Monday, February 5, 2018

Dryside Training for Swimmers - Using Ropes to Increase Muscular Endurance

ChrisMyers Ph.D., MS, CISSN

From NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) November 2017 - Used with permission


Balancing dryside and wetside training for swimmers is challenging. USA Swimming defines dryside training as “any training a swimmer performs outside the pool” (10). Whereas, wetside training is any training a swimmer performs in the pool. Resistance training is a great way to create an effective dryside training program. A good swimming coach will find a way to balance and complement these two modalities of training.

When coaches and swimmers think of dryside training, many think of resistance training it improve  muscular strength, not endurance. Specifically referring to the front crawl stroke, muscular hypertrophy focused resistance training can lead to small improvements in sprint performance with little to no improvement in endurance (2). The result is the same across all swim strokes. This outcome is not surprising due to the muscle fiber types being trained. During muscle building types of resistance training, Type IIa and Type IIb muscle fibers are the primary focus. Anaerobic muscle fiber types are designed for short, powerful bursts of force. These muscle fiber types are good for short distance swims. However, for longer events such as middle distance swims, triathlons, and open water swims, the swimmer needs to build endurance. These muscles are not specifically designed for endurance. To increase muscular endurance, Type I and Type IIa muscles need to be targeted.

Muscle Fiber Types

As stated above, three types of skeletal muscle fiber types exist within the human body.  The fibers are identified based on myofibrillar-ATPase activity.  The rate of reaction of the ATPase regulates the contractile “speed” thus determining the classification of the muscle fiber (1).  The Type 1 fiber type is considered to have a slow twitch speed, low twitch force, and low fatigability and associated with endurance activity (7).  Type IIa is classified as having a fast twitch speed, intermediate twitch force, and low fatigability.  Further down the spectrum, Type IIb are categorized as having a fast twitch speed, large twitch force, and high fatigability (7). 

The fatigue properties of these fiber types play an important role in skeletal muscle recruitment.  In three seperate experiments, Vollestad et al. confirmed the order of recruitment (7).  This order is Type 1, IIa, and followed by IIb (1,7).  This order of recruitment depends on the response to the load placed on the target muscle.  By exploiting this order of recruitment, certain aspects of skeletal muscle physiology can be manipulated.  For example, the exposure to the right type of endurance training stress, Type IIa muscle fibers will shift to mimic Type Ia characteristics (7).  The same occurs with Type IIb beginning to mimic Type IIa characteristics (7).  This fiber type shift can assist with increasing endurance performance.


The front crawl (i.e. free-style) stroke is a whole-body activity that requires a swimmer to use many muscles in his body. The pulling stroke of the front crawl creates the majority of the swimmer’s propulsion (7,8). Additional propulsion is created by the kicking motion.  Furthermore, the distance and intensity of the stroke determines the recruitment of certain skeletal muscle fibers. The focus of this article is to review the front-quadrant biomechanics of the free-style swim stroke and to introduce battle rope exercises to better strengthen the muscles involved with this stroke to improve endurance and power.

Section 1: Free-Style Swimming Biomechanics

Range of motion of the shoulder comes from the connection of the glenohumeral joint and the glenohumeral fossa. The shoulder girdle is comprised of three bones which are the scapula, clavicle, and humerus, along with several tendons, ligaments, and muscle groups are involved that allow for the movement of the shoulder in a 360-degree motion (8). This movement allows for the front crawl stroke to occur.

The upper body front crawl stroke is broken into five phases. The phases are as follows: entry and stretch, catch, pull (downsweep), push (upsweep), and overwater recovery (5,10).

Entry and Stretch Phase (Figures 1-3)

During this phase, the arm is about to enter the water. This is considered the start of the stroke cycle. The arm is raised above the head and aligned slightly inside the shoulder. The middle deltoid, upper trapezius, and rhomboids are the primary movers for this motion (5). For elbow flexion to occur, the brachioradialis and biceps brachii are engaged. Shoulder internal rotation is driven by the subscapularis, pectoralis major, teres major, and latissimus dorsi (6). Finally, the pronation of the forearm is caused by the activation of the pronator teres and pronator quadratus (8).

Additionally, the arm is beginning to enter the water with forward momentum. The pectoralis minor and serratus anterior cause the scapula abduction within the shoulder girdle. The shoulder horizontal flexion is caused by pectoralis major (clavicular head) and anterior deltoid (3,8).

Catch Phase (Figures 4 and 5)

At this point, the arm has entered the water and completed its extension. For wrist flexion of this movement, the flexor carpi ulnaris and flexor carpi radialis are utilized. The flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris cause ulnar deviation, which results in an anterior twist to the ulna. Finally, the biceps brachii and brachioradialis cause elbow flexion (8,10). This action assists in the creation of the maximal amount of surface area for the forearm and the hand. The maximal usage of the arm’s surface area creates maximum propulsion throughout the entire stroke cycle.

Pull Phase (Figures 6 and 7)

The motion, also referred to as the downsweep, of the arm during this phase causes the maximum amount of propulsion during the stroke’s sequence. The arm is starting to make a downward sweeping stroke. Due to the curvilinear motion created within the shoulder, the wrist and hand naturally turn outward. The brachialis and biceps brachii cause the elbow flexion, while the flexor carpi ulnaris and the flexor carpi radialis cause the wrist flexion (8). Finally, the internal shoulder rotation is caused by the subscapularis, pectoralis major, teres major and latissimus dorsi (5).

Push Phase (Figures 8 to 10)

At the beginning of this phase, the arm reaches the deepest part of the sweep and begins swinging upward (i.e. upsweep). At this point, most the work moves from the pectoralis major to the latissimus dorsi, subscapularis, and deltoids (5,8). Flexor carpi, radialis, and extensor carpi radialis longus and brevis cause the radial deviation (8). The shoulder external rotation is caused by the infraspinatus and teres minor. Finally, the clavicular pectoralis major and anterior deltoid create the shoulder horizontal flexion (3,5,8).


Towards the end of the push phase, the arm is moving in an upwards direction. The shoulder girdle is at maximum extension which is controlled by the latissimus dorsi, supraspinatus, and deltoids (5). Simultaneously, elbow flexion is occurring. The primary mover for the elbow extension is the triceps brachii (8).

Overwater Recovery Phase

This phase begins as the arm reaches the maximum extension and rotation of the shoulder girdle. To bring the arm back to a frontal position, the elbow needs to flex (8,10). Biceps brachii and brachioradialis cause elbow flexion (8). The early segment of the shoulder external rotation is created by the deltoids and the rhomboids (5). As the arm reaches the peak of the rotation (i.e. 12 o’clock position), the shoulder rotation is controlled by the upper trapezius, middle deltoid, serratus anterior and infraspinatus (5,8). The deltoids, rhomboids, subscapularis, and serratus anterior are fully engaged as the arm rotates and is about to enter the water (5,8).

Dryside Muscular Endurance Training

When considering dryside training events, the training must be tailored to target and improve specific muscle fibers. In this case, Type I and Type IIa are the targeted groups. The following exercises are designed to promote improving Type I and IIa endurance performance.  The hypothesis is to improve the endurance properties of the Type I and IIa muscle fibers.  Type IIa will gain the most benefit; however, Type IIb will benefit as well.   

A new type of exercise has emerged over the past few years to achieve the desired training effect: battle rope exercises. Battle rope exercises offer a new and exciting venue for resistance training. These exercises can be performed at the side of a pool and can be easily incorporated into a regular swim workout.  A rope is the only piece equipment the athlete needs. A battle rope is typically a 1 ½” to 2” diameter rope ranging from 30’ to 100’ in length, and the weight of the rope often ranges from 50-75 pounds (lbs.).

When using this piece of equipment, an athlete can perform strength or endurance training exercises. The goal is to target the muscles used in the front crawl stroke as described in Section 1 through endurance focused resistance training. This type of training is characterized as low weight and high repetition (3). Because increasing endurance is the primary goal, using a lighter rope, to increase training duration, (i.e. 1.5” diameter x 30’ – 50’) would be ideal.

The battle rope forces the swimmer to use more of the stabilizer muscles in addition to the prime mover muscles. Battle ropes have inherently unstable characteristics, especially on the exercise being performed. These characteristics cause the athlete to use stabilizer muscles to keep the rope moving in the proper direction. The following suggested exercises are designed to target the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, arms, and core to increase endurance for the free-style swim stroke. Remember, the goal is to perform each exercise for 1-2 minutes in length.  By using a lighter weight rope and increasing the duration of the exercise, the athlete can focus on the bioenergetics and particular muscle fiber types to increase muscular endurance.

Proper Standing Position

The swimmer should stand with his feet shoulder-width apart. His knees should be slightly flexed and his weight centered beneath him. This stance lowers the athlete’s center of gravity and creates a stable platform to perform the exercise. This stance is used for all the following drills.

Battle Rope Drills

Alternating Waves

To perform this drill, take the end of the rope in each hand and perform up and down motions. Each end of the rope is gripped with an overhand grip. The upper part of the stroke ends at shoulder level while the lower level ends at the waistline. This limited range of motion results in smaller and faster arm movements. This motion mimics the similar range of motion that occurs throughout the catch and pull phases. The resulting alternating strokes cause the rope to produce alternating vertical waves.

This exercise primarily works the rhomboids, deltoids, biceps, and triceps. Additionally, the muscles of the shoulder girdle must assist in stabilizing the rope.

Double Waves (Figures 15-16)

This exercise parallels the alternating waves, but the swimmer holds the rope ends together with both hands. The up and down arm motion is the same as with alternating waves. The arms range of motion move from the shoulder to the waistline. Because the rope ends are held together and the arms are near the centerline of the body, different muscle groups are trained than compared to the those with the Alternating Waves exercise.

During this exercise, the swimmer is training the shoulder girdle muscles, biceps, triceps, and flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris. However, the main difference between the two exercises is that the swimmer needs to keep the abdominal muscles stable to keep good control of the rope.

Side-to-Side Waves (Figures 17-18)

In this exercise, the swimmer holds an end of the rope in each hand as in the alternating waves drill. The rope is then held at waist level. The swimmer twists and swings the arms from side to side. In doing so, the swimmer creates a horizontal double wave with the rope.

To create this motion, the swimmer must use much of his upper body muscles. Besides using the deltoids and rhomboids of the upper back, the swimmer must use his latissimus dorsi, and the external abdominal obliques and abdominals to maintain stability.

Thumbs-up Double Waves (Figures 19-20)

To correctly perform this exercise, the swimmer must hold each end of the rope with the thumbs upward. The motion for this drill is the same as the Double Wave exercise.

The change in hand position allows for training of additional muscle groups. This drill works the swimmer’s latissimus dorsi, triceps, and upper muscles of the shoulder girdle. Additionally, the rectus abdominus is used to stabilize the body during the drill.

Double Circles (Figures 21-23)

The rope is held as described in the alternating waves drill. The swimmer swings each end of the rope in a circular motion. One arm will go in a clockwise motion, while the other will go in a counter-clockwise motion. The ropes are swung similarly to a “double dutch” jumping rope exercise. The swimmer works the same muscles described in the side-to-side waves drill.

Section 3: Sample Dryside Training Using Battle Rope Drills

The focus of these drills is to train and develop the swimmer’s Type I and Type IIa muscle fibers that are involved in the six phases of the front crawl-pulling stroke. The following sampling of battle rope drills can be used as part of any dryside training plan to assist in developing a swimmer’s muscular endurance.  The rest interval between exercises should be 2-3 minutes.

1.       Alternating Waves (3 x 1 min) with 30 seconds rest between repetitions.

2.       Side-to-Side Waves (3 x 1 min) with 30 seconds rest between repetitions.

3.       Double Waves (3 x 1 min) with 30 seconds rest between repetitions.

4.       Double Circles (3 x 1 min) with 30 seconds rest between repetitions.

5.       Thumbs Up Double Waves (3 x 1 min) with 30 seconds rest between repetitions.

6.       Double Circles (3 x 1 min) with 30 second rest between repetitions.

Keep in mind that the above regiment is one evidenced informed suggestion. The key principle is to train the musculature for endurance. The longer the swimmer performs the exercises, the more Type I and Type IIa muscle fibers are trained. The number of repetitions and time can be tailored to each swimmer’s skill level and age.

As written, this program is designed for longer swim events (i.e. 500m or longer). However, the variable of intensity and exercise duration can be manipulated to make the suggest resistance training regime more strength based.  By using a heavier rope and shortening the exercise duration (i.e. from 1 min to 30-45s) can promote increases in strength.  This type of training would be beneficial to promote increases in stroke power (i.e. propulsion) swim sprint events (i.e. less than 400m).


Many different forms of battle rope drills are used to train both muscular strength and endurance. The exercises mentioned in this article are a small sampling of the drills available to the coach when using these rope drills. Drills mainly translate to the direct training of muscles used by a swimmer who utilizes the front crawl stroke. By adding these movements to a swimmer’s dryside training, your athletes will gain muscular endurance that will complement wetside training.

These exercises can be used for other swim strokes as well.  The coach needs to identify the core muscles involved with the primary movement for the target swim stroke.


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Chris Myers Ph.D. is a Master Coach with Peaks Coaching Group.