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Fundamentals of Water Polo: Dry Land Training

Terry Schroeder
US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics

Volume 3 Number 1October 15, 2010
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This month, I decided to address dry-land training for water polo.   I have often been asked questions such as; What are the best types of dry-land training for water polo?,  What are the benefits and risks of dry-land training in our sport? and How much dry-land training would you recommend?  In this short article I will attempt to answer these questions and provide you with some guidelines and recommendations for this important and often overlooked element of our sport.

The first item that must be addressed is the training periods.  I would break this into three separate periods; pre-season, competitive season and off-season.  I want to address something here that I think is very important.  There should be an off-season in all sports for all athletes.  This is an important time to recover physically but also to rest mentally.  Too many coaches and athletes do not take this needed break from their sport and what happens in the best case scenario is burnout and the worst case is a career threatening injury from overuse and repetition. So make sure that you take a break from your sport.  I would recommend at least a month off sometime during the year.  This does not mean that you sit around the couch and get totally out of shape but the off season is a great time to cross train and stay fit doing something other than your sport.  The pre-season is a time when you can spend a little more time in the weight room building strength.  You can also spend more time running stairs or riding a bike to build leg strength and endurance.  The pre-season is also a good time to play some games outside the water (like ultimate Frisbee) that will improve overall conditioning while fostering good team work. I would recommend a ratio of 1 hour of dry-land to every 4 hours of water time in the pre-season  The competitive season is a time to stay finely tuned and do more reps/less weight in the weight room.  I would highly recommend doing elastic band work during pre-season and competitive season as it is a great way to keep the shoulders healthy and provide some safe resistance training. 

Let’s discuss each of the areas of dry-land training and look at some of the benefits as well as the risks involved with each activity.

Weight training – Pre-season - heavier weights less reps, competitive season – less weight more reps, work on speed/quickness and maintaining your strength, Off-season – depending on what your specific needs are it might be a good time to strengthen a weak region ( for example – spend more time on leg strength or upper body strength) or if you feel you are in pretty good shape strength wise then go to a once a week maintenance program.  Weight training is a necessary part of becoming a better water polo player.  Balance is vital.  Water polo players are swimming so much that they over work their chest/pectorals muscles and have a tendency to become out of balance (strong chest – weaker back).  My recommendation would be to do 2-3 sets of pulling for every one set of pushing type exercise.  For example, I would do 2-3 sets of a seated row for every one set of bench press.  Or 2-3 sets of a lat pull down compared to one set of flys ( a set may consist of 8 – 12 reps). This will help to keep the balance between chest and back musculature. Also, if you are doing a bunch of leg work in the water, I would recommend going a little lighter on the legs in the weight room.  On a side note, as a chiropractor that treats a fair amount of athletes, I have seen so many injured athletes come into the office due to an exercise that they have done improperly in the weight room.  Make sure you are using good form.  Keep your posture neutral as you do your exercises and try not to get to macho and over lift.  Lift for balance.

Core work – Pre-season, competitive season and off season.  This is your center and it is vital to develop and strong core.  A strong core will prevent injuries such as shoulder or knee because when the body is working correctly the core is stabilizing and taking pressure off of the smaller muscles of the extremities.  Water polo does not utilize a closed chain motion when throwing the ball. In a closed chain motion the power comes from the ground with your foot pushing off of a stable and firm foundation.  Obviously, this does not happen in the water where water polo athletes do not use the bottom of the pool to generate power.  Our power in throwing the ball comes from the core and trunk muscles.  This is where we stabilize and generate power so a weak core will set us up for potentially injury.  We have our national team athletes do core work 3-5 times week.  This should be a combination of crunches for the abs, back extension for the back and planks for the abs and oblique muscles.  A side plank done correctly will strengthen the oblique muscle closest to the ground while normal planks will strengthen the abs and back.  There was a time years ago when I used to do 2,000 crunches per day. 

Bicycling – Pre-season, competitive season and off season.  I believe that the bike is a great dry land exercise for water polo athletes because it is somewhat gentle on the joints while working some of the same muscles that you will use in the water during the egg beater kick.  The bike is also great for building cardiovascular power and endurance with the legs heavily involved (similar to water polo).  It is a very safe exercise so the risk of getting injured is very low.  Due to these facts, it is one of the most popular dry land activities that we utilize with the national team on a regular basis.  We have a nice set up at our training facility at CLU where they have eight stationary bikes.  We might have three groups of eight in the weight room with one group always on the bikes.  My favorite set is to have the guys to a 20 minute ride. We will have the guys use the first two minutes for warm up and then go 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off.  The 30 on means that you are riding hard and fast and then the 30 off means that you are riding easy.  If the players work hard during the time they are on they will get a great cardio workout while building some good leg strength that is appropriate for our sport.

Running stairs – Pre-season and off season.  This used to be one of my favorite dry land exercises. While I was an athlete at Pepperdine and on the national team I would run stairs two times per week during the pre-season and off-season.  It is great cardio conditioning and if you run up with your knees in and feet out you can mimic the egg beater kick pretty well.  To minimize the pounding on the joints, I would recommend running hard up and walking down.  We don’t do much of this with our national team athletes primarily because we don’t have access to stadium steps close to our training facility.  I would not recommend doing much running (if any) during the competitive season.

Elastic Bands – Pre-season, competitive season and off season.  Bands are great year round.  They are particular good for shoulder work and many of our national team players travel with bands and break them out for a little pre-training or pre-game work on the shoulders.  You can do specific shoulder work to strengthen and balance the rotator cuff muscles and you can also use them to do some dynamic stretching prior to training or a game.  They are light weight and easy to travel with so I would recommend that every water polo athlete have their own elastic band.  There really is no down side or risk other than to check your band regularly for cracks and weak areas and make sure your band is secured when using it.  The last thing you want is the band to break or slip off the anchor and come back and hit you in the face.  The bands are so important that next month I will outline a good elastic band routine for the water polo athlete.

Stretching – Pre-season, competitive season and off season. This is still somewhat of a controversial area.  Research is telling us that static stretching may actually weaken the muscles.  I would recommend doing dynamic stretching (moving through ranges of motion to stretch the muscle groups and open the joints.  There are many resources for finding good dynamic stretches.  While it always feels good to utilize a little stretching in your warm up it is generally better to stretch after the muscles are warmed up.  Our national team dry land consists of 10-15 minutes of dynamic stretching usually at the end of our gym time. 

Games – Pre-season and off season.  Playing games like ultimate Frisbee, basketball, team hand ball and soccer can break monotony of day in and day out hours in the pool. I believe there is much more value to spending some time doing this type of dry land work.  Playing these types of games provides a dry land activity that can build cardiovascular endurance while teaching your players to move to open space with and without the ball.  It can help them understand the importance of team work in any game and it allows them to have some fun together which is very valuable in building the team chemistry.  There is risk involved when you take water athletes and put them into a land game so monitor the situation and make sure that all the athletes are wearing proper shoes with good support.  If someone has a weak ankle or knee then this is probably not a good activity for that person.  Give them water breaks and don’t over do it on these games.  With the national team we might play ultimate Frisbee once every three weeks during the pre-season training.

Cross training – Off season. There is great value to doing some cross training in the off season.  First of all, it is a nice way to stay fit and have fun doing some other sports or form of exercise.  Every single sport creates some imbalances in the body and water polo is no different.  Water polo players in general are usually over balanced with strong chest muscles (pectorals) and weak back muscles.  Many water polo players have weak legs compared with upper body strength. Playing some other sports can help to keep the body better balanced while avoiding burnout of doing one thing year round. 

Power Plate – Vibration training is fairly new in the fitness industry.  I have personally trained on a Power Plate over the past few months and have found the results to be very good.  It utilizes vibration to fire reflexes in the body that challenge more muscles to work on each exercise.  It also has other health benefits like increasing lymphatic drainage and improving circulation.  It a fun and challenging work out that is worth looking in to.  We have been using a Power Plate in our office with patients and are seeing some very positive results and hope to bring this into our national team routine within the next year. 

As always if you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me at [email protected]

See you at the pool.

Coach Schroeder

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