercises with sumo stance to develop inner thigh muscles that help with breast kicking. 
  1. Pulling: Here we are training the arm pull in the water. This motion is where we get our speed and should be trained as closely as possible to the same motion. That means straight arm pulls can be better than pull ups. In fact, science shows that mimicking the body position further improves crossover of adaptations. So doing pull-downs in a laying down position is best. 
  1. Pushing: Pushing muscles in swimming are more about recovery of the arms and producing motion. That means this is probably the least important of the exercises we do. But it is important in creating balanced muscle groups that protect against injury. Muscles always activate agonist (pulling muscles) and antagonist (pushing muscles) groups at the same time. The stronger the muscles, the more stable the joint and the more power that can be applied. 
  1. Abs: Abdominal training is not directly for strength or speed, but for balance and maintaining a strong connection between the arms and legs during swimming. We love using weighted planks to mimic the “holding" position your abs perform during a race. In addition, we like to break down ab workouts into upper, lower and twisting ab motions and design circuits around those three motions. Planking can be included in those circuits too. 

Now that we know what motions we are trying to mimic in dryland, we can get to the actual training part. Just like swimming has several training zones, dryland also has several zones. These are divided into circuit, strength, power and speed training. 

  1. Circuit: Circuit training has been shown to improve VO2max, probably by forcing the heart to pump a lot of blood to multiple major muscle groups at the same time. We do a couple weeks of this at the beginning of the season to boost our endurance training and also to build a weightlifting base before we start going heavy and fast. Choose your exercises, set up your equipment, then start the circuit training with minimal stopping and resting while doing as many rounds as desired. Reps for each exercise should be around 6 to 10 and should be light (around 30 to 40% of your 1 rep max) to help keep things moving while focus on technique as much as training. Here are several examples of circuits:


  1. Strength: Strength training is defined as the maximum weight that can be lifted. This allows for maximum recruitment of all muscle units at the same time, developing maximum muscle activation. Open kinetic motions like free weights improve athletic ability better than closed kinetic motions like weight lifting machines. The advantage of using machines, however, is that there's not a lot of technique knowledge needed, and they can be safer exercises to perform. If you want to add a layer of fancy, incorporate resistance bands to the exercises in order to increase the weight as a muscle completes its contraction (where it is stronger). This will further develop the nervous system to accelerate the weight as it is lifted.
  1. Power: Power training is defined by moving weight at maximum speed. Other names for this training are Speed Loading and Ballistics. This has been proven to be very effective for speed based athletics. The idea is to decrease the weight and reps, and focus more on moving the weight as fast as possible. It is most effective when you can actually follow through the motion of the muscle and accelerate the entire time. Dumbbell jumps, for example, require you to accelerate the weights as fast as possible and to actually leave the ground. This is different from regular squatting where you have to decelerate at the end of the lift to stay on the ground… bad for jumping off the blocks and walls. 


  1. Speed: Speed training is defined as moving your body weight at maximum speed. This helps reach maximum recruitment sooner and in a coordinated manner. While strength training will improve maximum force production, it's no use to us if it takes 5 seconds to get to the maximum. Power training will also help reach maximum strength sooner, but it won't mimic a real race as much as we need it to. Plyometrics is typically used for speed training, but it involves a sudden eccentric motion (landing from a box) and then an immediate maximum contraction motion (jumping onto a separate box). This takes advantage of the stretch reflex to produce more force than possible as compared with a stand-alone jump. This has a couple of drawbacks when it comes to swimming. First, eccentric motions create more muscle damage and soreness than concentric ones (bad for swimming workouts later), and it doesn't mimic jumping off the blocks or walls because we don't have a sudden eccentric motion involved (unlike basketball for instance). So, we narrow our speed training to concentric only motions with very light/body weight exercises that follow through to get maximum acceleration. 

Here are some exercise choices available to train each of these motions which are categorized by the type of training discussed above. Some involve weights while others use only body weight to accommodate teams without access to a weight room.


If you want to see video examples of all these exercises, visit the Swim Smart website and download the Dryland PowerPoint: https://www.swimsmarttoday.com/products/download-ables

The biggest problem swimmers face with dryland is the soreness that comes with it. Soreness is created by damaged muscle tissue which occurs mostly when performing new exercises, overloading the muscles with acid and performing eccentric motions. Eccentric motions are the stretching part of a lift, like the down portion of a squat. We want to avoid all of these as much as possible because our main focus of training is the swim workout and if we are sore from dryland, we can't maximize our swim workout. 

Avoid mixing and matching too many different exercises throughout the season. Choose a few favorites from the beginning of the season and stick with them throughout the season without changing. For instance, only do dumbbell squats on strength days instead of doing dumbbell squats one week and then barbell squats the next. Keeping the overall rep numbers low will also prevent too much acid accumulation and tissue damage but will be enough to make changes to the nerves and get the benefit. To avoid eccentric motions, we have to get creative. One option is to pair kids up and have the spotter assist during the “down” portion of exercises like squats, bench and pull up. You can also use exercises with dumbbells and drop the weights after the concentric motion like in dumbbell rows, dumbbell squats or lat pull-downs. 

The final piece of the puzzle to good senior swimming dryland training is developing flexibility. Improving joint mobility requires both static flexibility (maximum range of motion of a joint) and dynamic flexibility (how easy it is to reach that maximum range of motion, similar to tightness/looseness). Regular stretching can add more sarcomeres to muscle fibers, remodel the connective tissues which make up 30% by mass of the muscle, and decrease bad nerve reflexes that cause muscle spasm and joint tightness. Weightlifting can cause a lot of muscle tightness as the body tries to protect itself after being self-inflicted with damage so it is important to stretch those muscles immediately after training. 

Tangent: The nerve responsible for controlling muscle spasm is the Golgi tendon organ.

Accessing the full range of motion of our joints helps improve biomechanics in the water which means more efficient swimming which in turns means more power and less drag. Since there are a couple of different ways to stretch, we like to do them all on a weekly basis. Static stretching with proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) involves stretching, then contracting against an object (usually a partner) then stretching further. This is a common technique used by physical therapists that causes a relaxation reflex of the muscles and greatly increases stretching length. Be careful, though, this does cause more soreness and tightness initially so be consistent with it and ditch it when taper arrives. 

Rolling (aka self-myofascial release) has become popular recently and we like it for its “self-massage” feel. It helps decrease muscle spasming and loosens the fascia enclosing the muscles allowing the muscles to slide underneath a little easier (or so we think, no one really knows.) All stretches should be performed for 2-3 sets of 20-30 seconds for each muscle group. This should take a while if you do it properly and is great to do at home while watching TV or hanging out with friends (IRL please, drop the social media for a few minutes a day at least!) 

Do not stretch prior to dryland training, only afterwards since being too loose in the joints can increase injury risk. Also, swimmers in general have very loose shoulders which can be unstable and lead to overuse injuries such as impingement. For those swimmers, avoid all stretching of the shoulder, arm and upper back muscles. If there is one muscle group to stretch as much as possible, it is the ankle muscles next to the shin bone in the front of the leg. Improving this one joint’s range of motion and dynamic flexibility will greatly increase dolphin kick efficiency which is great for all swimmers!

Those are a lot of swimming motions, exercise choices and flexibility training we need to organize and perform. Naturally, we created a sample template for us to study and follow. The following template is divided into 3 seasonal sections: building a base, building strength/power/speed, and taper. Each day is laid out horizontally and includes two swimming motions to be trained and some stretching. 

Below is a filled-in template which assumes dryland training four times a week. After the first two-four weeks of circuit training (shown in yellow on the left), the dryland exercises are split up into the separate days during our strength/power/speed weeks (the middle three columns). Days 1 and 3 involve jumping and pulling exercises while days 2 and 4 involve pushing and ab exercises. In the final column on the right are the example taper workouts. During the entire season, stretching and rolling is performed and these are listed as well for each day.


The building a base section mostly involves using circuit training to get used to the weights and improve VO2 max early in the season. This helps get the entire body in shape a little faster. After we have done this, we can move into building strength/power/speed where we alternate between those three types of exercises in the hopes of building the body from one type of training to the next. This cycle of strength/power/speed repeats for several weeks or months (the green bar in the picture) until you are ready to taper. Once taper arrives, minimum speed exercises are performed just to keep a slight edge.

If we wrote out the entire template for an entire 16-week season and listed each workout we would perform each day of dryland training, we would end up with something like this:

Tangent: You went right past all of that didn’t you? We don’t blame ya :’)

You can of course modify how you want to schedule your dryland. For instance, you could do three weeks of strength training, three weeks of power training, followed by three weeks of speed training instead of alternating each week. 

That's the end of Part 4 and you are now equipped with everything you need to train swimmers like a professional! Remember that this is only a guide to help get you started on the right path. The key to growing and having fun as a swim coach is learning from your swimmers, learning from your mentors and learning from yourself. 



Wow! You actually read through that whole thing, didn't you? Thank you so much for your time and attention. We are grateful to have this opportunity to share our thoughts, discoveries and experiences with you. If you have feedback, a fun story or more experiences to share that you think would make this book more valuable to new coaches, please email sales@swimsmarttoday.com and we might just add it to the book for future editions!

Hopefully, this book is only the beginning of a long and successful swim coaching career. Try to find a mentor that you look up to and spend time with them learning what they have to teach. You can study a book for years, but eventually you will learn best by doing and apprenticing. If you keep pushing yourself to learn, experiment and learn from your mistakes, there's no doubt you will be a great swim coach who will be a memorable influencer in their swimmers’ lives. Always be humble and willing to learn from anyone, even someone brand new to the team or sport. They might just see things in a way you never thought of before ;)

- Karl and Mike


Final Tangent: “Your life is always moving in the direction of your strongest thoughts.”

- Craig Groeschel.


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