My two cents on iron and swimming

First disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in medicine, applied physiology, sport science or whatever other academic discipline is even loosely connected to what I deal with in this post. I don’t have either a certificate as a strength training or swimming coach (by the way, I am an applied linguist). My only “expertise” comes from my personal experience in lifting iron, swimming, and some readings. Therefore I don’t give in this post any piece of advice, just explaining from my perspective based on my own goals what is to me the relationship between lifting weights as a form of strength training and swimming. What follows are some considerations about what I did and what I am doing as “lifting”, along with a rationale for what I am planning to do with my strength training program now that I picked up swimming again. In case you decide to give a try to what I am doing or planning to do, I shouldn’t be considered responsible. Do your homework (and seek real experts advice) before starting any kind of training program.

Second disclaimer: if it ever happens that you decide to read this post a first time, consider also to come back in the future, as I may update it as often as I play around with my training programs (which is not every week, but every 3~5 months) or add some more readings under my belt.

In the weight lifting room when I was a young swimmer. The first time I grabbed a barbell I was 15 years old. Or maybe 14, I don’t remember well. Our swimming coach introduced us to the “gym” just behind the pool deck, and when our middle school gymnastic teacher knew it, he said that it was wrong to start lifting at such a young age. At the end, the gymnastic teacher was proven to be wrong, and I am happy because since then I have been enjoying lifting. The “gym” behind the pool deck was just a room next to the toilet where somebody had placed a bench press, one barbell, a flat bench and a pulley machine with four stacks of weights and some attachments: one handle, two short attachments for biceps curls/triceps extension, and one longer for lats pull down. I don’t remember dumbbells, but our coach demonstrated creativity with that restricted equipment. The bench press was the exercise we did the most, followed by triceps extensions and biceps curls. Lats pull down and pull down behind the neck were popular too. Lower body workouts were almost unknown instead. We did the gym workout after the swim session for 30 minutes to 1 hour. I remember just two types of workout: either a circuit training at the pulley machine mixed with some abs work, or a “pyramid” at the bench press. The pyramid was nothing but a sort of program were we did progressive sets increasing the weight up to our 85% max while decreasing reps from 8 to 2. Our coach explained that he wanted us to become stronger, not bigger. Of course, thinking at the high reps number we did for the exercises at the pulley machine and considering the rep range at the bench press, I don’t know whether that program made us bigger or stronger or both…for sure it helped anyway, even if at 17 years old my body weight was 59 kg (for a bit less than 170cm).

Old picture: 17 years old and 59 kg. Walking away disappointed after finishing a 200 BF in 2’09”. But it was my PB.

When I moved from my hometown to Venice to study at the university I signed up for the local swimming team, which a that time was one of the strongest male swimming team in Italy, with a lot of awesome fast guys. Their “gym”too was a room on the pool deck. But this one was more “gym” than my old one. We had a squat rack, a bench for bench presses, an inclined bench for presses, a number of regular benches, sets of dumbbells, a leg extensions machine and a pulley machine with four stacks (this last one was already quite familiar to me). The gym layout was not the only big change. We were assigned to a professional strength training coach, a big guy who’s name was Roberto Bellan, a former bodybuilder. Roberto had us pump iron and then pump iron again. In just one year my bench press max went up more than 20 kg and my body weight 4 kg. However, what counts is that I demolished almost all my swimming PBs, both on short and long distances: I was faster and I also had more endurance. Once I asked Roberto, ” but aren’t we going to be too heavy to swim with too much muscle?” he answered in perfect Venice dialect “on a first base a strong muscle has always endurance”. And after having said that he had me pump another set. I remember doing split workouts for upper and lower body parts (leg workouts were quite gruesome), a careful selection of reps and weight, and a terrific attention to form. He had us often training with our top weights, but with perfect form. What Roberto said me, that a strong muscle has always endurance, still sticks to my mind. Roberto’s approach, supported by the results I got when I swam in that team, is mainly what informs my strength training philosophy still today: you must lift to be strong, and if your muscles are strong, they don’t give up.

In the weight room again when I didn’t touch any chlorinated water. I didn’t decide to retire from swimming overnight. It happened slowly, until I realize that I couldn’t training seriously anymore. I moved to another country, to another continent to study…and I ended up living there for 10 years, before moving again. During 10 years in Asia I officially became a “former swimmer”. And my body weight went through the roof: I put on 30 kg. When I realized that I needed to do something soon or I was going to die even sooner, I picked up taekwondo, just because as I was busy with my graduate school studies and I needed something that didn’t require too much time: the taekwondo gym was just 100 steps away from my house, and they had adult 1-hour daily sessions in the evening. In three years of taekwondo I somewhat managed to drop 8~9 kg. I was not good at taekwondo, because to be good at it you need quite a bit of legs strength and flexibility, something I never had (many other swimmers don’t have it either, I guess). However taekwondo was good for me, because of many flexibility exercises, leg drills, aerobic circuit workouts and compulsory forms exercises it helped in putting back on tracks my joints and my cardiovascular system, which were by then became almost rubbish. When I graduated and began working, my job didn’t allow me to do taekwondo in the evenings anymore. That is when I decided to sign up for a gym membership, so that I could train in the morning. I started going to the gym 6 days a week, always doing some steady bike first and then some of those strength training exercises that I learned years before from Roberto. I dropped 15 more kilos in just 8 months. Weight lifting worked great, so I began studying and researching strength training by myself since then.

After about one year of gym membership, I realized that I didn’t need it actually. My home could be my gym (consider having a look at this site to get an idea of a really badass strength training mindset. This site had me change completely my approach to understanding what “building strength” means). So I began training with body weight, a sandbag and a kettlebell. Later I added also a couple of wooden rings and parallettes. I did kettlebell squats, cleans, push/presses, snatches, sandbag deadlifts, sandbag presses and carries. I also did a lot of gymnastic rings sessions (it’s a shame I cannot find a spot to hang rings now, I loved doing wooden rings exercises) and rope skipping.

These are 2 x 24 kg, but I also have 2 x 28 kg. Kettlebells are awesome.

In a few months I reached my goal body weight, and I finally dropped 25~26 of all those 30 kilos that I had gained. I had also created the habit of training early in the morning, and I still do my lifting workout just after waking up, even if now occasionally I swap them with going to the pool.

Moving cast iron around and swimming today. When I started swimming again and I signed up for masters swimming competitions I kept my strength training workout pretty the same. Only recently, since I am swimming 6 sessions a week, I reduced my strength training workout from 6 to 4 weekly, because 1) I don’t think that doing both workouts for 6 times a week works, 2) I do two swimming workout early in the morning every week now, in the time I previously use to allocate to my strength training, 3) I really want to see whether by doing less I can obtain more (consider the concept of abbreviated workouts or some strength workout volume suggestions by successful strength coaches).  For all this year I have been modelling my strength programs on Dough Hepburns’ “program A”  and I must say that I am quite happy with the progress I made. Early this year I also invested in a thick barbell, a set of dumbbells with thick attachable silicon handles, and 150 kg of cast iron plates, which allow me firstly to manipulate progress increase better than set/reps number or resting time, and secondly give me a wider selection of exercises and movements.

Thick dumbbell
One of my Olympic dumbbell with a thicker handle.

Even if every couple of month I play around with my training programs, what constitute the core is:

  • Constant, small and calculated progressions. Every workout I add reps, or sets, or volume, or I decrease resting time. But I always do a little something more than the previous workout (to do this you need to keep track of every single workout. I log details of all my workouts in a diary).
  • Use of low reps/heavy weights. What is “heavy” is quite individual. I usually do between 2 and 3 reps for set for a weight that allow me  to do just that, maybe only a couple of reps more.
  • Use of “high” number of sets. If you want to be strong, you need to lift heavy. But lifting heavy once will not make you strong. For the main exercises I usually do between 7~10 sets.
  • Keeping rest short. I keep rest between sets relatively short, even if I lift within the 2~3 reps range. Usually between 45 seconds and 1’10” (to help me doing this I bought some years ago a gymboss. I consider the 20 dollars I spent on this little timer one of the best investment of my life).
  • Use of compound movements. Even if sometimes I swap exercises, the core of my training are always compound movements: squat, cleans, cleans and presses, strict presses, push and presses, snatches, snatch grip high pulls, deadlifts. And since I don’t have a rack or a bench (and I am happy without), I must clean the weight every time I do a front squat or a press, and I also must lowering it down as quietly as possible, because I train at home and my wife (as well as the neighbors) would never allow me to drop almost my body weight from overhead.

And tomorrow? My plan for the (near) future is to keep the core of my strength training as it is, maybe I will play around with Dough Hepburn “program B” or approaching some form of Wendler’s 5-3-1. Anyway, I want to keep my focus on strength (and power) development. Is this fine with my swimming goals? Is this approach fine with swimming at all? I needed to have a look at some more “scientific” source about the relation between strength training and swimming before deciding to go this way.

What I found is that (as always happens in any field of research) except for a few things, different research papers on the same topic seldom agree on the conclusions. However, what has been reasonably proved is that dryland strength training combined with swimming is better at improving swimming performance than a swimming only program. The problem is that “dryland” strength training means different things to different people. Sometimes it’s body weight exercises, others is a form of resistance training, others again free weights. Looking at the types of strength training, it has been showed that circuit training and weight training are in no way detrimental to swimming performance and that a circuit training program including weight training improved both speed and endurance in swimmers. However it must be noted that dryland maximal strength training has the potential of improving performance only if it is periodized correctly. As for which kind of exercise to use apparently both free weight training and assisted weight training can improve performance without any particular difference, however it has also been stated that swimmers need more specific form of resistance training to improve performance, compared to cycling or other sports, because it appears at least that non-specific dryland resistance training alone does not improve speed in swimmers in distances up to 200 meters. But can strength training interfere with the development of other capacities? It seems that when it is combined with endurance training  it does not affect the capacity of increasing vo2max, so another good reason to give strength training green light. And what about strength training for masters swimmers? Firstly, many sources confirm that strength training is not used only to improve performance, but also to prevent injuries, which is fundamental in adult swimmers. It has also been guessed that while younger swimmers focus on speed, endurance, strength and power, on the other hand masters swimmers usually focus only on endurance, and this can be one one among the causes of performance decrease in masters athletes. However most of these studies focus on swimming pool performance evaluated mainly on short distances (100m or 200m) or middle ones (400m), so I felt the need to answer to one more question: what is the relation between strength training and long distance swimming? Riewald says that even distance swimmers benefit from exercises designed to improve power, which is defined as the ability to generate large amount of strength quickly, such as in Olympic weightlifting. He also states that swimmers needs at the same time to improve simultaneously power and endurance to maximize performance. In order to reach this goal, even Olympic (and power) lifts can be used to develop strength and power (which seems to me an approach similar to Roberto’s).

Recovey tools
Don’t forget recovery: foam roll, massage balls, elastic bands and voodoo floss can do wonders.

So in my understanding maximal strength training can go along with open water and long distance swimming training, as power as well endurance could be trained, to a certain degree at least, together. However, in designing a strength training program which focuses on building power and endurance, one must bear in mind a correct periodization matched to swimming goals, as well as a sport specific approach in the selection of part of exercises. Upon this understanding, my future step will be to devise for me a program focused on increasing overall body strength (such as playing with the above mentioned “program B” or 5-3-1), by introducing at the same time some more sport specific movement (like the use of elastic band resistance exercises for high reps) and some more in-water resistance work (more use of paddles and maybe investing in a pair of fins).


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