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DO WATER POLO PLAYERS NEED TO DO STRENGTH TRAINING: PART 3?

Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 1 Number 9 October 1, 2010
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.
 

Dry-land strength training is part of the conditioning program of many water polo teams around the world, with the idea being that the stronger you are, the better your performance in the water. The purpose of this three part series is to answer the question - is strength training necessary to become a better player, or is it just something that has been perpetuated by strength trainers as necessary for all sports?

The second question we are attempting to answer - do the same principals of strength apply in the water, a medium that gives when you push on it; as they do on land, a medium that is fixed and does not yield when you push on it? More importantly, how much strength (force) does it really require to push your hand or foot through the water?

In the first two parts of the series we examined how propulsion is achieved in water polo and whether increased strength (force) is necessary for increased propulsion. We looked at both the forward movement of the player while swimming, and the upward movement of the player while performing the eggbeater kick, necessary in many aspects of playing water polo. We came to the following conclusions: 

  1. In looking at forward propulsion, we explained the need of the swimmer to create POWER, the key factor in explaining movement in swimming and water polo. When you multiply strength (force) times speed (velocity), then you have power (Power = force x velocity).

  2. In order to increase power by increasing force in the water, it was found that the mechanical force generated by the muscles does not all go into generating propulsion. A lot of the force generated by the muscles is wasted on pushing water backwards. In other words, the energy created by the muscles is dissipated into the water. Muscle strength seems to be irrelevant; because most of the force (energy) just goes into the water, and does not help that much in propelling the body forward. Pushing back with more force does not help to propel the body forward faster.

  3. Since there are two factors that contribute to power--- force and velocity, and one (force) is not effective, then it is also possible to increase power by increasing the other factor (velocity). The water polo player does this by increasing the speed of the arms moving through the water as well as increasing the speed of the legs when performing the eggbeater kick. As the arms move through the water at faster speeds, it is the drag generated on the arms and legs that create the force to propel the body forward and upward.

  4. To swim fast, or get higher in the water, the water polo player needs to be able to generate enough force with his arms and legs to overcome drag and wave forces of the water on the body. Because of the buoyant force of the water pushing up on the body, the swimmer does not have to worry about overcoming gravity, only on overcoming drag and wave resistance created by the mass of the body moving through the water. Dutch exercise scientist H.M. Toussaint, who has probably done more studies on swim propulsion an drag than anyone in the world has concluded, from his latest research on power while swimming (“Strength, Power, and Technique of Swimming Performance” 2007), that “swimming is not a sport that requires much strength to swim fast”. This collaborates the idea that it doesn’t take a lot of force to overcome the drag of the water, and that a lot of the mechanical force that is produced goes into pushing the water back.

  5. The final conclusion that we can come to, from the above application of fluid mechanics and power principals to swimming and water polo, is that speed of the arms and legs, and not strength, are more important factors in increasing power for propulsion while swimming and also when performing the eggbeater kick. These fast movements can only come from training the anaerobic energy systems that contribute to the fast contracting muscles that move the arms and legs rapidly in the water.

  6. Increased strength of the muscles from dry land strength training is not necessary to increase the speed of movement. Technique, streamlining, heredity, velocity of arms and legs, and training the anaerobic energy systems, become more important than strength in increasing swim speed and that contribute to a strong eggbeater kick.

APPLYING RESEARCH AND SCIENCE

The conclusions of the discussions in Part 1 and Part 2 on drag and propulsion as it relates to swimming, has been based mostly on applying scientific principals of fluid mechanics. Up until now it has been difficult to collaborate the science with actual research because of the difficulty of measuring force production in the water. There is also the question of whether strength gained from dry-land exercises is even transferred to performance in the water, let alone necessary for swimming faster.

Of interest to water polo players is the use of strength training to improve an important aspect of playing water polo, and that is sprint-swimming speed. There hasn’t been any research done on improving the speed of water polo players; but there have been many studies done on improving sprint speed of competitive swimmers. Both water polo players and sprinters utilize similar strokes, and swim approximately the same distances; so any studies done on sprinters can also be applied to water polo players.

In many studies performed by sports scientists on swimming (Costil D. et al 1983 Swim Technique, Crowe S.E. et al, 1999, Med & Sci in Sport & Exerc., Tanaka H.U. et al, 1993 Med &Sci in Sport & Ex, Sukolovas G, 2000, Olympic Trials Project, Toussaint H. et al. 2001, European Journ. Of Sports Med.), it was found in all of them, that despite the increases in muscle strength acquired by swim specific dry-land resistance training, these strength gains were not transferred to increased sprint speed in competitive swimmers. The swimmers got stronger in performing the dry-land exercises; but the increase strength did not translate to faster times in short sprint distances (25 meters) such as those used in water polo.

Part of the reason is because it has been found, in hundreds of additional studies on both land based and water based sports, that strength training is specific to the activity involved (running, swimming, soccer, basketball, football, track and field, etc). This is so, since it has long been known from basic exercise physiology that the body only adapts to the specific forms of exercise stress applied. This is called the principle of “specificity of training”. An athlete has to strengthen the muscles in the same way that they are used in the specific sport activity, whether on dry land or in the water. For the water polo player this adaptive process is rather specific, requiring the movement pattern during strength training to be similar to that during swimming and performing the eggbeater kick.

Because it takes place in the water and because of the mechanics involved in the swim stroke, swimming is one the most difficult sports to exactly duplicate the movements involved with dry-land exercise. Because of its complexity, duplicating the movements of the eggbeater kick is even more difficult than duplicating the swimming stroke. This implies that if gains in strength are recorded for on-land exercises, it is very questionable whether these measured improvements transfer to enhanced performance in the swimming and eggbeater kick situation, unless the strength movements duplicate the movements in the water. 

CONCLUSIONS

The conclusions from the above studies, that increased dry-land strength does not translate to increased swimming speed, helps to collaborate the findings of the fluid dynamic analysis discussed in Part 1 and Part 2; that an increase in muscular force of the legs and arms does not lead to increased power or forward propulsion, as most of that increased force is dissipated into the water. An even more obvious conclusion is that additional strength acquired from dry-land strength training is probably not required to swim faster, or perform the eggbeater kick in the sport of water polo. The strength necessary to perform the specific activities of swimming and water polo can best be acquired from simply practicing and participating in swimming and water polo. More than that amount, as we have shown, does not necessarily result in better performance.

SHOOTING THE BALL

Arm and shoulder strength is also a factor in throwing or shooting the ball with greater velocity; but it is not as important as one would think. Use of the legs, involvement of the non-shooting arm, and the correct application of the sequence of events in the “kinetic chain” are probably more important than arm strength in shooting velocity. In a classic study on water polo players (Bloomfield, B.A. et al, Australian Journal of Science and Sport) studied the influence of strength training on overhead throwing velocity of elite water polo players. Following strength training, no change in throwing velocity was observed in either the normal training group, or the strength-training group. Of more importance to water polo players is the importance of strengthening the rotator cuff and other shoulder stabilizer muscles in order to prevent injuries to the shoulder.

PUSHING, PULLING AND HOLDING-LEVERAGE IN THE WATER

Another area where strength is required in water polo is the constant wrestling for position (pushing, pulling and holding) that goes on between players at the 2-meter position. Many of these players are physically big and strong; but they would not be successful at their position without a strong eggbeater kick. It is the kick that gives them the platform so that they can apply the upper body strength to gain and hold position in the water.

Do not confuse strength with size and mass. 2-meter players with mass are necessary because it makes it more difficult to get around them. However, if two players that are the same size are grappling with each other in the water, the one with the best legs will win the battle. Think of the 2-meter players as football linemen who are maneuvering against each other. The big massive 350 lb offensive lineman can just stand there and get in the way of the on-rushing smaller defensive lineman. However, if the defensive player has the ability to apply more power by using leg strength and speed, he will win the battle between them; and eventually get to the quarterback.

WHAT DOES WORK TO HELP INCREASE SPRINT SPEED?

Some physiologists have speculated, that based on observation and the application of the principals of the science of Exercise Physiology, that high intensity speed work, along with some in the water resistance training with swim benches, power racks, stretch cords and paddles, develops the strength necessary to swim at maximum speed in the relatively short sprints that are part of the game of water polo. To test their theories and observations, studies were performed of all of these resistance-training techniques. The conclusions, after years of study, found that only high intensity speed work and tethered-swimming, in which the swimmer actually swam in the water while attached to a resistance cord or power rack, achieved any significant improvements in speed or endurance. Swim bench training was not found to be effective, because it did not exactly duplicate the swim stroke in the water (no shoulder roll or stabilizing kick), and hand paddles caused injuries to the shoulders.

CAN WE IMPROVE THE EGGBEATER WITH STRENGTH TRAINING?

Similar to sprint swimming, strength training to improve the eggbeater kick can best be applied in the water by utilizing weighted balls, teammate assisted push downs and resistance, and explosive jumps; or simply performing the eggbeater kick in practice in a similar situation as used in a game. As in swimming the crawl stroke, increased power of the eggbeater kick can help to overcome deficiencies in other factors, up to a point. A person who has inherited the body type necessary for success in water polo (long body and great legs) will always have an advantage over the person who does not have those qualities. All the strength training in the world will not make the deficient person any taller, or give them the legs of a person with a natural eggbeater kick. By the time water polo players get to the National team level, the laws of natural selection have already selected the body types that can be successful in water polo. Young players have to remember that it was not only hard work and training that got the top players where they are. Hard work did not give them the tall, long and lean bodies and great eggbeater kicks that most of the top players have.

DESIGNING A STRENGTH TRAINING SYSTEM FOR WATER POLO PLAYERS

If we just want water polo players to become bigger and stronger, then we can easily accomplish that by having them perform traditional dry-land exercises in the weight room. Traditional weight training teaches us that more is better, no pain no gain, etc. If the goal is to add muscle and become increasingly defined, then there is indeed some validity to this approach. However, water polo players are not weightlifters, and they do not need to be traditionally defined in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense to swim fast. Most water polo muscles are developed doing the sport, not in the weight room. They may not be visible gains, but remember that the idea is to gain swimming and water polo strength, not cosmetic bulk.

As a whole, dry land training should create fluidity, momentum and functional strength while maintaining cardiovascular fitness and range of motion, and at the same time strengthen muscles around the joints that provide stability and prevent injury.

Weights are to be used as a complementary strength-building tool in order for the water polo player to retain range of motion, while gaining applicable strength. The strength gained in the weight room must be applicable to what a player is trying to accomplish. Trying to get bigger muscles is not one of the things that we hope to gain from weight lifting.

If water polo players feel that they need more strength in the water, and if dry-land resistance training is to become a part of their training, the results of scientific studies basic scientific principles and common sense have to be followed for the weight training to be effective. Along with developing strength in the arms and the legs, the correct major muscles of the upper body that are used in the game must be strengthened in a way that is specific to and similar to the movements used in the water, the legs must be trained to provide the base of support that will allow muscle strength to be applied in the water, and the supporting and stabilizing muscles of the body must also be strengthened to prevent injury.

A variety of strength training methods can be utilized, including in-the-water specific resistance training, body weight exercises, resistance band exercises, free weights and machine weights. A program that will “cover all your bases” and help insure that water polo players are getting the strength that they need, will include the following:

  1. Every day in the water resistance training (sprints, resistance cord exercises, heavy balls, etc)

  2. Year around rotator cuff and scapular stabilizer strength training using resistance cords and dumbbells.

  3. In season circuit training program utilizing resistance cords, body weight exercises and dumbbells.

  4. Off-season dry-land resistance training program utilizing free-weight and machine- based moderate (2 sets of 8-12 repetitions) weight exercises that are specific to water polo and that incorporate both pushing and pulling typesof exercises.

In team sports such as water polo, a lot of time must be spent in learning the skills and tactics necessary to play the game, and at the same time train and condition to play the game at the optimal level. There is only so much time for practicing the game; so any time that is spent doing something that does not help performance, is wasted time. Spending a lot of time doing dry-land training that does not apply to water polo because it is not “specific” enough can be classified as “wasting time”, especially if the time spent is not productive, or helpful in improving performance. Consequently, dry-land training must be carefully planned and efficient in order to be effective; or not used at all during the competitive season. Need shoulder stability and strengthening exercises with resistance cords can be performed by players at home in a short period of time.

Most high school and college water polo players barely have enough time (2-2 1/2 hours per day) during the season to practice water polo, let alone time to study, sleep and eat. As a coach, I don’t want to waste my player’s time. I want to spend as much of the allotted practice time for conditioning and learning water polo skills and tactics. Consequently, in the water “strength” activities ( i.e. sprinting, heavy balls) are much more efficient, and make better use of the time during the competitive season, than dry-land strength exercises.

If a coach feels that his players need dry-land training during the season, despite evidence to the contrary that it is non-productive, then the team should not spend more than 30 minutes, twice a week, performing this “supplemental” training. Weight circuits, that also include rotator cuff and resistance band training, are the most efficient way to get in a lot of work in a short period of time; and should be considered in place of free weights and machine weight exercises during the season.

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences and
Click one of the water polo balls to learn where to buy Dante's books.]


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