Science can help fine tune the athlete, as in the end even a few hundredths of a second often decide the result of races. An exercise physiologist, strength coach or fitness trainer uses the science of muscle physiology and training to prepare the swimmer physically for their competition.
There are many aspects to a race, and the training needs to address each of these. The muscles should be prepared to enable the quickest reaction time at the start. The swimmer must have the strength and power for a powerful explosive start, and quick and powerful turn, while also possessing the stamina (aerobic endurance) to maintain their speed in the throughout the race. The importance of each of these physical aspects of the swimmer depends on the race distance and technique.
Strength training should address the specific muscles used, such as the gluteus maximus and quadriceps which are important at the start and at each turn. The shoulder, chest and back muscles – which generate about 85% of the swimmers power, are also critical. While in the kick, the hamstring and quadricep muscles maintain body balance and the horizontal body position.
Fitness is a vitally important component of success in swimming. There are many components of fitness that make up a good swimmer, importance of each of these depends on the race distance and stroke. The fitness tests used to test a swimmer should also reflect the range fitness components, and the interpretation of the results should also be relative to the importance of each of these attributes.
Body Size and Shape – swimmers are usually tall and relatively lean. Some body fat is not a hindrance as it can add to buoyancy in the water. The usual anthropometric measures for swimmers would include:
procedure: measurement the maximum distance from the floor to the highest point on the head, when the subject is facing directly ahead. Shoes should be off, feet together, and arms by the sides. Heels, buttocks and upper back should also be in contact with the wall.
equipment required: stadiometer or steel ruler placed against a wall
reliability: Height measurement can vary throughout the day, being higher in the morning, so it should be measured at the same time of day each time.
advantages: low costs, quick test
other comments: height or lack of height is an important attribute for many sports.
purpose: measuring body mass can be valuable for monitoring body fat or muscle mass changes, or for monitoring hydration level.
equipment required: Scales, which should be calibrated for accuracy using weights authenticated by a government department of weights and measures.
procedure: the person stands with minimal movement with hands by their side. Shoes and excess clothing should be removed.
reliability: To improve reliability, weigh routinely in the morning (12 hours since eating). Body weight can be affected by fluid in the bladder (weigh after voiding the bladder). Other factors to consider are the amount of food recently eaten, hydration level, the amount of waste recently expelled from the body, recent exercise and clothing. If you are monitoring changes in body mass, try and weigh at the same time of day, under the same conditions, and preferably with no clothes on. Always compare using the same set of scales.
advantages: quick and easy measurement when testing large groups, with minimal costs.
other comments: measuring weight can be used as a measure of changes in body fat, but as it does not take into account changes in lean body mass it is better to use other methods of body composition measurement
1.3 sitting height,
procedure: Sitting height gives a measure of the length of the trunk. It is a measurement of the distance from the highest point on the head to the base sitting surface. The subject sits with both feet on the floor, the lower back and shoulders against the wall, looking straight ahead. Distance can be measured from the floor, and the height of the box measured and subtracted from the total distance.
equipment required: stadiometer or ruler placed against a wall, box or chair.
reliability: Height measurement can vary throughout the day, being higher in the morning, so should be measured at a consistent time of day.
advantages: low costs, quick test
other comments: Upper body length or proportionally long legs is an important attribute for many sports.
1.4 arm span,
Arm span measurement is a simple measure that is important in the anthropometrical profiling of athletes in many sports in which reach is important, such as rowing and basketball. See also the related arm length measure, which is the length of each individual arm.
purpose: To measure arm length, as long arms may be advantageous for some sports which involve reaching and tackling.
equipment required: ruler or tape measure, wall.
procedure: facing away from the wall, with back and buttocks touching the arms are stretched out horizontally. Measure from one furthermost finger tip to the other.
results: The arm length measures can be compared to the person’s height. On average, arm span should be about equal to height. By subtracting a measurement for shoulder widthfrom this measurement you can get a measure of average arm length.
advantages: very low cost, simple and quick test
other comments: It is important for the subject to fully stretch to get the maximum reach, and that the arms are held exactly horizontally. To assist in keeping the outstretched arms horizontal, use a wall that has horizontal lines already on it such as a brick wall. Also measure out from a corner or wall protrusion so that one hand can be stable and all measurements are away from it.
1.5 hand span,
purpose: The size of the hand is advantageous for some sports which involve catching, gripping or tackling.
equipment required: flat surface and ruler or tape measure
procedure: The hand is placed palm down on a flat surface. The fingers are outstretched as far as possible. Measure the linear distance between the outside of the thumb to the outside of the little finger.
advantages: very low cost, simple and quick test
other comments: this test is used at the AFL Draft Camp
1.6 body fat using skinfold measures.
procedure: Estimation of body fat by skinfold thickness measurement. Measurement can use from 3 to 9 different standard anatomical sites around the body. The right side is usually only measured (for consistency). The tester pinches the skin at the appropriate site to raise a double layer of skin and the underlying adipose tissue, but not the muscle. The calipers are then applied 1 cm below and at right angles to the pinch, and a reading in millimeters (mm) taken two seconds later. The mean of two measurements should be taken. If the two measurements differ greatly, a third should then be done, then the median value taken.
the sites: there are many common sites at which the skinfold pinch can be taken. See the descriptions and photographs of each skinfold site.
results: Because of the increased errors involved, it is usually not appropriate to convert skinfold measures to percentage body fat (%BF). It is best to use the sum of several sites to monitor and compare body fat measures. In order to satisfy those who want to calculate a percentage body fatmeasure, there is a sample of equations for calculating this here. Below is a table of general guidelines for using total sum (in millimeters) of the seven main skinfold sites (tricep, bicep,subscap, supraspinale, abdominal, thigh, calf). There are also examples of some actual athlete results.
equipment required: skinfold calipers (e.g. Harpenden, Holtain, Slimglide, Lange). These should be calibrated for correct jaw tension and gap width.
target population: suitable for all populations, though it is sometimes difficult to get reliable measurements with obese people.
validity: using skinfold measurements is not a valid predictor of percent body fat, however they can be used as a monitoring device to indicate changes in body composition over time. It is important to maintain correct calibration of the calipers (more about calibrating calipers)
reliability: the reliability of skinfold measurements can vary from tester to tester depending on their skill and experience. There are accreditation courses available through ISAK.
advantages: Skinfold measurements are widely utilized to assess body composition. It is a lot simpler than hydrostatic weighing and many of the other body composition techniques. After the original outlay for calipers, the daily tests costs are minimal.
other considerations: some subjects may feel uncomfortable stripping down in front of the tester, therefore every effect should be made to make them feel comfortable. For legal reasons, it is wise to have another person present, and to have females testers for female subjects. The right side measurement is standard, though in some situations you may need to test someone on the left side. If so, you must record this and endeavor to always test on the same side for that person. Reasons for testing on the left side may include injuries, amputation, deformities, or other medical conditions.
Reaction Time – the start can be very important, particularly over short distance events. The body’s physical reaction time is not something that can usually be trained, though starting practice, technique and improvements in power can improve a swimmers start.
Strength and Power – strength and power are important for a powerful explosive start off the blocks, and for quick and powerful turns.
3.1 A vertical jump test is best to measure the explosive power of the legs.
This procedure describes the method used for directly measuring the vertical jump height jumped. There are also timing systems that measure the time of the jump and from that calculate the vertical jump height.
equipment required: measuring tape or marked wall, chalk for marking wall (or Vertec or jump mat).
procedure (see also variations below): the athlete stands side on to a wall and reaches up with the hand closest to the wall. Keeping the feet flat on the ground, the point of the fingertips is marked or recorded. This is called the standing reach height. The athlete then stands away from the wall, and leaps vertically as high as possible using both arms and legs to assist in projecting the body upwards. The jumping technique can or cannot use a countermovement (see vertical jump technique). Attempt to touch the wall at the highest point of the jump. The difference in distance between the standing reach height and the jump height is the score. The best of three attempts is recorded.
variations: The vertical jump test can also be performed using a specialized apparatus called the Vertec. The procedure when using the Vertec is very similar to as described above. Jump height can also be measured using a jump mat which measures the displacement of the hips. To be accurate, you must ensure the feet land back on the mat with legs nearly fully extended. Vertical jump height can also be measured using a timing mat. The vertical jump test is usually performed with a counter movement, where there is bending of the knees immediately prior to the jump. The test can also be performed as a squat jump, starting from the position of knees being bent. Other test variations are to perform the test with no arm movement (one hand on hip, the other raised above the head) to isolate the leg muscles and reduce the effect of variations in coordination of the arm movements. The test can also be performed off one leg, with a step into the jump, or with a run-up off two feet or one foot, depending on the relevance to the sport involved. For more details see vertical jump technique.
scoring: The jump height is usually recorded as a distance score. The table below provides a ranking scale for adult athletes based on my observations, and will give a general idea of what is a good score. For more information, see a selection of vertical jump test results. It is also possible to convert jump height into a power or work score.
24 – 28
20 – 24
20 – 24
16 – 20
16 – 20
12 – 16
12 – 16
8 – 12
8 – 12
4 – 8
advantages: this test is simple and quick to perform.
disadvantages: technique plays a part in maximizing your score, as the subject must time the jump so that the wall is marked at the peak of the jump.
comments: The jump height can be affected by how much you bend your knees before you jump, and the effective use of the arms. The test is also sometimes incorrectly spelled as the “Sergeant” or “Sargent” Test.
history: This method described above for measuring a person’s vertical jump height is sometimes known as a Sargent Jump, named after Dudley Sargent, who was one of the pioneers in American physical education.
3.2 Upper body strength can be measured using Bench Press 1RM or 3RM tests.
This is a specific repetition maximum (RM) test for the upper body (see the general description of 1RM fitness tests).
purpose: to measure maximum strength of the chest muscle groups.
equipment required: Bench with safety, bar and various free weights.
procedure: The subject should perform an adequate warm up. An example would be to warm up with 5-10 reps of a light-to-moderate weight, then after a minute rest perform two heavier warm-up sets of 2-5 reps, with a two-minute rest between sets. The subject should then rest two to four minutes, then perform the one-rep-max attempt with proper technique. If the lift is successful, rest for another two to four minutes and increase the load 5-10%, and attempt another lift. If the subject fails to perform the lift with correct technique, rest two to four minutes and attempt a weight 2.5-5% lower. Keep increasing and decreasing the weight until a maximum left is performed. Selection of the starting weight is crucial so that the maximum lift is completed within approximately five attempts after the warm-up sets. See the Bench Press Example Videos.
1 Rep Max Bench Press Table for adults
(weight lifted per bodyweight)
(per body weight)
1.30 – 1.60
1.15 – 1.29
1.00 – 1.14
0.91 – 0.99
scoring: the maximum weight lifted is recorded. To standardize the score it may be useful to calculate a score proportional to the person’s bodyweight. The sequence of lifts should also be recorded as these can be used in subsequent tests to help in determining the starting lifts. See the table for general guidelines for interpreting the results. These ratings are for both males and females – as females are generally a smaller frame, there are expected to lift a lower actual weight to score an average rating etc. These scores are based on my personal experiences. There are also some athlete results for this test.
advantages: the required equipment is readily available in most gymnasiums, and the test is simple to perform.
disadvantages: This test should only be performed by those experienced at performing the bench press lift with good technique. Good technique will also enable the lifter to maximize their score.
comments: For safety, a spotter should stand at the head of the bench throughout the test. The results of this test may be specific to the equipment used (height of bench, variations in weights), so is best to use the same equipment for test-retest measures. The warm up procedure should also be recorded and repeated with further testing. If any variation in technique was allowed, this should be recorded on the results sheet for referral when the test is repeated. The test is also called one rep max, 1-RM, and one repetition maximum.
variations / modifications: Sometimes a three or five repetition maximum is used, particularly for less experienced lifters. These greater reps would require less weight and may be considered less dangerous. Changing the number of repetition also changes the muscle energy systems and validity of this test.
Anaerobic Capacity – The sprint swimming events rely heavily on the anaerobic system. The anaerobic system response to swimming can be measured by taking blood lactate measures after races and and training sets. You could also look at speed drop off during a maximal 6 x 50m set with short recovery, somewhat like this anaerobic sprint fatigue test.
purpose: this is a test of anaerobic capacity, the ability to recover between sprints and produce the same level of power repeatedly.
equipment required: 2 stopwatches, measuring tape,marker cones, at least 50 meter track.
procedure: marker cones and lines are placed 30 meters apart to indicate the sprint distance. Two more cones placed a further 10 meters on each end. At the instructions of the timer, the subject places their foot at the starting line, then on ‘go’ two stopwatches are started simultaneously, and the subject sprints maximally for 30m, ensuring that they do not slow down before reaching the end. One stopwatch is used to time the sprint, the other continues to run. Record the time. The subjects use the 10 meter cone to slow down and turn, and return to the 30m finishing point. The next sprint will be in the oposite direction. The next 30 meter sprint starts 30 seconds after the first started. This cycle continues until 10 sprints are completed, starting at 30 sec, 1 min, 1.5 min, 2 min etc after the start of the first sprint.
scoring: The fatigue index is calculated by taking the average speed of the first three trials and dividing it by the average speed of the last three trials. This will give a value approximately between 75 and 95%. Use the table below to determine the rating.
target population: suitable for athletes involved in many multi-sprint sports such as basketball, hockey, rugby, soccer, AFL.
Endurance – aerobic capacity is important for a swimmer to maintain a high rate throughout the race, particularly the longer distance events. Land based endurance tests (e.g. treadmill VO2max) can be used, though specific swimming tests are more relevant, such as the Shuttle Swim Test or the more comprehensive Swimming Step Test.
Maximal Oxygen Consumption Test (VO2max)
The VO2max test is the criterion measure of aerobic power in athletes. Described here is the method to measure VO2max directly. Many other aerobic fitness tests estimate VO2max score from their results. See the other tests of Aerobic Endurance.
equipment required: Oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzers, ergometer on which workload may be modified, stopwatch. Expired air may be collected and volume measured via Douglas bags or a Tissot tank, or measured by a pnuemotach or turbine ventilometer.
procedure: Exercise is performed on an appropriate ergometer (treadmill, cycle, swim bench). The exercise workloads are selected to gradually progress in increments from moderate to maximal intensity. Oxygen uptake is calculated from measures oxygen and carbon dioxide in the expired air and minute ventilation, and the maximal level is determined at or near test completion (seeVO2max videos)
scoring: Results are presented as either l/min (liters per minute) or ml/kg/min (mls of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute). The athlete is considered to have reached their VO2max if several of the following occurred: a plateau or ‘peaking over’ in oxygen uptake, maximal heart rate was reached, attainment of a respiratory exchange ratio of 1.15 or greater, and volitional exhaustion. See also the Adult VO2max norm values.
target population: Any sport in which aerobic endurance is a component, such as distance runners, cross country skiiers, rowers, triathlon, cycling.
advantages: This test directly measures body oxygen consumption, which many other aerobic fitness tests try to estimate. You can also get direct measurement of maximum heart rate by recording heart rate during the test.
disadvantages: Relatively time consuming and high costs involved for each test
other comments: There is often variability between the performance of different analysis systems. Stringent calibration is necessary for both the expired gas and ventilation measurement systems.
caution: This test is a maximal test, which requires a reasonable level of fitness. It is not recommended for recreational athletes or people with health problems, injuries or low fitness levels.
5.2 10 meter Multistage Shuttle Swim Test (MSST).
This test is a variation on the Beep Test, or shuttle run, called the 10 meter Multistage Shuttle Swim Test (MSST). This test has been developed by sport scientists in Western Australia, for the assessment of aerobic fitness of competitive water polo players. See also the Water Polo Intermittent Shuttle Test (WIST).
purpose: To test the aerobic fitness of water polo players
equipment required: swimming pool, test cd, cd player.
procedure: This test is a variation on the established testing protocol for the running shuttle test, but specific for water polo players and carried out in a pool. The subjects swim a 10-meter distance at a progressively increasing speed until volitional exhaustion. The test starts at 0.9 m/s, and increases by 0.05 m/sec every stage. Each stage lasts approximately one minute and the shuttles are signalled by an audio cue.
scoring: The athlete’s score is the level and number of shuttles reached before they were unable to keep up with the recording.
target population: It is a test of aerobic fitness for competitive water polo players. The test is suitable for all players (male and female) ranging from school/club standard through to international level.
reliability: In the published research paper, test-retest reliability was determined using a sample of 22 female and 22 male water polo players. An intraclass correlation coefficient of 0.99 (p>0.05) was calculated between the two test scores. The technical error of measurement for the test was 2.3 shuttles or 5.0%.
validity: A validation correlation coefficient of 0.88 was found between the number of shuttles completed during the MSST and VO2max measured during an incremental tethered swim test to exhaustion. A stepwise multiple regression revealed that VO2max accounted for approximately 78% of the MSST variance.
advantages: The test allows a whole team to have their aerobic fitness effectively assessed using minimal time and pool space.
disadvantages: As with the running beep test, practice and motivation levels can influence the score attained, and the scoring can be subjective.
5.3 swim step test
The 7 x 200m swim step test is a very comprehensive swimming-specific physiological test. It is used to monitor training and improvements in aerobic conditioning. For information about aerobic stepping tests, see Step Tests.
purpose: To test fitness parameters during a standard swimming.
equipment required: a swimming pool (25m or 50m), pool pace clock, stopwatch, equipment for blood lactate testing, heart rate monitor.
procedure: All 200m swims are conducted at an even pace (even 50m splits), on 6 minutes (starting every new set exactly six minutes after the start of the previous one). The test is conducted using the swimmer’s specialist stroke (ie freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke). The swimming target time for each swimmer is based on age or intensity. For seniors, the last 200m is swum at maximum heart rate, and each 200m preceding this is at 10 bpm below the one before. For young age groupers, each swim is related to their personal best (PB), such that (for males): 1st 200m = PB +24 secs, 2nd 200m = PB +20 secs, 3rd 200m = PB +16 secs, 4th 200m = PB +12 secs, 5th 200m = PB + 8 secs, 6th 200m = PB pace, 7th 200m = Goal PB pace. For female swimmers the targets are 4 seconds less for swims 1 to 5.
measurements: Record all splits and total times, and stroke rate. At the end of each swim, record RPE (rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1 to 20), heart rate, and at 3 minutes after each swim measure lactate.
results: Calculate average pace, heart rate, stroke rate, strokes per length. Use the results to plot heart rate/velocity curves or lactate/velocity curves. Changes in these over time are used to monitor changes in swimming specific aerobic conditioning. A measure of anaerobic threshold can be determined from these graphs.
target population: It is a test for swimmers. The test is appropriate for experienced swimmers (male and female), who have good pacing ability.
reliability: this test relies on good pacing ability of the swimmers. Practice will improve this, as well improve the reliability of results.
advantages: the comprehensive measures provide great feedback to the coach and swimmer.
disadvantages: The equipment and assistants required make this a costly and time consuming test.
comments: this test requires plenty of assistance, having one data collector per swimmer would be ideal.
Health – lung function is obviously important for the swimmer, and checks should be make to check that the lungs are healthy and functioning to their full capacity. See lung function tests.
procedure: The usual measures of lung function are of forced vital capacity (FVC) and forced expired volume in 1 second (FEV1). These can be measured with a full maximal expiration. Explain to the subject that they must fill their lungs completely, seal their lips around the mouthpiece, and empty their lungs as hard and fast as possible. The best of two trials is usually recorded.
equipment required: Spirometer (e.g. Vitalograph)
interpretation: Lung function tests are of little value for predicting fitness and exercise performance, provided that the values fall within a normal range. You must always take into consideration that lung volumes vary with age, sex and body size (especially height).
disadvantages: this test requires expensive equipment that is not always available. A simple inexpensive measure of lung function is the peak flow test.
Swimming Specific Fitness Tests
Fitness testing for swimming usually includes training or race type test, such as 8 x 200m step test, in which heart rate, blood lactate, split times, stroke rate and perceived exertion are recorded.
Here are some other fitness tests related to swimming:
Swimming Beep Test – water based multi-stage beep test.
Swimming Step Test – a very comprehensive swimming-specific physiological test
Shuttle swim test – a shuttle endurance swimming test like the running beep test that was designed for water polo players.
1 km swim – a 1 km swim designed for testing triathletes.
500yd / 450m Swim Test – used for the Navy assessment.
Ian James Thorpe
One of the greatest swimmers the world has ever seen. In his career, he won five Olympic gold medals, 11 world titles and set 13 long-course records and 23 overall. On November 21 2006 he announced his retirement from swimming after 10 years on the Australian team, citing that he has lost the desire, and “there are things in my life that are more important to me and I have to pursue them now”.
also known as:
the Thorpedo, Flipper, Thorpey
13 October 1982
Milperra, a western suburb of Sydney, Australia
Parents Margaret and Ken, sister Christina.
Height: 195 cm (6’5?)
Weight:104 kg (229 lbs)
Feet Size: 17
Arm span: 195 cm
Tracey Menzies since 2002-06.
Pre 2002 his coach was Doug Frost.
team / club:
SLC Aquadot / New South Wales / Australia
100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters freestyle, 100m backstroke, 200m individual medley, plus anything else he wants to do!
200m: 1:45.51 minutes, 400m: 3:41.33 minutes
World Championships, Perth (1998), won 400m freestyle
Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur 1998: 4 Gold medals (200m free, 400m free, 2x200m freestyle relay, 4x100m freestyle relay
Pacific Championships 1999: New world record, 400m freestyle, broke world record for the 200m freestyle twice in consecutive days
Australian Olympic Swim Trials 2000: bettered own 400m freestyle mark, lowered the 200m freestyle world record twice again
Sydney Olympic Results, 2000
200 metre freestyle (1 min 45.83 secs), 2nd
400 metre freestyle (3 mins 40.59 secs), 1st
4 x 100 metre freestyle relay (3 mins 13.67 secs), 1st
4 x 200 metre freestyle relay (7 mins 7.05 secs), 1st
4 x 100 metre medley relay (3 mins 35.27 secs), 2nd
Athens Olympics Results, 2004:
400m freestyle, 1st, 3:43.10
4 x 100m freestyle relay, 6th, 48.14 (3:15.77)
200m freestyle, 1st, 1:44.71 (Olympic record)
4 x 200m freestyle relay, 2nd, 1:44.18 (7:07.46)
100m freestyle, 3rd, 48.56
what you may not know:
Thorpe started squad training when he was just 8 years old. He was allergic to cholorine when he first started but has now grown out of that.
He holds the record for being the fastest 14-year old male swimmer in the history of swimming.
In 1997, at age 1