Shouts From The Stands: Questioning The USRPT Dryland Ideas

by SwimSwam 13

November 15th, 2017 News, Training

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Nigel Michael McCarthy:

About Nigel Michael McCarthy

Nigel Michael McCarthy is a 28-year-old Strength and Conditioning coach from Malta. He did his studies at St Mary’s University in London (Sports Science BSc & currently reading my MSc in Strength & Conditioning), and has introduced a strength & conditioning program in Malta.
McCarthy works with several national level swimmers in Malta who have broken several National Records. He’s also working with a 15-year-old female swimmer in hopes to be the first ever Maltese swimmer to qualify to the Olympics (targeting Tokyo 2020). 
Nigel Makes his living from dryland training.

(Short Note: I would like to make it clear that this article is not contradicting USRPT swimming methods, it is solely targeting a specific claim by Dr. Rushall. Also I want to thank the 100+ coaches from around the World that sent me their own feedback about the topic through a Facebook group called “Swim coaches idea exchange group”.)

Dr. Brent Rushall is the main advocate for Ultra Short Race Paced Training (USRPT) in swimming. Michael Andrew (USA swimmer, pictured on the right) has embraced such training method and to date has won the World Championship title in the 100meter IM at the 2016 edition. Andrew is quoted as saying or according to Andrew, “No heavy loads, no long hours and dozens of kilometres, instead just an hour in the water per session, a series of short bursts of training – and no weightlifting or other tough dryland workouts added” (Csurka, 2016). In his article “Fatigue in swimming: The good, the bad and the ugly, Dr Rushall states that there is little to no evidence that dryland strength training aids swimming performance unless the swimmer is very weak. Dr. Rushall’s sources are also biased and inadequate with 13 out of the 30 sources being his own, an issue which i am sure most readers would agree is significant.

In brief I will go through the traditional style of training and USRPT concepts and I will give examples of how sessions should look like. The traditional style consists of a mixture of speed, racepace work, aerobic training, recovery swimming, breathing sets and technique specific drills such as pulls, kicks, stroke counts etc.

A speed set would consist of 10 to 30meters which would be performed faster than race pace but with the same stroke rate. A race pace set would be between 30 to 100meters. If a 200m swimmer has a time of 2.20min split at 32’s and 36’s, 36’s would be the time used for pace. Such a set would look something like 3x50m on a minute and a half at 36s having the set repeated for 3 to 4 times. Aerobic training is when the swimmer is at 40 to 60 beats below their maximum heart rate and the rate is kept there for around 15minutes. An example would be 10x100m on the minute and a half. Other sets such as breath control using free style using 200m breathing every 3rd stroke on the first 50m, 5th stroke on 2nd 50m, 3rd stroke on the 3rd 50m and 7th stroke on the 4th 50m. Recovery swimming is race paced set though with longer rest to reduce the accumulation of lactate in the system so as to keep race pace. Technique work is obviously another types of sets such as stroke counting, drills, pull, kicks etc.

USRPT consists of using race pace time for sets. Just for example, if a swimmer’s fastest time is 1.05min for the 100m freestyle race than this time is split by 4 (if using 25m distances for the set) therefore using 16.25seconds per 25 meters. The target is to have 13 to 18seconds of rest. If 13.75seconds rest is chosen than that means that the interval is that of 30seconds. The amount of repetitions varies depending on the day; this is generally 26 to 30repetition. Thus the swimmer in the example has to swim 30 x 25meters on 30s holding 16.25seconds. The swimmer has two to three chances to miss the target time.

Using USRPT, it is argued that land training is not necessary. Personally, I have heard coaches advocating USRPT indoctrinating their young athletes against land work by saying ” you do not do a push up in a swim therefore it is not helpful for swimming.” Fred Fornicola author of over 150 article papers on strength and fitness has states that if performing a push up is identical to performing movements in swimming then you should be able to eat soup with a fork because it’s the same movement as if you were to use a spoon. Thus it is very important to explain the principle of specificity (transferability). Understanding it does not mean simulation to start off with. When choosing which exercises to use there is the principle of dynamic correspondence. It has several criterions for exercises to have the most efficient transferable results:

The amplitude/direction of the movement
The accentuated region of force production
The dynamics of effort (timing of motor patterns)
The rate and time of maximum force production
The regime of muscular work (muscles used)

The point of land (dry-land) training is not to stimulate the exact movement of swimming on land but to isolate certain key skills in swimming and use land training to strengthen and perfect those skills.

Needs Analysis

It is important to realise that strength and conditioning land work has a two sided benefit: injury prevention and increased performance. Therefore the needs analysis should look at performance requirements and common injuries in the sport. When analysing the upper body there are two phases: the propulsive phase insweep and upsweep consisting of the the pull which involves the internal shoulder rotation into a full shoulder adduction and the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, teres major and subscapularis being used for the internal rotation. The second phase consists of the recovery, in which the shoulder is adducted and externally rotated activating the deltoids, infraspinatus, teres minor and supraspinatus (Lauer et al., 2013; Toussaint & Beek, 1992) .

When analysing the lower body there are two instances land training can really make a difference: the start and the turn. The start alone in a 50m race can account to up to 30% of the time (Lyttle & Benjanuvatra, 2013). In both the start and turn the triple extension of the lower body joints (ankle, knee & hip) is imperatively important to produce as much force as possible. Since swimming is a time dependent sport the rate of force development of the triple extension is also extremely important, hence the ability to create as much force in as little time as possible (Lee, Huang & Lee, 2012).

Research also shows that 35% of elite swimmers had at some point in their career a shoulder injury slowing down their training (McMaster, & Troup, 1993; McMaster, 1999; Sein et al., 2010). It has been shown that fatigue of the rotator cuff muscle group leads to a decrease in stability which can increase the risk of injury. Other stroke specific injuries such as knee injury for breaststrokers are also common (Rodeo, 1999; Rovere, & Nichols, 1985; Keskinen, Eriksson & Komi, 1980).

At this point the importance of having good muscular activation for appropriate efficient motor patterns and enhanced muscular rate of force development together with prehab strategies for injury prevention is starting to emerge. A look at dry land interventions will shed a light on what works or not.

Evidence based research

There have been various interventions as part of studies to identify the effect on swimming performance. Garrido et al., (2010) have investigated the effects of 8 weeks of land work twice a week which included bench press and leg extensions for three sets of 8 reps at 50 to 70% of 6 repetition maximum which was established prior to the intervention. Countermovement jump and medicine ball throws of 1kg were part of the intervention as ballistic movements. The subjects performing the intervention had a mean aged of 12 and of mixed gender. It was concluded that competitive swimmers at such an age can benefit from such intervention of 8 weeks in duration even during high aerobic training in the pool, eradicating the fears that concurrent training could minimise strength gains. The same was reinforced by Aspenes et al., (2009) when using elite swimmers. They found that 400m time was decreased when subjects performed 3 sets of 5 repetition strength exercises for 11 weeks twice weekly. It is worth mentioning that 100m time was not affected. This could be because swimming economy is improved with strength training and therefore 400m distance is more prone to changes than 100m in such studies that use strength interventions. In order to benefit from maximal strength gains in short distances such as 50m or 100m, it is essential for the swimmer to be able to generate such strength in the shortest amount of time possible. Hence if a power block, focusing more on velocity of movement post strength block was performed in this study, there may also have been a higher possibility of the 100m time also being affected.

There are also intervention studies relating to the swimming start and turn performance. Bishop et al., (2009) used an 8 week protocol consisting of 1 hour plyometric sessions twice weekly with 10 to 16 year old swimmers. By using videography to analyse velocity at take off and time to 5.5meters the authors found a significant improvement of 15% in time. In a recent study by Jones, Pyne and Haff (2017) worked with swimmers for 6 weeks in preparation for the World Championships. They found that both strength and ballistic conditioning training improves the swimming turn. Both of the latter studies highlight the importance of being able to accelerate having a high rate of force development for swimming.

One of the few studies that have shown no improvement in 50m swim time performance was by Sawdon-Bea and Benson (2015). The subjects were given a resistance band protocol to follow 3 times per week for 6 weeks. Resistive bands might not be enough to elicit the strength gains required. The protocol was also performed at home and hence unsupervised. Weston et al., (2015) used a supervised core strengthening protocol over a period of 12 weeks which resulted in a 2% improvement of a national junior swimmer’s time. The authors monitored this using electromyography (EMG). Another study by Girold et al., (2007) using national level sailors over a period of a 12 week intervention concluded that dry-land or in-water strength exercises together with swimming training is more productive than just swimming training alone.

Looking into strength benefits, a review by Haycraft and Robertson (2015) over several studies identifies how the pulling and pushing maximal forces of the upper body together with the triple extension strength of the lower body are essential for short and middle distance swimmers together with the importance of relative strength, recommending 1.7 x body weight for the squat 1RM and 0.7 x body weight for bilateral 1RM. A recent systematic review by Crowley, Harrison, and Lyons (2017) highlighted how a trend in literature shows the importance of high speed, high strength land training for increasing stroke length due to the demands such an increase imposes.

Final thoughts

There is abundant literature identifying the importance of strength training for swimming. It is evident that the upper body pulling and pushing strengths together with lower body triple extension strength seem to be essential for sprint and middle distance swimmers. Also essential and of the utmost importance is the rate of force development of such strength. The swimmer needs to be able to generate as much force in as little time as possible. Therefore to conclude it is fair to say that Dr. Rushall is cherry picking evidence to support his personal hypothesis. This does not fit in well with the overall trend of the evidence published. Having said so, due to the variability of protocols and variables within the sport of swimming, it is also important to recognise the need for further studies investigating the role of strength training for swimming.


Aspenes, S., Kjendlie, P. L., Hoff, J., & Helgerud, J. (2009). Combined strength and endurance training in competitive swimmers. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 8(3), 357.

Bishop, D. C., Smith, R. J., Smith, M. F., & Rigby, H. E. (2009). Effect of plyometric training on swimming block start performance in adolescents. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2137-2143.

Crowley, E., Harrison, A. J., & Lyons, M. (2017). The Impact of Resistance Training on Swimming Performance: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sports Medicine, 5, 1-23.
Csurka. G. (2016). The pinnacle for Michael Andrew – so far.

Garrido, N., Marinho, D. A., Reis, V. M., van den Tillaar, R., Costa, A. M., Silva, A. J., & Marques, M. C. (2010). Does combined dry land strength and aerobic training inhibit performance of young competitive swimmers?. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 9(2), 300.

Girold, S., Maurin, D., Dugue, B., Chatard, J. C., & Millet, G. (2007). Effects of dry-land vs. resisted-and assisted-sprint exercises on swimming sprint performances. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 599.

Haycraft, J., & Robertson, S. (2015). The effects of concurrent aerobic training and maximal strength, power and swim-specific dry-land training methods on swim performance: a review. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 23(2), 91-99.

Jones, J. V., Pyne, D. B., Haff, G. G., & Newton, R. U. (2017). Comparison of ballistic and strength training on swimming turn and dry-land leg extensor characteristics in elite swimmers. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 17, 479-541.

Keskinen, K., Eriksson, E., & Komi, P. (1980). Breaststroke swimmer’s knee: A biomechanical and arthroscopic study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 8(4), 228-231.

Lauer, J., Figueiredo, P., Vilas-Boas, J. P., Fernandes, R. J., & Rouard, A. H. (2013). Phase-dependence of elbow muscle coactivation in front crawl swimming. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 23(4), 820-825.

Lee, C-Y., Huang, C-F., and Lee, C-W. (2012). Biomechanics of the grab and track swimming starts. Paper presented at the 30th Annual Conference of Biomechanics in Sports. Melbourne, Australia.

Lyttle, A., & Benjanuvatra, N. (2013). Start right? A biomechanical review of dive start performance. Journal of Sports Biomechanics, 321, 1-5.

McMaster, W. C. (1999). Shoulder injuries in competitive swimmers. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 18(2), 349-359.

McMaster, W. C., & Troup, J. (1993). A survey of interfering shoulder pain in United States competitive swimmers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(1), 67-70.

Richardson, A. R. (1986). The biomechanics of swimming: the shoulder and knee. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 5(1), 103-113.

Rodeo, S. A. (1999). Knee pain in competitive swimming. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 18(2), 379-387.

Rovere, G. D., & Nichols, A. W. (1985). Frequency, associated factors, and treatment of breaststroker’s knee in competitive swimmers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 13(2), 99-104.

Rushall, B. S. (2014). Fatigue in swimming: The good, the bad and the ugly. Swimming Science Bulletin, 46, 1-13.

Sawdon-Bea, J., & Benson, J. (2015). The effects of a 6-week dry land exercise program for high school swimmers. Journal of Physical Education and Sports Management, 2, 1-17.

Sein, M. L., Walton, J., Linklater, J., Appleyard, R., Kirkbride, B., Kuah, D., & Murrell, G. A. (2010). Shoulder pain in elite swimmers: primarily due to swim-volume-induced supraspinatus tendinopathy. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(2), 105-113.

Siff, M. C., & Verkhoshansky, Y. V. (2003). Supertraining. Supertraining Institute. Denver, Colorado.

Toussaint, H. M., & Beek, P. J. (1992). Biomechanics of competitive front crawl swimming. Journal of Sports Medicine, 13(1), 8-24.

Weston, M., Hibbs, A. E., Thompson, K. G., & Spears, I. R. (2015). Isolated core training improves sprint performance in national-level junior swimmers. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 10(2), 204-210.

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JP input is too short
3 years ago

This is a very good look at dryland use in swimming (and other sports in general really).

Dryland work is for explosiveness of the blocks and walls, resiliency throughout the body by being able to work imbalances that would be exacerbated by simply swimming more, and general strength without incurring the additional cyclical damage from repetition of more of the same swimming movements.

In addition, I don’t think more strength is really ever a bad thing for a swimmer as long as that strength gain doesn’t come with mobility/flexibility losses or excessive mass gain.

Steve Nolan
3 years ago

Hoo boy that’s dense and reminds me why I stopped going to grad school.

I always understood Rushall’s point as – weight training doesn’t exactly mimic in-water movements, therefore it’s a waste of time to train those movements – and I think it has a bit of validity. You’re not going to be able to transfer 100% of the strength gained from a bench press into your breaststroke, I agree. But! Just like he does with advocating against in-water drills (I think? feel like he read that he doesn’t do drills) he takes it way too far in saying they’re not worth doing at all.

crooked donald
Reply to  Steve Nolan
3 years ago

I think his other point — echoed by Peter Andrew, who said he tried dryland training with MA — is that weight training is too fatiguing to do on top of USRPT. Peter said that MA got way too fatigued with their foray into weight training, and MA couldn’t do true USRPT sets. He’d enter a USRPT set already neurally fatigued from weight training.

Hooran vestal
Reply to  crooked donald
2 years ago

Maybe if USRPT nuts did some aerobic training the slow boring stuff that builds mitochondria up MA wouldn’t be out of shape and could handle doing weights and an hour long swim workout.

3 years ago

I think USRPT is fine for conditioning and skills, but the adamant dismissal of strength and explosiveness training has always seemed a bit much. Particularly from starts and turns, which stand to benefit the most from improved power. There is one study he talks about on his website where arm power during an out-of-water exercise correlated highly with 25m time, and his argument is that because there isn’t a 25m event, this has no relevance to swimming. It strikes me as intentionally obtuse to believe that an improved 25m time wouldn’t translate to an improved 50m time. Would it translate to a faster 400m time? Doubtful, but that doesn’t make top-end speed irrelevant when 5 Olympic events are 100m or… Read more »