Eric McGinnis is the Rollins College Strength & Conditioning Coach and Sports Performance Specialist, a former Kentucky All-American and World University Games gold medalist, and the brother of former Virginia Tech All-American Zach McGinnis. He also is a trainer at Spectrum Sports Performance. Follow him on Twitter here and on Facebook here.
When and IF a swimmer should start resistance training is a highly debated topic in our sport. There is still a large portion of coaches, parents, and swimmers who believe athletes should put resistance training off until they are either full-grown or in college. I’m here to tell you the exact opposite. Get them resistance training EARLY! To address why I believe this, I’ll first discuss common reasons most swimmers choose not to utilize resistance training, then, I’ll elaborate on common misconceptions about the subject.
Reasons NOT to use resistance training:
1. It Will Stunt Your Growth
No it won’t. Plain and simple. This is an old wives’ tale. It probably started from seeing how small and compact weightlifters and powerlifters typically are and turned into the assumption that the weights caused this body frame. In reality those are sports that just favor shorter limbed athletes. There is no evidence to suggest it can stunt growth, unless of course you broke a bone and damaged a growth plate (extremely unlikely with proper supervision). In fact, children who participate in resistance training tend to show increased bone density compared to children who don’t.
2. You’ll peak too early
I do believe that if you start resistance training at a younger age you will approach your genetic ceiling faster. However, evidence suggests you’ll have a better chance of reaching (or at least approaching) that ceiling if you start early. In other words, would you rather go 19.9 in the 50 freestyle in high school and 19.4 in college, or 20.5 in high school and 19.5 in college? If you put off resistance training as long as possible you might have bigger drops at the end but you’ll take away years of training to become as strong, powerful, and athletic as possible.
3. Resistance training is dangerous
As a sport, weightlifting has one of the lowest injury rates around. Although swimming might be even lower, your child would be more likely to get hurt playing soccer than strength training with an experienced strength coach. The key is to make sure the athlete is learning from a professional. In fact, appropriate exercise selection can correct imbalances created from sport that can REDUCE the potential for injury down the road. Also, if you teach young athletes how to do things correctly early on, they’ll be much less likely to hurt themselves when they get to college and are asked to perform heavy barbell exercises.
Misconceptions about resistance training:
1. Lifting weights makes you too tight
With a proper strength program consisting of full range of motion movements, athletes should be able to maintain or possibly even gain some mobility. Add in supplemental stretching, soft tissue work like foam rolling, and other active mobility exercises and swimmers should be able to strength train without fear of losing ANY necessary range of motion.
2. Lifting weights makes you bulky
The potential to gain weight from strength training is going to be a product of 3 main factors: volume of repetitions, calorie intake vs. calorie expenditure, and genetic factors.
- Volume. A professional strength coach should be able to monitor the volume and keep it low if the athlete is trying to avoid much muscle gain. High repetitions per set, as well as high overall volume of reps across the program will more likely lead to hypertrophy (muscle growth).
- Calories in vs calories out. In order to gain weight you need to consume a surplus of calories. Most swimmers are expending so much energy from swim practice that it is very difficult for them to eat enough to put on weight. If the athlete IS putting on unwanted weight, then that person might need to look at their overall calorie intake. I’ve seen more swimmers lifting who CAN’T put on weight than swimmers who are gaining too much weight.
- Genetics. Some people will gain weight easier than others for a variety of reasons. Most people with the stereotypical swimmer physique will not have this problem. If they do, however, they might just need to be extra aware of the previous two points and how they affect weight gain.
3. Resistance Training = Heavy Lifting
I’m not sure why people always equate resistance training to maxing out in the weight room. Resistance training can include body weight exercises, bands, weights, and more. In addition, not ALL lifting is max effort lifting. Intensity can be adjusted based on the needs of the individual. At SSP, when we train young kids our focus is on correct technique and movement patterns before anything else. If you give them this “base” early on they will have a lot more potential to safely and effectively work on getting strong down the road.
A swimmer should only put off resistance training if they don’t have access to a professional coach, they have some type of injury or physical limitation preventing them, or if the athlete lacks the maturity necessary for training. Appropriate training age should be dictated more based on maturity rather than chronological age. Otherwise, start training early so that the athlete has time to become proficient at it. Don’t wait until college when their swimming career is almost over.