Michael Reid
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A Strength Training Template for Water Polo

michaelreid.ca          WaterPoloTraining.net

In this monthly series of articles, Mike will discuss the science and practice of physical training for Water Polo. Strength, flexibility, Water Polo science, rehab and other areas of interest with respect to the physical development of the Water Polo athlete will be covered.

On a fairly regular basis, I get questions from Water Polo coaches and athletes from all over the world. The most common type of question comes down to “can you design me a strength program”. Although I truly enjoy getting questions from people from all over the world, I am sure there are much more with the same question. In this article, I will give you a template that you can use with any athlete in the high school age and up.

Whether you are a coach or an athlete, you can take this template, plug in your exercises and start training. Now, this is far from being a foolproof method of getting started on a strength training program. Having an effectively designed program is a great start but actually doing the exercises with appropriate technique, intensity and effort is a whole other story. So, although you will be able to take this template and have a good base to start from on paper please do not underestimate the value of quality exercise technique or the other factors that go into designing an effective strength program.

Some of these factors being:

  • Chronological age
  • Training Age
  • Availability of Time and Resources
  • Availability of Equipment
  • Medical History
  • Current physical state

This is where utilizing an experienced strength coach in your area can really help with your strength program outcomes by being able to take into consideration all these different factors.

Strength Training Template for Water Polo

Below is a template you can use to build your own strength training program for Water Polo. You will need to pick a total of 5 exercises that covers your lower body, pulling, pushing and rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder. In future articles, I will show you how to cover all of these by only doing a few specially selected movements.

  1. Lower Body Exercise – usually some kind of squatting movement but could also be deadlifts or lunging exercise (also read: Learning to Squat and Deadlifts are Good!)
  2. Pulling Exercise #1 (Keeping It Simple – the Farmers Walk, Triad Pull Up, Pull Ups, Chin Ups, Seated Rows, Supine Pull Ups)
  3. Push Up Variation (Used and Abused: Push Ups)
  4. Pulling Exercise #2 (could be optional depending on other factors)
  5. External Rotator Cuff Exercise (Rotator Cuff Exercises)

Why More Pulling?

In previous articles, I have written about the importance of performing more pulling exercises than pushing. The reasoning behind this is that the sport of Water Polo stimulates a lot of development in the anterior region of the upper body (e.g. shoulder internal rotators, pec major/minor and anterior deltoids) versus little to the posterior (backside). McMaster et al. showed that Water Polo athletes have much stronger internal than external shoulder rotators. It is believed that a healthy shoulder will have a ratio close to 1:1 between the internal and external rotators. It certainly coincides with a recent article which was about doing the opposite. So my recommendation for more pulling then pushing comes from research and from personal experience as an athlete and coach. I believe it ultimately comes down to having balance in the body.

You will also notice that I have only included external rotator cuff exercises at the #5 spot on the template. This follows the same logic as the why I am prescribing more pulling.

Does It Matter What Kind of Pulling Exercises?

When it comes to pulling exercises you can think of 2 different types:

  1. Vertical Pull (e.g. Pull Up or Chin Up)
  2. Horizontal Pull (e.g. Supine Pull Up or Seated Row)

I suggest to include each of these in your strength program if you choose to use two pulling exercises. Although they essential work all the same muscles, the contribution of each is slightly different. If you only use one pulling exercise then alternate every 2-4 weeks between a vertical and horizontal pull.

The volume of the pulling exercises should be 2-3x more than pushing. If you do 2 sets of push ups then do 4-6 sets of pulling exercises.

It’s Not an Arms Race

Yes, I know what you are thinking “what no curls?”.

Training single joint movements like biceps curls is fine, but I suggest to leave this during your off season training. To be a serious Water Polo player you need to ultimately spend a lot of time in the pool. Any dry-land training should be efficient as possible so it doesn’t interfere with your sports practice. This is also actually the same for most other sports with respect to strength training.

Sick Pack Abs

I have seen many world class athletes who do not have six packs. It is a very, very small factor if any in Water Polo performance. Performing exercises like Push Up, Farmers Walk, Deadlifts, Squats and Pull Ups will build your body up from head to toe. It comes back to the same reason for not prescribing any direct arm work. Also, I did not do a typo when I wrote sick. Too many “crunches” can really cause havoc to your thoracic mobility which in turn can predispose you to more shoulder problems (Keeping your Shoulders Healthy: 4 Tips for the Water Polo Athlete).

All The Above Doesn’t Matter

If you are injured or in pain, all the above does not matter. You may very well do great on this program but that depends on your consultation with a medical professional. Rehabilitation from some injuries commonly includes single joint exercises to specifically target the muscles crossing the involved joint. So, if you have had let’s say elbow surgery, then your rehab may very well include biceps curls and triceps exercises to bring you back to full strength.

Next month I will include some examples of how to work this strength training template to your own training situation.


McMaster WC, Long SC, Caiozzo VJ.
Isokinetic torque imbalances in the rotator cuff of the elite water polo player.
Am J Sports Med. 1991 Jan-Feb;19(1):72-5.