Functional Fitness and Physical Preparation For Age Group Swimmers by Monika E. Schloder, PhD & Jodi Hicks, BPE (2003)



Abstract — Physical Preparation and Functional Fitness


The session is designed to assist coaches with constructing and providing high quality dry land programs to develop young swimmers. The focus is on the principles and theories related to the personal attributes of motor and functional fitness, inclusive functional strength, coordination, power, speed, endurance, aerobic/anaerobic conditioning, flexibility, and rhythm.


The session also contains active participation and technical demonstrations of selected exercises associated with developing these various attributes. Sport specific exercises are introduced, which are designed to improve stroke mechanics, starts, and turns. In addition, coaches are shown various ways to devise a quality sequential and progressive dry land program for age group swimmers while addressing concerns related to growth and development.



Functional Fitness and Physical Preparation For Age Group Swimmers


Swim training may be just about the only opportunity for children to improve their physical attributes nowadays so that they can be successful not only in swimming but also in any other physical activities. Therefore, coaches need to spend time on dryland to develop general athleticism (physical and motor attributes) in addition to functional fitness and technique specific skills. This is by no means an easy task given the current lack of general fitness levels among children as documented in recent medical research.


Physical and Motor Attributes

Physical and motor attributes are somewhat grouped according to their immediate importance in the training phase and should be incorporated as soon as possible. Others should be added as needed or as suitable to the program, depending on the skill at hand. These attributes are developed through general drills, game-like activities, swim-specific drills, strength exercises, as well as dryland and in-water conditioning. It is very helpful to increase the ‘coaching toolbox’ through a collection of exercises, games, and drills to maintain motivation and fun. Coaches should also look to other sports for compatible physical preparations (for example, using training components from athletics, gymnastics, dance, soccer, synchronized swimming, etc.). The coaching ‘toolbox’ in our case to date contains over 700 exercises. This surely makes it possible to create a variety of exercise combinations (complexes) throughout the season for individualized needs and motivational purposes.


In order to design a proper and effective physical preparation coaches need to learn and understand the following basic training concepts and principles:

Physical attributes:

Flexibilityis the range of motion a limb can move in a desired plane of movement. Flexibility can be limited by fixed factors such as bone and ligaments or by changeable factors such as muscle and tendon elasticity. Seeing that bone and ligaments are factors that we cannot or do not want to change we will focus on muscle and tendon elasticity. Muscle flexibility is a relationship of elasticity and tension. The nervous system and muscular system control tension.


Power – is the ability to do as much work as possible in the shortest amount of time. Work is the amount of force (strength) and distance. Speed is covering distance in shortest amount of time; therefore, power can be considered a combination of strength and speed. An example of this can be related to the power of each stroke or the amount of work each stroke has achieved in the desired time period.


Strength – is the amount of force one can produce. Maximum strength relates to the maximum amount of force produced in one movement or repetition. It involves training the nervous system and muscular system to recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers. The average person can only recruit about 60% of all muscle fibers at one time, where a highly trained Olympic lifter or power athlete can recruit close to 100% of all muscle fibers at one time.


Core stability involves functional strength of the muscles of the back, abdominal (pelvic) and hip area.


Physical Fitness – focuses on adapting components that are affected by the physical stresses of fatigue. Physical fitness usually involves fatiguing the muscles involved at the present level the motor functions have been developed.  Muscle fatigue is directly affects the cardio-respiratory system.


Endurance – refers to the ability to resist fatigue over various time durations.  Exercise complexes can be organized to create cardio-respiratory fatigue (central fatigue) or muscular fatigue (peripheral fatigue).

Cardio-respiratory – involves the heart and lungs responding to the oxygen demand the muscles require. The stress placed on the cardio-respiratory system during exercise results in positive adaptation to the stress.  Adaptations include increased heart size and lung volume to pump more oxygenated blood, which in turn reduces the heart rate because of the increase in blood volume being pumped. Also involved in cardio-respiratory adaptation is the increase in Red Blood Cells to carry more oxygen to the muscles.


Muscular – is the ability of muscles to resist fatigue by adapting physically with an increase in fiber size and content to allow for a better oxygen uptake as well the ability to tolerate higher levels of lactic acid and recover more quickly.


Motor attributes:

Agility – is the ability to change movement directions in the shortest amount of time. It involves all of the above components.


Balance – is the ability to control one’s center of gravity.

Static – is maintaining one’s center of gravity within the body’s base of support so that the body’s position remains stationary. Holding a static position not only requires balance but strength to hold that position.

Dynamic – is the movement of the center of gravity outside of and within the body’s base of support. Dynamic balance requires coordinating balance and the various changes in force production and muscle recruitment (kinesthetics and proprioception).


Coordinationinvolves interaction of functional strength, balance, proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness, and spatial awareness and hand/eye coordination to allow for coordinated movement patterns.


Coordination-hand/eyeinvolves the nervous system in determining a location in space (eyesight) and using proprioceptive awareness to move the hand(s) to meet that location. It includes depth perception and the ability to determine speed and direction of objects, so the hand(s) can intercept the path of the object. Stopping or catching of the object becomes a matter of functional strength. Similarly, all coordination involving moving body parts to meet sighted locations operate on this principle.


Rhythminvolves coordinated movement patterns repeated within set tempo (time and speed of movement) and expresses fluidity. Development of rhythm allows for easier adherence to stroke counts and patterns.


Speed – is the ability to move a desired distance in the shortest amount of time.  This can be achieved in one movement or a combination of repeated movements.  This also involves the nervous system recruiting as many muscle fibers to contract as fast as possible over and over again until the desired distance is completed.


Kinesthetic Awarenessis controlling the speed and force of movement. It involves the nervous system and the skeletal and muscular systems.


Proprioceptive Awarenessis being aware of where the body and the body parts are in relation to one another. It also involves the nervous system and the skeletal and muscular systems.


Spatial Awareness – is similar to proprioceptive awareness except it also includes the body and its interaction within the environment in relation to space. It takes into consideration other objects and bodies and their movement interactions within the defined space confinements.


Functional Strength – is the combination of the interactions of balance, kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness.


Systematic Training

Each individual daily training session undergoes a systematic progression in physical preparation and skills training, which are both carefully planned in order to provide a “safe” sporting environment. Coaches absolutely “must” have knowledge of proper exercises or drills, which can be potentially dangerous for young children, or are outdated (coaches may have done these in their past). Teaching the wrong or inappropriate exercise is a liability as is the recurrent method of using physical activity as “punishment” (running or swimming punitive “killer laps;” sit-ups, push-ups, etc.). While this was done once upon a time and considered to be “character building or mental toughness” this is no longer accepted in modern coaching ethics. Personal improvement requires development, development requires keen and diligent work, and that should not be represented as a form of punishment.


Importance of Warm-up and Warm-down (cool-down)

Daily practice and/or training sessions operate within a set framework consisting of major components. Each of these takes up a percentage of time, calculated in relation to overall duration (time) of the session (for example, a 60-minute session is divided into: a) introduction of training objectives; b) warm-up; c) teaching/coaching/reviewing skills; and d) warm-down. There are a number of reasons warm-up and warm-down (before and after) are essential. This relates to the following: a) muscle physiology; b) increasing the heart rate (HR); c) increasing the range of motion (ROM); d) avoiding injuries; e) increasing performance; and f) psycho-social function.


It is a common, but also serious error to shorten or even skip the warm-down because athletes “want to go home” (quote). Swimmers are famous for ‘diluting’ or skipping deck warm-downs because of the notion that the warm-down swim is thought is sufficient. On the other hand, coaches are also reluctant at times to follow guidelines for recommended time frame for both warm-up and warm-down; they feel at times “pressured to meet the required practice time in the pool.”


The Body is an ‘expensive’ Engine’

Like an expensive car “the body engine” has to be finely tuned. The ultimate purpose of the warm-up is to “ready the engine” and thereby enhance daily performance in the water. Specifically, the warm-up has two functions: a) warming the muscles to reduce risk of injury, and b) providing the heart and lungs a progressive intensity to minimize oxygen debt that in turn will maximize training performance. Warming up the muscles progressively allows for better blood flow into the muscle; this in turn warms-up the muscle allowing it to become more elastic in nature, thereby reducing risk of injury. A good example would be taking a stick of gum and placing it in the freezer for 5 minutes before pulling it out and trying to bend it. It would break a lot sooner than a stick of gum in warmer temperature. Another primary function of the warm-up is to provide the heart and lungs an opportunity to bring the required amount of oxygen to each muscle being used.


The warm-down should include 5-10 minutes in the pool and a further 10-20 minutes on deck-if possible. The main purpose of the warm-down, on the other hand, is to put the body in the most optimal position to allow for developmental adaptation prior to the next training session. The warm-down has two major functions: a) progressively reduces the heart rate in such a manner that all muscles receive required levels of oxygen; b) takes place as a progressive exercise complex in a way that allows the coach to focus on certain general athletic-developmental changes in functional about strength and flexibility while gradually reducing heart rate.  It is here – not in the Warm-up – that so-called static stretching is conducted.


Safe and Proper Workout Attire

Swimmers need to be attired properly for warm-up and warm-down activities on deck. Even though the temperature may be very warm outside or humid (inside pools) the body needs to be covered in layered clothing to ‘work up a sweat.’ It is neither healthy nor hygienically safe to warm-down while wearing wet trunks or suits on pool decks. Coaches should work out agreements with the lifeguard at the pool site so that swimmers are able to carry out some form of aerobic activity within the safety guidelines. Obviously, running is not an option but running on the spot is. Proper footwear is essential to protect swimmers from acquiring shin splints; sandals or ‘flip-flops’ are not safe to participate. The major concern after all is for all muscles being warmed up properly. Based on need and the training time available, an appropriate exercise complex (progressive series of general and specific exercises) is created.


The Progressive Daily Training Session


A brief statement of the purpose and objectives of the session is provided.


There are five phases of the Warm-up; the first four are completed on the pool deck and the last one takes place in the pool. Warm-ups on dryland consist of so-called exercise complexes (selected exercises with a predetermined number and sequence). The intensity and duration of the Warm-up is suited to athletes’ physical capabilities and adjusted as needed. Performing the Warm-up on deck prior to the actual swim training allows for more time spent on swimming skills. Deck Warm-up exercises should take about 20 minutes.


A so-called exercise complex for each training phase of the season (periodization phase) should be created and all swimmers should be familiar with the respective complex. A daily appointed team captain could lead the team through the exercises. Our 8-year old as well as our 13-year old swimmers carry out this assignment. It is not only a daily training routine but also occurs at swim meets and before swimmers’ individual events.



General Training Guidelines

Considerations for all aspects of Warm–up on dryland

Age of the swimmer

Phase of the season (early/middle/late season)

Intensity of the workout (60%; 75%; 80% effort, etc.

Number of repetitions and exercise intensity

Several repetitions make up:

One set = 1 x 8 x Jumps (or whatever)

Two sets = 2 x 8

Three sets = 3 x 8

Pre-determined rest (R) after each repetition or set of repetitions.

Warm–up Phases:

Phase I – Aerobic-type Activities (dryland)

Phase I should last 4-5 minutes.

The focus is on:

Cardio-respiratory endurance – gradually elevating the Heart Rate (HR),

Muscular endurance – warming up the temperature of the muscles.

The intensity level should be moderate, i.e. produce a sweat yet heart rate should not exceed above 60% max heart rate.

If the facility allows, game-like activities can be used. Games are monitored so that competition doesn’t increase intensity past the moderate level. Ideas for such activities can include playing with ‘Hacky Sacs,’ Frisbee-football, Crab-soccer…etc.

If games cannot be performed, activities such as skipping, jumping jacks, ‘burpees’, jogging on spot…etc can be performed. The intensity should be moderate, and appropriate rest periods are integrated.

Phase II – Static Stretch Routine (dryland)

It comprises of a routine of stretching exercises that travels from head to toe – not vice versa in order to keep HR elevated. Do not allow the athlete to sit down, as this promotes rest and lethargy and will allow the muscles to cool off.

Carry out about 8-12 exercises, holding each stretch for about 4-5 seconds.  Holding stretches any longer will allow the body to cool-down and the body must be warmed back up.


Exercises should stretch muscles in every plane of movement at all joints, i.e. neck, shoulders, elbow, wrist, back, hip (groin), knees (hamstrings and quadriceps), and ankles.

This stretch routine should last 2-3 minutes


Phase III – Dynamic Stretching routine (dryland)

This is not a ballistic (bobbing or bouncing-type) movement rather it involves fluid movement of the limbs.

Stationary Dynamic Exercises are those whereby the body remains in one place on the floor. These include leg swings-back and forth, leg sings-open and close hip, lying leg swings, prone leg swings, hamstring rolls, lying bicycle or leg scissors. The movements must be fluid, taking the swings to the end points of each range of motion. These movements will keep the muscle warm, increase flexibility and gradually increase heart rate.

Use 4-5 stationary dynamic exercises, with about 15-20 swings for each limb of each exercise.

The velocity of the swings should be gradually increased throughout the repetitions.

This phase should take 2-3 minutes.

Moving Dynamic exercises are those whereby the body moves in the space of the facility, i.e. up and down the deck. These may include skipping with arm swings, skipping with arm circles-forward and backwards, side shuffles with arm throws (series of throwing the arms out and pulling the arms in as if to hug the body), and carioca (grapevine)…etc. These movements are more intense than stationary dynamic exercises; therefore the heart rate increases further toward desired training heart rate.

Use 2 sets of about 4-5 moving dynamic exercises moving about 50-60 feet each set.


Intensity of the movement can also gradually increase throughout the sets and repetitions.

This phase should take 2-3 minutes.


Phase IV – Specific Warm–up exercises (dryland)

This selection of exercises includes movements that either mimic or are used in the actual swimming activity depending on the skill to be taught or the event to be swum. An example is simulating arm action of strokes on deck. Tools can be used to help mimic actions such as lying on a physio-ball (Swiss ball) to imitate arm actions, hip rolls, or even kicks. Medicine balls can be rolled back and fourth between swimmers facing each other on pool deck to mimic breaststroke actions.


Tubing exercises to warm-up and strengthen rotator cuff muscles, or tubing in pulling actions of arm strokes are other options. Be creative!

Pick 3- 4 exercises, perform 8-12 repetitions of 2 sets each exercise.

This phase should take 3-5 minutes.


Phase V – Warm–up Swim (in pool)

This part consists of carefully pre-planned yardage in preparation for the upcoming theme of skill(s) or sets to be trained (it should not tire out novice swimmers).

Main Theme or Skills (Practice)

Teaching or refining swimming skills depends on the phase within the seasonal cycle (early, mid-late season). This makes up the majority of the daily session. It includes teaching and/or reviewing starts and turns even though the latter are already part of daily training and therefore be refined through this process. As the season progresses a slow build up occurs from low volume and low intensity training to higher volume or intensity (but never both).

Warm–down (cool-down)

The Warm-down (cool-down) consists of five phases, whereby the first one is completed in the pool and the last four are completed on dryland, i.e. the pool deck. The latter part consists of specific exercises to avoid and recover from physiological damage and potential injuries. The Warm-down can be dynamic or static in nature. Static stretchexercises are valuable to maintain or enhance flexibility. Tissue temperature is at the highest immediately after a workout and during the warm-down phase stretching is thought to be both safer and more productive. The Warm-down also has a psychological relaxing component. In fact, progressive relaxation exercises can be implemented here. Coaches can use this moment to debrief swimmers, provide positive or corrective feedback on the session, or share upcoming events or information.

Warm–down Phases:

Phase I – Warm–down Swim (in pool)

This part serves to adjust the body from exercise and to lower the HR gradually while providing the muscles with oxygen, assisting in the removal of lactic acid, allowing for better recovery.

Should last about 5 minutes

Phase II – Speed/Power exercises (dryland)

While the body is still relatively warmed up, exercises with a focus on speed and power development are recommended. Tubing exercises may assist in arm speed and power, jumping helps to improve starts and turns as well as kicking power.  With the specific growth and development demands of children, the volume of these exercises must be minimal. One jump can place up to 10 times more force on the body than a person weightlifting a load equal to his/her body weight. The age of swimmers has to be taken into account in selecting the type of exercises and the intensity. A typical session in this phase would include two upper body and two lower body exercises.

Perform 2-3 Sets of 6-8 repetitions of each power exercise with greater than two-minute rest between sets.

Perform 2-3 Sets of 15-20 repetitions of each speed exercise with greater than two-minute rests between sets.

Because of growth concerns, power and speed workouts should not occur more than 3 times/week, with at least 48 hours between power training sessions.


Phase III – Functional Strength exercises (dryland)

Functional strength exercises are those that focus on developing functional strength (kinesthetics, proprioception, balance, and coordination). These types of exercises are slow resisted movements and/or holds against resistance (most likely body weights). Functional strength can be considered as the largest fundamental aspect to athletic development and also plays a significant role in injury prevention. Lower intensity of these workouts is safer for children; therefore, they can be completed every training session depending upon fatigue. Exercises should be separated into categories of upper and lower body; lower and mid abdominal obliques; and upper abdominal complexes.

Perform 2-3 exercises in each complex, with 2-3 sets of each exercise, with a 45-60 second rest between sets.

The duration of each set should be 30 seconds long. If the exercise involves a hold, maintain the hold up to a maximum of 30 seconds. If repetitions of an exercise are performed, repeat the exercise for up to 30 seconds. Anything longer than 30 seconds becomes more endurance in nature and not strength development. To maintain focus on strength development the difficulty of the exercise is increased. One exercise alone becomes more difficult by increasing leverage; reducing the base of support; instituting unstable surfaces (balance boards, physio-balls, etc.)’ and by introducing combination of opposing movements.


Phase IV – Active Flexibility exercises (dryland)

In this phase exercises should focus on increasing active flexibility, which will result in increased technical performance. For example, a swimmer with insufficient hip and groin flexibility will not be able to bring legs and knees into the proper position for the breaststroke, or encounters difficulties getting the arms out of the water in recovery of the butterfly stroke. Working with active flexibility exercises helps to remove weaknesses. These types of exercises involve actively moving limbs through the greatest range of motion. Often objects can be used as a target to push the active range of motion. For example, stepping over a stick (hurdle) at a height that pushes the active range of motion

For each session pick 2-3 lower body exercises and 2 upper body exercises.

Perform 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions for each exercise with a 30-second rest between sets.


Phase V – Dynamic Flexibility and PNF Flexibility exercises (dryland)

Follow the Stationary dynamic exercise routine that was completed in the warm-up. Stationary dynamic exercises are exercises whereby the body remains in one place on the floor. Exercises include leg swings-back and forth, leg sings-open and close hip, lying leg swings, prone leg swings, hamstring rolls, lying bicycle or leg scissors. The movements must be fluid, taking the swings to the end points of each range of motion. These movements will involve a series of contractions and relaxations, which allows an increase in flexibility because it inhibits the nervous system from eliciting a stretch reflex by producing a counter productive contraction. PNF stretches also focus on inhibiting the stretch reflex but this involves using a partner. It is not recommended for children. This type of assisted stretching can be extremely dangerous if the partner is untrained or communication between the two partners is not strict.

Use 4-5 stationary dynamic exercises, with about 15-20 swings for each limb of each exercise.

The velocity of the swings is gradually increased throughout the reps.

This phase should take 2-3 minutes.


Phase VI – 3-S-Stretching (slow-sustained-stretch) exercises (dryland)

This means holding a position over a period of time that may or may not be repeated. The key quality is control, and little or no movement. This type of stretch takes the muscle to its end tension point when held for a period of time.  Flexibility increases are minimal with these types of exercises but they are excellent for assisting muscle relaxation and recovery. The hold for each stretch may range from 6-30 seconds for maximum benefit.


Exercise Caution

Contra-indicators are those exercises, which are counter-productive and can cause injuries.

A number of exercises were very popular in the past but have been eliminated or modified. Coaches should not imitate other sports unless they have examined the effect of potentially exercises, especially since some sports still use contra-indicator exercises.

Some activities like yoga employ exercises to increase flexibility. One has to remember that it takes a long time to develop appropriate positions. Caution is needed when transferring exercises like the ‘plough or cobra’ into swim training programs.

Elite swimmers who are fully matured carry out all sorts of exercises, which novice swimmer should never undertake due to growth and developmental factors. Consideration always needs to be given to knee joints, shoulder joints, and the lower back. Therefore, any exercise involving these muscles and joints should to be modified and then adapted to suit younger swimmers (example, double leg thigh stretch with back on floor is changed to a single leg stretch).

Some of these exercises are:

Head Rotations – stress is induced to the first vertebra.

Sway or roll the head side-to-side

Backward Head Drop – stress is induced to the first vertebra.

Keep the head aligned with the spine in any back-leaning exercise.

Traditional Shoulder-stretch against the wall with a fully extended arm to the rear

Use a bent forearm on the wall – walk forward until a stretch is felt.

Sitting exercises with hyper-extended arms (locked arms) whereby fingers point to the rear. This is common because it feels ‘comfortable’ but it encourages the habit to ‘lock or hyper-extend’ elbows. In case of a fall or slip to the floor the automatic reaction is to reach backward, resulting in a


broken arm (many pictures in magazines show faulty sitting or stretching positions).

Point the fingers toward the feet.

Hurdle-sit exercises from athletics is a specific exercise for hurdle-events and those athletes have undergone progressive build-ups to engage in these exercises.

Modify the Hurdle-sit – one leg tucked close to the crotch

Double leg Thigh-stretch with backward body lean (pictures of elite swimmers) can result in knee injuries.

Keep one leg fully extended in front. Stretch the bent thigh with elbow support on the floor.

Sitting breaststroke Thigh-stretch with pushing on the knees to stretch thighs

Press on inside of thighs.

Swimmers with knee or shoulder problems during any growth spurt

Avoid all exercises that can aggravate or irritate the condition.



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