At COR in Santa Clara, we are turning into a haven for aquatic athletes. On any given day you’ll see swimmers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers, and divers training. Of this wild range of aquatic animals, I think water polo players have it the toughest. Now, this doesn’t imply swimmers or dives have it easy, as these other athletes have tougher scenarios than water polo players. For instance, swimming requires more specific swimming training, testing mental fortitude with hours of staring at the black line. Synchronized swimmers and divers must practice their precise motions over many times while being scrutinized by a judge. Water polo requires, strength, speed, proper biomechanics, ability to tolerate physical pain inflicted by a competitor, as well as many other skills. This unique skill set makes water polo strength training challenging, but fun!

Now, many people who work with water polo players classify them as either football players or swimmers. The fun thing about water polo players is that they are a mix of football players and swimmers. This unique combination makes water polo strength trainingRichie Campbell of Australia cocks back for a powerful water power through, I wonder what his water polo strength training program looks like... programs truly unique. Here are 12 water polo strength training tips I’ve gathered since working with this unique aquatic animal:

12 Water Polo Strength Training Tips

1. Protect the Shoulders: The shoulders are at risk of injury in water polo players. A properly designed water polo strength training program can not only restore muscular imbalances for a water polo season, but also provide safe and effective exercises for reducing shoulder stress. Many program use back squat and power snatches, but we don’t incorporate these exercises in our water polo athletes, as they place more stress on the shoulder. Instead, using front squats and simple pulls from the floor are safer alternatives for water polo players. Water polo strength training should reduce shoulder injury risk, not increase it. Make sure your programs are safe, while being effective [you could also get the COR Swimmer’s Shoulder Solution, most applies to water polo players].

2. Single Leg Exercises: Water polo, like all aquatic sports, occur in the unstable medium of water. Therefore, strengthening with limited stability can build core strength and power in the pool. Single leg exercises help develop core strength and power for water polo players. We incorporate a lot of single leg exercises during our water polo strength training programs, forcing opposite side core stabilization.

3. Strengthen the Core in all Directions: The mythical core is always discussed in sports training, but rarely is the core strengthened in all the planes of motion. In water polo, you’re rotating, egg beating, and doing motions in every direction. Make sure your core is able to control these variable motions. Don’t just focus on crunches and sit-ups, as you’ll miss the boat with your water polo strength training program. Make sure your players have core strength while rotating, twisting, move side-to-side, and every direction!

4. Develop Throwing Power: Learning how to incorporate the body into throwing is key for developing power. Using medicine balls are a great tool for generating on land power and teaching water polo players how to use their legs and core to increase rotational power. Without the stable ground, water polo players must use their legs and core even more than ground based overhead athletes. A well designed water polo strength training program teaches water polo players how to use their entire body during throwing.

5. Develop Thoracic Spine Rotation: Unlike baseball and other throwing sports, the hips will not come over the top during the water polo throw. Therefore, water pool strength training programs must incorporate a lot of thoracic spine mobility to ensure the player has the range of motion to develop rotational power from the mid back. If the athlete doesn’t have this mobility (which is common due to excessive sitting in our culture) they will overuse the shoulder or low back, too common injury spots…

6. Protect the Low Back: Like the shoulders, the low back is a frequently injured location in water polo players. Too often players will overuse their back when the lack thoracic spine and hip motion. This can occur during throwing, catching a high pass, and many other water polo actions. Incorporating soft tissue techniques for reducing overuse at the quadratus lumborum and other low back muscles is key. Combine this with spine safe water polo strength training exercises and you’ll solve the majority of water polo low back pain problems.

7. Avoid Shoulder Stretching: If you started playing water polo at a young age, you developed enough shoulder range of motion to throw and swim properly. This occurs through humeral retroversion, a developed rotation of the upper arm in the glenoid (the shoulder blade). This has been shown in baseball players and I’m confident it occurs in water polo players. Therefore, shoulder stretching isn’t necessary, as you likely already have enough range at the shoulder, you likely need some stabilization! Combine stabilization techniques with soft tissue techniques and you’re shoulders will feel good as new!

8. Train Hip Mobility with Core Stability: While performing egg beater kick, the core must be stable while the legs move vigorously to keep the body afloat. Much like a duck, the best water polo players are still on top of the water, but are working their butts off under water. If you don’t have enough hip mobility and core stability, your body will move erratically on top of the water. This not only impairs throwing accuracy and power (as it is like throwing from a foam pad), but it also shift the position of the femur in the hip socket. Now, this may not sound important, but if a player has the femoral head moving around the hip socket, then it will rub more on areas where the labrum is less thick and increase their risk of a labral tear. If you’re actively around the sport of water polo, you’ve certainly noticed there is a big problem with hip labral issues and poor core stability and hip mobility is the root of this issue.

9. Nothing in the Weight Room is Water Polo Specific: I’ve seen tons of water polo strength training programs incorporate resisted egg beater kick or swimming catch specific drills. These sport replications miss the mark, as movements in the water are far from any action you can perform in the weight room. During water polo strength training, focus on improving strength and power on land, then in the water learn how to incorporate it into water polo specific actions.

Don’t try and resist the water polo in water actions on land!

10 Put on Some Mass: No matter your water polo position, you’re going to be grabbed, pulled, and hit. This is part of the sport. Putting on muscle mass can help you protect yourself. Too often water polo players are stick skinny and can’t protect themselves in elite water polo. A proper water polo strength training program can put on mass, strength, and power, without sacrificing range of motion or in-water speed.

11. Multiplanar Leg Strength: The legs create all the power and strength during water polo. Too often water polo strength training programs focus on the arms to develop throwing speed. This massive flaw misses the goal, as the legs develop throwing power and speed. Next time you’re in the weight room, work on lateral squats, lateral jumps, hip thrusts, landmine rotations, and other leg exercises in all the planes of movement.

12. Improve your Grip Strength: Being able to grip and palm the water polo ball during distressing times is key for maximizing throwing speed. Isolated grip strength isn’t necessary for most players, but varying grip positions and grip widths can naturally improve grip strength. Try switching between pronated, alternate, and supinated grips with varying bar widths can develop grip strength during strength training exercises.

Summary of 12 Water Polo Strength Training Tips

Water polo strength training is essential for elite water polo success. If you are a strength coach working with water polo players consider these 12 water polo strength training tips! If you are a water polo player and you’re not working with a strength coach, get with the program! Nowadays, you need any edge to break first to the ball, shoot faster, and be stronger. Find a water polo strength coach in your area, no matter if you live in San Jose, CA or Timbuktu!

If you live in the Bay Area and are looking for maximizing water polo potential, schedule a Sports Performance Assessment today!

Written by Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS