Conditioning Corner: Developmental Dryland Training
By Mike Mejia, M.S., C.S.C.S
Straight Talk: Michael Phelps's strength coach reveals the "secret" to his success.
When you're the strength and conditioning coach for one of the greatest athletes of all time, it's easy for people to think that there's some kind of special "secret" involved. Sure, Michael Phelps had the genetic make-up to be an outstanding swimmer and put in tons of hard work in the pool, but there just had to be something extra special about his dryland training in order to allow him to ascend to the top of the swimming world. Not so says Phelps' long time strength and conditioning coach Keenan Robinson. In fact, he credits much of Michael's tremendous success to physical attributes that were developed back during his days as an age group swimmer. Attributes that Robinson was able to build upon in making Phelps into an Olympic champion.
"Michael was always very athletic growing up, playing both lacrosse and baseball" says Robinson. By not specializing in swimming too early, Robinson contends that Phelps was able to avoid some of the early onset injuries and postural imbalances that often begin to plague swimmers by the time they reach their early teens. As a result, Michael has always been able to "hold his position in the water" better than his competitors. It's a trait that allows him to finish so strongly- best evidenced by his thrilling win in the 100 meter butterfly at the '08 Games.
So what's the takeaway here for younger swimmers that have their own dreams of Olympic glory? According to Robinson, "a multi-faceted approach to athletic development and early emphasis on the right kinds of dryland training" is absolutely key. For younger age group swimmers, games like tag, kickball and ultimate frisbee will help develop agility and coordination, while getting them away from the repetitive motions of swimming. He's also a big proponent of running; especially drills that incorporate working at different speeds (i.e. quick burst sprints interspersed with more moderately paced runs), as well as what he calls "general body awareness drills" (examples of which are included in the accompanying video) performed on dry land. This will help improve something known as kinesthetic awareness and ultimately lead to greater fluidity of movement in the water.
Of course, more traditional types of strengthening drills should also play a role here. Things like early phase plyometrics that focus on proper landing mechanics, as well as core drills that involve both stabilization and rotational movements. And speaking of core strengthening, Robinson recommends staying away from "mind-numbing" crunch and sit-up variations and instead focusing on shorter duration (6-10 second) planking intervals, as a way of teaching kids good stabilization mechanics. What you want to avoid with this age group (typically around age 6-10), is longer duration planks where they fail to maintain proper body alignment (i.e. sagging hips/ excessive low back arching, head hanging etc.).
As far as the teenage set, while strength training is obviously going to play a bigger role, Robinson warns about the importance of maintaining proper postural alignment on all lifts. "When it comes to exercises like pull-ups and Olympic lifts like cleans, Michael has such good technique because his postural mechanics are so sound. His cleaning technique is extremely efficient and he's also able to maintain a straight line from his head, straight down through his knees when doing pull-ups. This allows him to hold a good core neutral position and avoid the excessive arching in the lower back you typically see with this exercise".
In fact, Robinson sites this hyperlordotic (excessive lower back arch) and hyperkyphotic (excessive upper back rounding) posture as a huge problem for swimmers. Which is why he recommends that athletes not only pay strict attention to their posture throughout the day, but in the gym, that they focus on working the scapular stabilizers of the upper back and strengthening the rotator cuff, as a means of helping to offset the heavy demand that swimming puts on the muscles of the front of the shoulder joint. "Michael was fortunate in that the coaches that he's worked with, most prominently Paul Berger and Bob Bowman, always stressed the importance of not just dryland training in general, but in doing it in such a way as to always be cognizant of proper body alignment". And fortunate as well to have a top-flight strength coach like Keenan Robinson in his corner.