Tier System for the Physical Preparation of the Swimmer


Building Better Swimmers

One of the many caveats of having worked in the private sector for almost 20 years is exposure to many types of individuals and athletes.  About 5 years in, I began working with a unique demographic of athletes known as aquatic athletes AKA swimmers and water polo players.  My initial thought was, “how different can this be?”  Having primarily worked with the aggressive world of contact field sports led me to certain assumptions of how all athletes work in the weight room.  While some of these assumptions did apply, others did not.

I was soon introduced to a culture of tremendously dedicated and mentally strong individuals who specialize year-round in a sport where the training tasks are seemingly monotonous and tremendously physically demanding.  For anyone not familiar with the swim world you will soon come to appreciate a year-round calendar of two-a-day school and club practice schedules buffered by full school days or lifeguarding/ pool management jobs in the summer.  For me, these dedicated men and women redefined what hard work is.  They also redefined the value and place their physical preparation and hence the how and why I implement my version of the Tier system, created by legendary strength coach Joe Kenn.

In its base simplicity the tier system encompasses a 3-day rotation of strength training exercises EMPHASIS where one day will emphasize total body lifts, another day emphasizing lower body lifts, and the third focuses on upper body lifts {1}.  If you take a deeper dive (no pun intended) into the philosophical side of the system you will find how these daily emphases can help you as a coach relate to athletes who are masters of the monotonous. If you’ve read some of Joe’s other articles or had the opportunity to listen to him present, he speaks about team building and the transfer of confidence.

If you work with anyone in the aquatic world you damn well know you can’t bring water to the weight room but are stricken with the task of relating to kids that stare at the black line all day.  Several years back I had numerous swimmers tell me how much they loved the weight room to which I responded, “Why?”  They answered, “Because it’s the only time we actually get to talk and bond with our teammates.”  To say this was an epiphany is an understatement, but begged the question of how I can make this extra work (sometimes their third session in an already full day) fun but physically worthwhile?

The Daily Themes and What They Mean

This is where the tier system fits perfectly into portions of the swim event and the number of days we train.  Examining basic swim vernacular, we have three components of a race that we can relate to training movements within the tier system.

  1. 1. Firstly, each race begins with a dive off the blocks, our total body emphasis session (Session T) reflects this in movement and effort as our “starts day” where emphasize the hinge movement in a lift and horizontal jump.
  2. 2. Secondly, each 25-yard trip spent in the stroke is interrupted by a flip turn and push off the walls in order to change direction.

The Lower body (Session L) is our “walls day” where we use a squat and vertical jump emphasis.  (I’ll cover more on the jumps and how use this to monitor progress and build buy-in later).

3. Lastly, our upper body (session U) is “pull day.” If you’ve ever seen swimmers at the top of their game, you will witness noticeable hypertrophy from the ribs on up especially on the back side. On session U, we focus on various form of vertical pulling and offset that with overhead work.

***I know most PTs, some coaches and so-called experts may bash overhead work for the swimmer but the anatomically speaking 1) Any hanging from a bar will have a traction effect promoting joint space 2) The serratus (major scapular stabilizer) is optimally active with the arms overhead. {2} This covers one base for our reason why we do some sort of overhead work.

Progression, A Lesson, and Building Buy-In

Throughout all our programs I implement repetition and load targets for each level of movement before the next level can be done. Each swimmer is put into buckets based of training age and current skill level. This not only keeps proper movement in check but allows one way in which the program grows with them. For example, the “starts day” (some kids will refer to this as blocks day) encompasses a hinge progression beginning with the basic “butt to wall” drill that hopefully leads itself to the clean or snatch one day.

During our in-season phase I realistically have about 8 training weeks before the championship season and the “taper” begins.  In my experience, the hinge movement pairs well with a horizontal jump which relates to power of the blocks. In short course season, we can make up a lot of time here. Reaction does also play a role and we do cover that as we are able to garner the basic skill of loading in a good hip hinge and exploding and extending.  And even though recent “research” has demonstrated the transference to faster swim times, we’ve been jumping swimmers for 15 years. It simply takes looking at what happens in a meet to make this connection {3}.  (RANT WARNING!!!) If we waited around for lab coats trying to figure out what we should do in sports no one would get better.

One only be reminded of our role via a quote from Buddy Morris “Science seeks answers. Training seeks results.” It’s too bad most dummies can’t figure this out.  Anyhow we measure long jumps and variations every “starts day” to show kids where they are at and tell them where they are going.  We use these measurements as our main gauge of progress. While we do track lift progress, I don’t do 1RM or 3RM or 5Rm like some coaches may do. Any truly experienced coach will know that technique can get ugly quick when chasing RMs with athletes let alone ones where doing anything on land is a foreign entity. In an effort to keep my swimmers safe, I learned that “It’s easy to fuck up a lift (and the athlete in the process) but it’s tough to fuck up a jump!”

We utilize this same process for “Walls Day” pairing the squat progression with our vertical jumps. The squat progression follows a similar pattern as the hinge beginning with a goblet squat (or a plate punch squat if posture is truly suffering) and ends with a back squat.  Our jumps measurements include a “best of 5”, 10-jump repeated, and kettlebell squat jump tracked with G flight device.

The Pull day implements pull-up progressions hallmarked by a loading progression opposed to a movement progression.  Here we use progressive levels of bands to assist the movement and as rep targets are hit then we REGRESS the tension and aim for our graduation rep target at this level.  We manage this with an auto-regulatory system I learned about in article by Mark Watts.  We shoot for a 12-rep initial set then drop 2 reps each subsequent set for 3 sets which is “a Perfect day” for us.  If our swimmer hits a “perfect day” we move the height level down for the next workout striving for the same goal.

If they have three perfect days in a row, we decrease the band tension in session 4.  {4} We use the AREG system here to manage the loading and progression of each lift we do and comes in handy dealing with athletes who are constantly bombarded with outside stressors.  As each athlete is encouraged to shoot for performing their best on the initial set; hitting minimums may be in order if practice was tough or academic stresses accumulated. In this case the stress bucket did not get overflowed and we live to lift another day.

The beauty of utilizing the tier system allows us to implement a competitive exercise daily.  This may sound somewhat in-line with the Bondarchuk system but keep in mind that we cannot bring water to the weight room as previously stated so there is a limit on the transference via the principals of dynamic correspondence.

But I will argue that the nature of a “competitive” and measurable exercise will help connect the effort level of a strength/ jump exercise with that of a swim task (start, wall, pull) the swimmer is familiar with, not to mention gives them an active and organic “visual” of their progress.  While this may not cling tight to the rules of transfer and dynamic correspondence; this will invariably have transfer with building confidence, as Kenn has stated before.

Goal of the tertiary Tiers

Another versatile aspect of using the tier system to categorize and organize our training days is putting rhyme and reason in the tertiary exercises.  Tier system followers will know these as tiers 2 and 3 and this is where I connect the terms “Stam Set” and “Bulletproof” to the subsequent movement categories.  A “Stam Set” refers to Stamina (don’t ask me why I don’t use endurance other than I think “stamina” sounds tougher).  The implementation of this will vary depending on what setting I’m in.

Sessions at my facility will use variations of (but not limited to) Lunge and Crawls, Lateral/ Rotational Leg Circuits, and HIIT Jump Circuits on Starts day.  Tier 2-Walls day may have Push/Pull/carry (horizontal emphasis), strength-aerobic upper, and Pump ‘N’ Run.  The tier-2 pull day may follow up with and Swing/ Prowler Party, funky throws, or special stam (based on sprint or distance events.  In tier 2 our goal is to implement our movements with backbone of training the glycolytic and aerobic energy systems.  Let’s keep in mind endurance and energy system-based training will resonate with those in the swim world.  Connection is key here folks.

The “bulletproofing” portion is nothing more than training the undertrained or the opposite of the over trained areas. While I’ll spare you from an exhaustive list, we focus on long duration isometric work (LDISO) that effect posture of the pelvis, spine, and shoulder girdle.

As well as dynamic strength of the posterior shoulder girdle and neck work if you can believe it.  A lack of neck extension strength will not only effect posture downstream but also the ability to turn to take a breath {5}.  I really like the Iron Neck and The Strong Neck for US devices here.

Training the Energy System Demand

The other setting we’re asked to implement is off-site at a high school that provides some logistical differences that effect our above plan.  In this case we combine the movements into two tiers for the day.  While we keep the integrity of the Starts and walls day intact, we use our pull day tier 1 and Horizontal Push/ Pull tier 2 as the follow-up to starts and walls respectively.  In this setting we are given about 45 minutes after the second swim practice of the day to effectively train the qualities mentioned above.

What I have found to be the most effective are the strength circuits where each exercise in a circuit is done on subsequent minutes. I’d be remised to not again refer to Matt Rhodes’ article Conditioning Without Running.  This method allows us to group our main movements with our bulletproof movements in fashion that make for two “Stam Sets.”  This past fall season, our women’s team did three sets of four movements in two sections, essentially 24 minutes of total work.  This provided an extremely dense and highly focused environment where each swimmer had to keep up with the clock.  While the length of effort was short enough to give full focus to the short duration of rest allowed for just the right amount of fatigue accumulation.

1} Athletic Based Strength Training: The Tier System. Kenn, Joe. Big House Power Competitive Athletic Training Inc.-2010

2} Lower Trapezius and Serratus Anterior Activation: which exercise to use for scapular neuromuscular re-education.  Py, Rodrigo; Robinson, Caroline; Clarice, Rocha; Mothes, F.C.; Matsumoto, Fabio; Telles da Rosa, L.H.; Kiefer, Tiago; Silva M.F. 2012

3} Plyometric Long Jump Training With Progressive Loading Improves Kinetic and Kinematic Swimming Start Parameters. Rebutini, VZ, Pereira, G, Bohrer, RCD, Ugrinowitsch, C, and Rodacki, ALF J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Sep.30 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24531431)

4} Individual Training in a Team Setting. Watts, Mark. 2014 https://www.elitefts.com/education/training/sports-performance/individual-training-in-a-team-setting/

5} GAINcast Episode 153: Making shapes (with Tom Barton)  http://www.hmmrmedia.com/2019/02/gaincast-episode-153-making-shapes-with-tom-barton/

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About the author 

Pete Arroyo

Pete Arroyo is the owner of Performance Inspired Training, Inc. (PIT). Located in Chicago's west suburbs, The PIT provides physical preparation services to athletic-minded clientele ranging from adults to field and aquatic athletes who have excelled at the high school and collegiate echelons. The PIT is the training choice for Naperville Central High School's women's and men's Swim & Dive teams.

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