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Strongman for Swimmers?

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Strongman for Swimmers?

On swimming’s opening night at the Olympic Games, NBC ran a nice feature on Ryan Lochte showcasing his dryland training with tire flips, chains, and other competitive strongman moves.  While avid swim fans have long been familiar with Lochte’s training methods, this footage made quite a splash with casual swim fans and the general viewing public.  In this post we’ll explore what, if anything, we can glean from Lochte’s strongman for swimmers training routine.  Though we’re always looking to learn from the best performers, just because a great swimmer does something doesn’t mean everyone should copy the exact details.  



The tire flip has long been a staple of the strongman menu, but in recent years as reached bigger audiences, particularly as more people want to be “functional.”  As leading strength coach Nick Tumminello writes:  

“There's no doubt about it: Tire flips are one of the coolest-looking exercises you can possibly do. It's also one of the most dangerous moves and a perfect example of a contest-specific exercise created for advanced-strength athletes that just got too popular….

When it's used as a training exercise, the goal is to work the posterior-chain muscles, like the lower back and the hamstrings. That's something you can accomplish very well with deadlifts….

The only real benefit to doing tire flips is the fact they're often done outside, where other people can see you doing these stunningly badass exercises. But "because it's badass" isn't necessarily a good reason to do it.”

Though I’m not ready to permanently banish tire flipping from the exercise menu, it is important to consider risk-reward with this or any activity.  Someone like Lochte who’s near the limit of human performance may require novel stimuli to induce adaptations.  You can only add so much swimming load before reaching zero or negative returns (though sometimes better recovery or refining the delivery of current stimulation is more valuable than finding novel stimuli) [side note, many collegiate teams have removed tire flips from their dry-land programs due to injuries].  

Further, a full time professional athlete who has been training for almost twenty years is better suited to incorporate extreme training than a scholastic or masters athlete with more limitations.  Lochte is also one of the most naturally talented land-athletes in swimming, having played varsity basketball in high school.  Even Lochte himself admitted part of the motivation for his strongman for swimming training is not just physiological but also psychological to intimidate the competition.  While it’s great to see dryland shift away from Theraband rotator cuff exercises and endless crunching circuits, we mustn’t swing the pendulum too far the opposite direction either.   

Interestingly, although the tire flip is seen as a primitive junkyard activity, it has actually been studied in the literature.  Noted spinal researcher Dr. Stuart McGill has taken keen interest in strongman activities as leading competitors seemingly “break all the rules” on what the spine should be able to withstand.  By learning what the strongest people naturally do, we can glean insight for best-practices.  Based on this research, more top strength programs have resurrected these old-time moves and include heavy carrying activities (farmer’s walk, suitcase carry) into their training.  (The COR Swimmers’ Shoulder System includes loaded carries in its programs)

One study by McGill (2009) analyzed several strongman events such as the farmer's walk, super yoke, Atlas stone lift, suitcase carry, keg walk, tire flip, and log lift.  

“Strongman events clearly challenge the strength of the body linkage, together with the stabilizing system, in a different way than traditional approaches. The carrying events challenged different abilities than the lifting events, suggesting that loaded carrying would enhance traditional lifting-based strength programs.”  

Tire flips rated high in latissimus dorsi activation compared to other events.   

Keough (2010) broke the tire flip into four stages, and noted the second pull (which is the second overall stage) was the major determinant for tire flip performance.  The second pull occurs after the initial lift off the ground but before sending the tire vertical.  As a multi-step explosive movement, the tire flip borrows elements from Olympic lifts. However, unlike Olympic lift coaching, which often begins with broomsticks and unweighted bars, rarely do we see anyone refining tire flip technique with drills (maybe it happens, but I haven’t seen it, especially in strongman for swimmers programs).  

The biggest problem with strongman for swimmers activities is that people typically ignore technique with improper progressions. There are very few inherently “bad” exercises, but certain moves lend themselves to lax execution, particularly in a competitive environment.  Strongman competitors often stabilize with back braces and knee braces.  Even McGill notes that back injuries are common in strongmen competitors, yet he endorses heavy loaded carries for rehabilitation and prevention (with proper loads, of course).  No responsible strength coach would let an athlete deadlift or squat in training with crappy form, so how does bad technique suddenly become acceptable merely because you trade a barbell for a tire?   


Remember, strongmen competitors are training for strongman, not some other sport. When they’re in competition, getting the job done at that moment is more important than perfect exercise form.  In fact, unsafe form may actually create more power in the tire flip if the low back is used as an additional lever [I don’t have any research to confirm that, but it is one theory].  For an athlete to even consider adding strongman for swimmers as supplementary training, they need adequate strength beforehand and must demonstrate sound form in the basic lifts.  

Further, it is possible that fatigue-inducing dryland may corrupt ideal motor patterns.  As Dr. Rushall writes, “Much training is performed in fatigue and thus, more than restricted efficient movement patterns are learned to dominance. If specific limited training had only occurred, that is, the body only knew a narrow band of efficient movements, then the recruitment (irradiation) would be minimal and movement patterns would center on efficient movement. Swimmers should not swim when exhausted. Nothing good can result. Too much fatigue inhibits the attainment of practice goals, reduces learning potential, and sensitizes the brain to new but inappropriate experiences and neural representations.” (Rushall 2011).

If a swimmer practices excessively while fatigued, the brain may default to inefficient motor patterns under stress.   Building technique and conditioning in the water to thwart fatigue is one essential; bringing fatigue into the water from non-swimming activities in has questionable value.  These theories may partially explain why Lochte did not swim to previous form last week at the ends of races.  That’s not to criticize his multiple medal performance, but there’s no doubt he left London with unmet potential given the high standards set by past achievements.   

Conclusion
It’s great that swimmers are gravitating toward full-body movements in dryland, but we still must consider the big picture.  Certain exercises like the farmer’s walk are challenging yet involve simple technique.  Tire flips are also challenging but demand greater technique.  Simply because an exercise challenges certain qualities doesn’t mean it’s the best exercise to develop those qualities.  Tire flips are fun, challenging, and often a great team building activity, but closely consider if it is the best exercise to induce the desired adaptations.

References
  1. McGill SM, McDermott A, Fenwick CM. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1148-61.
  2. Keogh JW, Payne AL, Anderson BB, Atkins PJ. A brief description of the biomechanics and physiology of a strongman event: the tire flip. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24(5):1223-8.
  3. Rushall, B. SWIMMING ENERGY TRAINING IN THE 21ST CENTURY: THE JUSTIFICATION FOR RADICAL CHANGES, Swimming Science Bulletin Number 39 (2011).

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