It’s graceful, it requires full makeup, and the routines are on-point. Synchronized swimming looks so easy as the swimmers glide through the pool, but it’s not just a smile-and-flip sport. Synchronized swimming is intense. We work with all athletes at COR, but few consistently smile during strenuous work…what a skill. When considering strength training for synchronized swimming, make sure you get an individualized program.
The swimmers smile above the water, but what you don’t see is the power under the surface. Synchronized swimming is much more than an 8-year-old’s handstand in the pool. It demands strength, endurance, breath-holding, and precision with other teammates.
Whether you are a solo swimmer, part of a duo, or one of a trio or combo team, strength training for synchronized swimmers is important for power, endurance, and flexibility in the water.
What You Don’t Know about Synchro
There is a misconception among viewers that synchronized swimming is easy. After all, it’s just dancing in the water that they get to see in the Olympics every four years, right? Not quite. There is more to the sport. Yes, it’s a sport.
Synchro is a powerful display of swimming skill and teamwork. It is also one of the most physically demanding sports at the collegiate and professional levels.The physical and mental demands of synchro rank the sport at the top of the list, second only to long-distance running, for aerobic capacity.
Synchronized swimmers require upper and lower body strength to twist, flip, and lift in and out of the water. The sport also demands exceptional cardio strength, and —of course,—swimmers have to do it all while keeping a smile on their faces. If you run in place for five minutes and do a handful of cartwheels while holding your breath AND smiling, you just might have what it takes to train with a beginning synchro team.
Physical demands of synchronized swimming
Synchronized swimming combines a few physically demanding sports into one. Synchro is a combination of competitive swimming, dance, gymnastics, and ballet all choreographed into one grueling routine that lasts a little more than four minutes.
When competing, synchronized swimmers are required to participate in routines that progress through specific physical demands and skill levels. They are judged on artistic and technical execution. Judges observe the degree of difficulty of the routine, the synchronicity of the swimmers and the routine, and the accuracy of the movements in the routine. To impress the judges and deliver a clean, in-sync performance, synchronized swimmers must develop core stability, leg power, strength, and endurance.
The physical demands of synchronized swimming are similar to those required for high metabolic training activities. Because of these, a range of injuries is inevitable without proper dryland training and technique.
Common Injuries in Synchronized Swimming
Synchronized swimmers are like any other competitive swimmer. It’s normal to encounter injuries and pain, but most of them are avoidable. Acute injuries are more common in synchronized swimmers. Overuse injuries, however, are occurring more often as the skill becomes more technical and swimmers endure longer training hours. In addition, swimmers and team coaches spend less time preventing injuries (Weinberg, 1986).
Common injuries in synchronized swimming (Chu, 1999) are:
- – Lower back injuries
- – Knee medial stress syndromes
- – Shoulder instability
Most of these injuries are associated with the physical demands of eggbeater kicks, which is required in synchronized swimming to keep swimmers above the water and prevent them from touching the bottom of the pool. Sculling, another skill needed in synchronized swimming, can also cause injuries. It is required to pull the hands in closer together and pull them apart at the top of the water.
Conditioning and Strength Training for Synchronized Swimmers
Proper training and strength training for synchronized swimmers are the two best ways to prevent synchro injuries. Strength training for synchronized swimmers must be targeted training that improves performance and muscle function. It is not enough, or advised, to go to the gym and lift weights. Also, running miles on end has little to no effect on performance.
It’s best to keep to a specific plan for strength training for synchronized swimmers in and out of the pool for maximum results. Training for synchronized swimmers is a daily requirement, but not every day is strength training day. They have to split up their training among pool training, speed training, endurance, strength training, and rest.
Synchronized swimmers must also use strength and conditioning to build range of motion, an important requirement for synchro (at the ankles, hips, and low back).
Strength Training for Synchronized Swimmers for the Legs and Knees
One noticeably different exercise synchro swimmers do that other competitive swimmers do not is training with weights on their ankles and wrists. Adding external resistance in the pool can build specific strength training. However, it increases stress on the aforementioned injured areas, so add this training progressively and safely.
The below exercises for strength training for synchronized swimmers I recommend for the legs are ones that build strong muscles for stable eggbeater kicks under the water and more powerful straight kicks and stands above the water. Including both land and water drills not only helps develop muscle memory but they also help swimmers learn to be in sync with their teammates.
Many swimmers turn to the squat for strong knees, quads, and hip flexors. To do a squat:
- – Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed outward.
- – Straighten your back and squat back. Make sure you sit back into the squat. Never allow your knees to push out in front of your toes. Keep them aligned.
- – Squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- – Slowly return back to the starting position.
- – Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 squats.
2. Lateral Lunge
For the lunge to be effective, swimmers must be careful not to get lazy. Proper form is essential to prevent common lunge dryland mistakes. It also helps you gain strength in the legs and knees without causing pain or encouraging iStep forward and bending your hips lower until both your front leg and back leg are injured.
The knee, hips, and ankles must all be aligned to avoid putting unnecessary stress on the hips and knees. To do a lunge:
- – Stand tall with your body straight and your shoulders relaxed.
- – Position the front knee at 90-degree angle. Make sure it doesn’t touch the ground. It must remain aligned with the toes, never pushing out in front.
- – Pushing your weight through the ankles, push back into the starting position.
If you experience any pain in your knees or ankles, switch to the reverse lunge. Step back instead of stepping forward.
Do front and side step-ups and step-downs to build stronger knees. To do step-ups:
- – Place an elevated step in front of you. You can use a chair, a bench, or a plyo box.
- – Place your left foot on the step and press through your heel to step up onto the box, bringing your opposite foot, the right foot, up to the bench.
- – Step down with the left foot and bring the right foot down so they are by each other.
- – Repeat by starting with the left foot again. Remember, if you step up with the left, step down with the right.
- – Do three sets of 10 to 15 steps on each side.
You will start on the box. To do a step down:
- – Place one foot on the box and one foot off the step. This time, instead of facing the box, you will turn to the side. Make sure your knee, hip, and ankle are aligned.
- – Slowly bend your knee to lower the opposite foot to the ground.
- – As you straighten your leg, bring the leg up and push the body upward.
- – Do this 10 to 15 times on each side.
Shoulder Strength Training for Synchronized Swimmers
Synchronized swimmers give their shoulders a beating with sculling, arm strokes, spins, and torpedoes. The repetitive motions and intense training schedules can and will lead to Swimmer’s Shoulder, an injury I talk about often.
Synchronized swimmers complicate the traditional understanding of what causes swimmer’s shoulder because they are upright and out of the water —not horizontal in the water. Any shoulder training plan must help synchronized swimmers build a strong shoulder that is supported by a strong back, neck, and chest.
1. Band training: internal and external rotation
The band is your friend. To protect the shoulder, include internal and external rotation exercises with a band into a plan for strength training for synchronized swimmers. Unlike speed swimmers, do internal rotation is also important for synchronized swimmers as sculling doesn’t create the rotator cuff imbalance that speed swimming causes. To do internal rotations:
- – Tie one end of the band to a stable base such as a table, post, fence, or door knob. Hold the other end in your hand. The band should be as high as your elbow when you stand.
- – Hold the band in one of your hands and turn your body so the side with the band in your hand is closest to the tie. Make sure your elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle.
- – Rotate your arm so your palm faces in. Moving only your arm and keeping your elbow at your side, pull the band across your chest. Look forward when you do so; it’s easier to do the movement correctly when you aren’t looking down at it.
- – Return to the starting position.
Next, move on to the external rotations. For this exercise, instead of starting with the forearm straight out, you want to make sure your hand reaches across your torso. Don’t lose the 90-degree angle in the elbow.
- – Hold the band with the hand that crosses your torso
- – Keep your elbow pinned to your side as you rotate the band with a backhand motion.
- – Return to the starting position.
Do both the internal and external rotations on both sides, 10 to 15 times each.
2. Rows: seated and upright standing
Rows are great exercises because they don’t only target the shoulders.They also strengthen the back, chest, arms, and other muscles that support a healthy shoulder. You may use dumbbells or a cable/band to do this exercise. For the purpose of seated rows and standing rows for synchronized swimming, I recommend the band or cable. They create the resistance swimmers will feel in the pool when they train and perform. To do a seated row with cable or band:
- – Wrap the band around a sturdy base, or sit at the row machine.
- – Hold each end of the cable or band in your palms, making sure the palms are facing each other.
- – Sit with your knees slightly bent. The more you bend your knees to bring you closer to the band, the more tension you will feel.
- – To begin rowing, pinch your shoulder blades together as you pull your elbows to the sides of your body.
- – Slowly return to the starting position by extending your arms forward. Maintain a straight back and don’t hunch to finish the exercise.
- – Do 10 to 15 seated rows.
Next, stand up to target different muscles. The standing upright row works the lats. To do the standing upright row with band:
- – Stand on the band with your feet. Bring your feet together and hold one end of the band in each hand.
- – Your palms should be facing your thighs and resting just below your waist. Make sure you have a slight bend in your elbows.
- – Lift the band by engaging your shoulders. Keep your back straight and your torso tight, allowing only your elbows to be the main drivers for the motion. The elbows should be higher than your wrists as you lift.
- – Bring your hands to your chin before releasing back to the starting position.
- – Repeat 10 to 15 times.
3. Wall Slide
Perform a mini wall sit and tilt your pelvis posteriorly. This will flatten your back. Next, raise your arms to 90 degrees shoulder and elbow flexion. Tuck your chin, so your entire spine is against the wall. While keeping the spine flat, slide your arms up and down the wall.
Perform 3 sets of 15 – 20 repetitions.
Have the swimmer kneel, then sit their butt onto their feet. Next, have the swimmer place their head on the ground. Keeping your arms as straight as possible (at 11:00 and 1:00), bring both arms in front of your body with the thumbs facing upwards. Raise the arms as high as you can, remembering to raise them only as far as you can to maintain your starting back position. Lower the arms slowly and repeat.
5. Shoulder extension
The shoulder extension exercise doesn’t look like much, but it is important to maintain the proper form and not overdo it. To do shoulder extensions with a band:
- – Anchor the band on a base and grab the free end in one hand.
- – Keep your arm straight so the hand holding the band is level with your waist.
- – Gently pull the band back toward the side of the body. Keep your arm straight through the motion and engage only the shoulder.
- – Do this 10 to 15 times on one side before moving to the other.
Strength for the Back and Core
Synchro puts a great deal of pressure on the neck and back during routines. Swimmers constantly thrust through the water and swim erect out of the water. Strong neck, chest, and back muscles will support healthy, injury-free routines.
1. Bridge with Shoulder Extension
Creating a stable core, while activating the hips and arms are key for synchronized swimmers. For this exercise:
- – Set up a resistance band around a pole.
- – Bend your knees and press through your heels to lift your butt. Straighten one leg and keep it off the ground for a more advanced version.
- – Squeeze your butt, this is the main muscle to focus on contracting.
- – Pull the band with straight arms next to your side.
Secure a band chest height. hold the band with both hands, brace your core, and walk out as far as possible. While holding, have a partner gradually increase resistance in multiple planes of motion.
Hook a resistance band around a pole, then bend your elbow 90 degrees and prop yourself up on one side using one arm. Raise your hips, then grab the resistance band and pull the band with a straight elbow past your hip, return slowly [it is harder than it looks, watch the elite swimmer in the video struggle and collapse at the end of the exercise :)].
Conclusion of Strength Training for Synchronized Swimmers
These are only a few example exercises for synchronized swimmers. All synchronized swimmers must have an individualized program based on their training history, injury history, strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Similar to your solo routine, not every swimmer should do the same thing. This is where a specific strength coach can help individualize your program and maximize your potential!