McGinnis: Common Myths About Swimmers and Resistance Training, And Why They’re Not True

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.

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Curious
7 years ago

Very nice article! I have a question about lifting though… If I want to go to the gym and gain as much strength and explosiveness as possible, but try and not put on a lot of muscle mass, what are some examples of sets I could do?

To try to clarify… If part of my lifting routine on chest day was 4 rounds of 10 reps of chest press with dumbbells at a weight at which the tenth rep of the last round I would barely get the weights up or even fail, would that be increasing strength, but not necessarily mass? (which is what I’m looking for) … or would that be increasing mass too much?

Sorry if the… Read more »

Sven
Reply to  Curious
7 years ago

I’d say you can never go wrong with bodyweight plyometrics. Although I think it would be smart before that to build up aptitude and stability with the non-explosive version (i.e. be able to do a decent amount of pushups quickly with good form before moving on to plyometric pushups).

Exercises like plyometric pushups, depth jumps, box jumps, squat jumps/lunge jumps, short sprints etc. would fit the bill nicely. Also, as mentioned, there are plenty of weighted exercises that you could do explosively without putting on a huge amount of muscle mass. I think the key with these types of exercises is to stop at neural fatigue (aka when reps are no longer fast or explosive, or form/posture begins to suffer).… Read more »

Eric McGinnis
Reply to  Curious
7 years ago

Curious,

4 sets of 10 is primarily targeting hypertrophy, or an increase in the size of the muscle. If you are trying NOT to increase muscle mass you want to keep the volume relatively low. See below at what JP posted.

JP
7 years ago

1-3 reps per set is generally considered best for developing maximal strength.

8+ reps per set is general considered hypertrophy work.

5 is a good middle ground and is recommended for most good general strength and conditioning programs.

80-85% intensity is the best place to work explosive strength, and that tends to work best in the 5 or so rep range.

This is of course assuming compound, full body movements like squat, deadlift, bench press, strict press.

Eric McGinnis
Reply to  JP
7 years ago

JP,

I agree with everything you said except I think 80-85% is too high for explosive work. My speed strength work is done between 55-75%. Also 5 reps is a lot at that intensity IF speed is your goal. 85% is almost a 5 rep max, so if you try to do 85% for 5 reps the speed is going to get too slow. I prefer 1-3 reps per set for explosive work.

Sven
7 years ago

Nice article. Some of my biggest facepalms happen when a 120 pound high school girl on my team tells me she’s worried about looking mannish or bulky. I don’t think they realize how hard it is for a girl (or even most guys) to get huge without steroids or an absurd diet.

I’m definitely for resistance training at all ages, but until 13 or so we mostly focus on injury prevention and learning basic coordination and balance, with some bodyweight thrown in for good measure.

This is a funny coincidence, too. I started a blog recently, and I posted my second article this morning, about the relevance/importance of dryland/weight training to swimming.

Mine takes it in a direction more… Read more »

Sven
Reply to  Sven
7 years ago

It’s also a lot more long and boring than this article. Sorry! I get carried away.

Reply to  Sven
7 years ago

Sven: Good blog article, comprehensive & well written!

YouGotLezakd
Reply to  Sven
7 years ago

Just read your blog. Pretty good articles! I cant wait until you post your next story!

DutchWomen
7 years ago

Don’t let the Rushall types read this one! “Strength training does not help you swim faster.” Ha!

SprintDude9000
7 years ago

Was this article written by the same Eric McGinnis that swam a 9.28 for 25m free at the Rowdy Gaines Classic last year? (If so, absolutely incredible swim! Would love to see the race video if it exists!)

fatsmcgee
7 years ago

Hey Eric, love the article! Do you have any tips for people who are prone to shoulder pain in pressing exercises but want to build upper body strength?

Eric McGinnis
Reply to  fatsmcgee
7 years ago

FatsMcGee,

Kind of hard to say without knowing exactly what’s causing the pain and where the pain is. Here are a few things:
1) Opt for dumbbells instead of a barbell and keep your grip neutral (elbows tucked in, palms facing inward) throughout the range of motion
2) Do floor presses instead of bench or overhead presses. I like to do these in a glute bridge position (legs bent, hips up). Laying on the floor will stop the range of motion when your elbows hit the floor.
3) If you’re doing any isolated shoulder work make sure you’re externally rotated at the arm (think about having the thumbs pointing up toward the ceiling).
4) Try to… Read more »

ande
7 years ago

“and the brother of former Virginia Tech All-American Zach McGinnis”
And the brother of Great UT Swimming Matt McGinnis

7 years ago

Fantastic Article. Straight To the Point! Keep spreading the word and fighting the good fight.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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