I recently received an e-mail from a coach asking me the following. When I began responding, I realized the answer was easily long enough for a blog post. Here is the question:
Q: I work with a group of elite high school swimmers and no matter how much I talk with them about functional strength and how strength on land doesn’t transfer to the pool, all they want to do is bench press and do curls. Should swimmers bench press or are they just doing “curls for the girls”?
A: Sit back, this is going to be a bit of a rant, as this is a very heated topic in swimming and strength and conditioning world.
In sports, we want any exercise training to transfer to the sport. Unfortunately, general or absolute strength gains are simply accepted as transferrable to sport.
With any exercise, we look for carryover to the functional demands of our sport. However, many blindly accept general strength gains transfer in most cases. For example, we know that a plethora of strength training exercises can improve swimming velocity, but training on a swim bench for dryland or replicating the swimming catch with a functional machine is just dumb [Dryland Training and the Swim Bench – Swimming Science and band bent over row].
For swimming, the largest problem with the barbell bench press (when it uses correct form) is that it stabilizes scapular movement, preventing scapular movement, an essential skill in swimming. When we do push-up variations, the scapulae are free to glide – just as they do when we swim. During bench press, the shoulder blades are held together, creating a stable base to push heavy weight [Learn if push-ups are safe for swimmers].
Additionally, performing the push-up (a closed chain exercise, as the chain is closed to the ground) places less stress on the shoulder [just don’t fall into the common push-up mistakes].
During dumbbell bench pressing, there is a greater range of motion, less shoulder stress (as the shoulder isn’t forced into internal rotation), and increased core activation. During dumbbell bench pressing, more scapular movement occurs naturally.
During barbell bench press, you don’t get the benefits of the dumbbell bench press. The barbell bench press does lead to using heavy weight and putting on more muscle mass. Unfortunately, this improved strength and muscle won’t carry over to swimming the way the muscle mass in the lower half and upper back will. I’ve worked with tons of elite swimmers, some who can bench, some who can barely move a stick, but can’t say that I’ve ever seen any correlation – in the research or my anecdotal experience – between a good bench press and swimming velocity.
Having said that, there a lot of swimmers (especially young boys, yes even some of these young boys are now coaching), so we do need to meet the athletes halfway. Often, dumbbell bench pressing and push-up variations do enough to please anyone with bench press withdrawal. We like to progress to single arm push-ups, especially for our long-axis swimmers, as it challenges anti-rotational and anti-side bending core strength and is more shoulder-friendly.
Combine these push-up variations with chains around the back, partners pushing them side-to-side and you’ve got a great exercise for the upper body, core, and rotator cuff muscles.
Now, certainly swimmers will still do traditional bench pressing, as it is a power movement and staple in the strength world. Hell, I’ll still throw it in a program for a swimmer from time to time. If you are doing traditional bench pressing, make sure you keep the volume down, keep the elbows tucked, and shoulder blades glued together. Also, realize this probably isn’t going to transfer to the pool, as there are better methods, but it may help increase confidence, muscle mass, and hormone output. Remember that swimmers have loads of competing demands – from swimming, to mobility training, to soft tissue work, to pool, to movement training – so what you do in the weight room has to highly effective to justify its inclusion. I just struggle to consider bench pressing “highly effective” for swimmers.