Weightlifting workouts help swimmers keep going by reducing the risk of injury
The health benefits of Masters swimming are well known. What many Masters swimmers might not know are the health benefits of regularly lifting weights.
A few years ago, U.S. Masters Swimming distributed a survey to learn about the benefits Masters swimmers experience by performing regular weight training. Based on the results of the survey, “Weight training appears to help in terms of reducing injuries,” says Hirofumi Tanaka, who directs the University of Texas’s Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory and who co-designed and co-published the results of the study.
This makes sense. After about age 40, we start to lose lean muscle mass, says Sonia Millan, a sports medicine physician for AdventHealth Palm Coast in Palm Coast, Fla. “This rate of muscle loss can reach greater than 1 percent per year after the age of 50,” she says. Losing that muscle can produce a negative impact.
“When we lose muscle mass, we’re losing the support our muscles provide to our joints,” she says. “The hip joint is supported by the gluteus muscle, for example. As we lose that joint protection, we’re more apt to get hurt.”
She adds that building strong core musculature can also help with balance and agility, two things that can help you swim better.
Here’s what you need to know about developing your own weightlifting plan and reaping the health benefits of adding muscle mass.
Start Out Slowly
Just as you wouldn’t swim a 10,000-yard practice after taking an extended break from the pool, you should start slowly, whether you’re beginning a weight-training routine for the first time or doing so after a hiatus.
“Don’t overdo it, or you’ll feel it the next day,” says Colorado Masters Swimming member Stewart Nixon, who recommends people interested in lifting weights check with their doctor before beginning to lift. “I would start with one exercise per muscle group until you feel comfortable with each exercise and then sprinkle in other exercises and increase the repetitions, sets, and weights as the body adjusts.
“For someone just getting started, begin with one or two sets of 10 to 12 reps with a weight that feels comfortable for the entire repetition range. As the exercise becomes easier to perform, you can increase the weight, the reps, or the sets.
“And learn to use proper technique. Not only will you achieve results faster, but you will be less likely to injure yourself.”
If you choose to consult with a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach, Nixon suggests researching candidates’ backgrounds for appropriate certification in their fields and carefully scrutinizing their recommendations. He recommends personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches who have certifications from the American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine, International Sports Sciences Association, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
What to Use
There are many options for resistance training: weight machines, free weights, resistance bands, and your own body weight. Colorado Masters Swimming Coach Terry Heggy likes using a combination of free weights, weight machines, and resistance bands.
“When you’re working with a weight on a cable, you’re somewhat restricted in terms of range of motion, which can be a good thing or a bad thing,” he says.
The restricted range of motion a weight machine allows ensures you’ll work on the specific muscles or muscle groups the machine is designed to target while using that machine. Free weights, on the other hand, force you to use your whole body—in particular, your core muscles—in order to keep your balance and perform the exercise.
Resistance bands do both: They help you follow specific patterns of motion while you keep yourself stable, so you don’t fall over during the exercise.
Millan advises using free weights and resistance bands.
“Seated weight machines are not a bad choice, but you’ll get more bang for your strength and fitness buck with resistance bands and free weights,” she says. “By standing, you’re recruiting your core and leg muscles to stand firm and hold your balance, in addition to the benefit provided by the resistance.”
She also advocates for weight training with body weight.
“Let's say you can't get to a gym, or you can get to a gym, but you simply can't manage more resistance than just body weight—that’s OK!” Millan says. “You can do push-ups with your knees on the ground or even do a wall push-up by standing with your hands on a wall in front of you and leaning into it. It’s a great place to start.”
The Best Time to Weight Train
As swimmers, we prioritize time in the pool. Fitting in weight training can be tricky. But we don’t need to do a lot of weight training to start to experience its benefits.
Millan recommends a minimum of two days a week of weight training, increasing up to four days a week if you’re looking to get stronger in preparation for an important competition. And 15-minute sessions are fine to start out with, she adds. She also recommends lifting weights before swimming because this will help you maintain proper technique while lifting.
Whatever you do, though, the most important thing is to keep at it, as though you’re adopting a lifestyle change.
“Do it and commit to it!” Heggy says. “Sporadic weight-lifting is useless. But a routine can quickly become useless as well. Muscles don’t grow if they know what to expect. You build muscle by surprising your body with new challenges that force it to adapt. In other words, change it up frequently.”
- Technique and Training