Strength Training For Age Groupers: Yes or No?

Some years ago, a rookie Middle Atlantic coach took his middle and high school swim teams to the weight room. There he introduced fundamental dryland and some machine-based resistance work.

“The first day with the machines was a disaster and all my fault,” he says. “Two seventh graders attacked a particular apparatus and were sore for a week. I wish I knew then what I know now. At the time, I was close to clueless regarding kinesiology and should have employed supervisory help”—probably from someone like Bryan Dedeaux, former Mission Viejo Nadadores dryland director, 10-and-under age group director and now the club’s 12-and-under leader. He is also the strength coach for Portola High School (Irvine, Calif.).

“I think the first thing that swimmers, coaches and parents need to understand when deciding on starting a weight training program,” says Dedeaux, “is that age group strength training is not the same thing as senior strength training, which may or may not involve weights. In an age group setting, coaches should be prioritizing fun over intensity, learning fundamental movement patterns over training volume and careful exercise progressions over the next cool social media fad.

“In order to create interest and buy-in early, movement exploration in the form of games and active play should be added frequently,” he says. “And ‘Keep It Super Simple’ is appropriate for age group athletes.”

So, when would one add weight training to the mix?

“Once you have set a concrete foundation in the movement patterns (push-pull-squat-hinge-lunge) without weights, established a strong mind-to-movement connection and built the maturity to focus on the purpose of each workout, then the time is right,” he says. “This will be true with most 12-and-olders who have gone through a step-by-step developmental strength training system from an early age.

“The final piece is the coach. If a coach does not have an adequate education or background in training with weights nor the ability to create progressive and safe programming, then that coach should refer out to a qualified professional. The other option is to simply stick with body weight exercises that have a lower risk of injury.

“Strength training does not have to involve weights and can be a very effective way to increase performance at any age,” says Dedeaux. “If you have the passion, the qualifications, the facility and equipment to implement weight training, I strongly believe you should make it a part of your team’s performance plan.”

The Pikes Peak Athletics Way

Pikes Peak Athletics in Colorado Springs places considerable emphasis on the strength and conditioning elements of its aquatic training.

“We have spent years refining and adjusting the balance between water and strength work,” says Chris Wojchik, head strength coach and personal trainer. Together, he and the Pike Peak Athletics team have developed seven key metrics when introducing resistance training to age group swimmers:

1. Keep it Simple

“It’s easy to get caught up in social media posts about what specific athletes should be doing in the gym. However, those recommendations can be very hit-or-miss. Stick to fundamental movement patterns such as hinges, lunges, squats, presses, pulls and carries. Sport specificity should be applied to joint angles, movement velocities and primary muscle groups. Progressive overload and the SAID principal (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) will have the greatest impacts on the success of a program.”

2. Periodize Strength with Water

“Resistance training can be taxing for age group swimmers, especially when first starting out. The strength plan should work with the water program to avoid accumulating excess fatigue. Days or weeks where the training volume or intensity is high should be carefully planned so that the athletes aren’t overtraining. The periodization will largely depend on the age, ability and capacity of the athletes involved. This will take some time to develop, and every team will have to consider their unique circumstances.”

3. Prioritize Movement Quality

“Movement quality should always take priority over load. Athlete longevity and injury prevention will be a result of proper movement mechanics and load management. If an athlete is lacking sufficient mobility to perform a movement correctly, then address the mobility deficit prior to adding load. There will be times where the athlete will push back on this point, but long-term success will suffer if standards aren’t established. Explain why it’s important to develop buy-in and keep those athletes engaged.”

4. Work in Multiple Planes

“Developing a balanced athlete requires movements that take place in all three planes of motion (frontal, sagittal and transverse). Ensure that the program has a balance between all three to maximize stability and muscular balance. Movements in certain planes will transfer to the water better than others, but neglecting multiplanar movements will impair performance improvements.”

5. Be Mindful of Ratios

“The ratio of coach to athlete will likely be much higher during strength training than for water workouts. Establishing good gym etiquette and proper movement is crucial and can be difficult to supervise if the ratio is out of balance. This ratio will depend on the age of the athletes as well as the type of workout being performed. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends the following: 1:10 for junior high school, 1:15 for high school and 1:20 for college.”

6. Test and Retest

“Find metrics that are valuable to the sport and make sure to test them throughout the season. Vertical jump, broad jump and projected max loads can help determine whether or not the current program is effective. Keep the testing criteria and testing frequency as constant as possible. These tests can also be used to determine the readiness of an athlete prior to a focus meet. If the data suggests that the program may need to be modified for better results, make small changes rather than drastic ones.”

7. Continue to Learn

“The field of strength and conditioning is always changing. Read material related to anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, psychology, coaching, etc. Blog posts by authorities in the field can also contain valuable information. However, think critically and decide if that information applies to your demographic.”

Bottom Line: “At the end of the day, every coach/team must find what works for them. Equipment availability, coach availability, athlete ability, etc. will all impact how a program develops,” says Wojchik. “Regular communication with the athletes can prevent many common issues associated with weight training. If you can’t explain why you’re doing something with the team, then you probably need to consider why it’s part of the program.”

Marrying Muscle and Water

Chris Webb is director of GAIN Swimming, a division of the Gambetta Athletic Improvement Network. GAIN was established by Vern Gambetta, widely regarded as the founding father of functional sports training. Webb himself has worked with, among others, USA Swimming’s National Junior Team, Carmel Swim Club, SwimMAC, Team Elite, Fort Collins Area Swim Team and more than 30 Olympic Trials qualifiers.

He agrees that athletic development/dryland “must be highly correlated with the objectives of the water workout to achieve optimum results. If streamlining and efficiency in the water are the goal, then the dryland routine must reflect this,” he says. “It must be coached and stress linkage. Everything possible must be done to reinforce the hip-to-shoulder relationship. It is not bodybuilding!

“A sound dryland program must address individual needs. Every swimmer should be assessed to determine any remedial needs in regard to posture or joint instabilities. Biological age and gender consideration are paramount. ‘Earning the right’ needs to become an athlete-and-staff mantra. All the work in the water is essential, but if swimmers are not strong and stable enough to hold a position—especially as they fatigue—then all the yards in the world will not make them better swimmers.

“All dryland programs should be under the direction of a qualified coaching staff,” he says, keeping in mind the following tenets:

1. Body weight before external resistance

“There are exceptions. Pulling with a piece of surgical tubing with 3 pounds of resistance is a lot easier than a pull-up for a beginner.”

2. Train from the inside out and from the ground up

“Core before extremities, legs before arms.”

3. Train movements, not muscles

“The biceps need no isolated training. What’s necessary is training athletically beneficial movement patterns. If the biceps are part of this, so be it. You want a body that sings in chorus.”

4. Think of strength training as coordination training under proper resistance

“Never sacrifice range of motion or rhythm for intensity and load. Once an athlete is capable of executing the foundational movements of squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, bracing and rotating in multiple planes with appropriate technique, they are PHYSICALLY ready to use load (or weight), regardless of age.

“This is a necessary element, but not the only one required to participate in external resistance exercises. MENTAL and EMOTIONAL maturity are the largest factors in starting a resistance program. Following directions, coachability and behavior are the three most important qualities necessary for an athlete to begin an external resistance program of any kind.

“The varying ways at which swimmers arrive on the podium have one major thread, and that’s technique. Technique before speed, speed before strength. Research shows that strength can backflow into speed, but it has a shelf life of about four-ish years. Specificity will reign supreme,” says Webb.

Doing More With Less

Mike Deboor, head coach of the uber successful Lakeside Swim Team in Louisville has produced four Olympic team members. He has also been named Kentucky senior coach of the year (15x) and ASCA age group coach of the year twice. Like many of his compatriots, Deboor says, “By no means do we have a perfect dryland set-up, but we keep working on it. Staff, space, time, etc. all play a role—so some is what we do and some is what I believe and would like to do in the ideal world. Currently, we outsource the older kids to a PT group. I have mixed feelings about that, but it gives us the professional in there.”

Deboor firmly believes the value of dryland and weight is in injury prevention and functional strength gain. His philosophy for 12-and-unders is body weight, dynamic movement and teaching proper movement. “I want swimmers to know shoulder rehab/prehab to prevent injuries. The method can be games, circuits, cords, a few medicine balls, but pretty general stuff.

“For 13-14s, the goal is to learn, develop and refine skills in the weight room. I believe in dumbbells and cables versus barbells—stability and balance—all multi-joint movements. Expand on what they know, learn the Olympic lifts and movements. Start adding weights when ready and based on body type, maturity and how they stay on task.

“15-and-over—just expand on it, add more weights, but still not super heavy, no max stuff, just make it challenging. I like circuits and super sets. I’m looking for a good balance and overall development, just trying to develop a better athlete,” he says. “Another thing, some kids may excel in the weight room when they are not in the pool, so it can be great for them mentally.”

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” was published in June 2021, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and book distributors worldwide.

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