Creating a Robust Athlete through Optimal Training Design

Creating a Robust Athlete through Optimal Training Design

As the level of competition in nearly all sports increase, we see a higher injury rate and increased levels of fatigue due to each athlete’s sporting demands. Coaches and fans want to see their teams best athletes out on the playing field each week.

So how to do we keep these players out on the field for as long as possible, giving it 110% each week?

By creating a robust athlete.

Robust is defined as a ‘sturdy construction’ with synonyms such as: durable, robust, well made and resilient. But creating an athlete that can withstand the increased demands of high level sport isn’t quick and easy. It’s a long hard road and requires a well developed and precisely controlled training program to ensure that maximum performance is attained at the right moment of the competitive season.

How can this be done?

By creating a bulletproof training program.

Each sport/team/players are different. Physical capacities vary, match intensities change, game schedules change each week. High performance staff must adapt and prepare for these situations. They do this by creating a physical capacity needs analysis.

  1. Performance needs analysis (What’s Involved- (Endurance, Strength, Speed, Power)
  2. Test selection (Appropriate Testing Battery)
  3. Initial testing (Appropriate Order of Testing)
  4. Training program design (Structured Periodised Plan)
  5. Retesting (Program Progression)

By finding out what physical capabilities are required for the athlete’s sport, High performance staff can then select an appropriate testing battery that can assess all the physical capacities. Testing battery is a group of fitness tests that will be most beneficial for the athletes sport – for example- AFL draft combine tests- 3km time trial, Beep test, repeated sprint test, 20m sprint, agility and vertical jump. Along with specific skill drills and strength testing once drafted.

Once tests are selected and administered these results can be a baseline for the training program. It gives staff and athletes a objective measure to work towards, rather than telling the athlete to run for 30 mins, with these testing results sport scientists/ strength coaches can accurately prescribe specific intensity/load to an athletes needs.

Creating a robust athlete must involve a multidisciplinary approach to achieve maximal results, with professionals such as physiotherapists, strength coaches and performance staff working together. By integrating the testing results with injury screens, and injury tests, athletes can improve on their weaknesses and reduce the risk of injury.

When creating a robust athlete, there is no secret exercise or training program that will speed up the process. Building a durable athlete takes time and it starts from the basics.

These basics include barbell patterning and technique- all of the common lifts – squat, deadlift, bench and row are skills in themselves. You must ensure you learn to control your body through these exercises prior to adding any weight to the bar.

There is no point loading a barbell with excessive weights if the athlete can’t squat full range or starting with single leg exercises, Bosu ball squats when the athlete can’t do the basics.

Once the basics are taught the athlete can progress. Progression is the ultimate factor when creating a robust athlete. Once the basics are taught, technique, range of motion, correct movement patterns for sporting demands etc., the athlete can slowly begin to add forces and increase loads.

Applying these forces to the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular system through progressive resistance exercise will prompt muscle tissue to respond by becoming stronger, more robust, more functional and eventually progress to heavy load resistance. Heavy load resistance is the most effective way to promote structural robustness and durability to the human body.

Lastly, to maintain a robust athlete throughout the season there must be optimal recovery- recovery is essential to building a robust athlete. Proper periodized plans would factor recovery into the program (rest days, recovery sessions, massage, ice bath and nutritional advice) and adapt each week depending on the athlete’s physiological stress. Prolonged and high intensity exercise causes a substantial breakdown of muscle protein. During recovery there is a reduction in catabolic (breakdown) processes and an increase in anabolic (building) processes, which continues for at least 24 hours after exercise, therefore allowing these chemical and physiological adaptations to occur will ultimately lead to a stronger and more durable athlete whilst also reducing the risk of overtraining.

Take home messages:

  1. There is no quick solution to building a stronger, faster and more robust athlete
  2. The small things are also important- lifting technique, recovery and program selection
  3. Correct testing battery for chosen sport
  4. Lift heavy when technique allows
  5. Trust the process

Strength Training In Swimming



Before I start, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Kayne Johns, I am a sprint Freestyle swimmer, I have completed a Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science, moving on to post grad study next year and I am also completing a internship at Melbourne Football Club (AFL) in the sport science department, focusing mainly on GPS and Load Management.

This blog is to provide others with information they may not know about a particular sport or something within the sport science industry, I don’t claim to be an expert in any field, however completing a blog to help improve the sport of swimming and also to help develop my skills as a sport scientist.

Strength Training in Swimming

Strength training can be used to help an athlete achieve their full potential. In some sports, especially swimming weight training must complement the work done in the pool by the swimmer. This is a critical factor when prescribing a strength-training program, as you shouldn’t exert high levels of fatigue outside of the pool. Swimmers can train between 15 and 30 hours in the pool a week depending on what type of swimmer you are (sprint, middle distance or long distance). Coaches need to understand the most beneficial way of prescribing a strength program.

Swimming comes down to power (Pelot, 2012). Power = Work/Time, this is the amount of work done in a particular time; “Work” is the given distance of the event which doesn’t change. So instead of looking the above equation we need to look at it as, Time= Work/Power (Pelot, 2012). When considering this formula, the only way we could decrease time is by increasing power. Every swimmer has the aim of becoming the fastest they could possibly be, to achieve that the swimmer must be efficient, powerful and fast. These three factors can all be improved by weight training.

The purpose of this article is to educate coaches on how to effectively prescribe training programs but also to:

  • Explain why strength training is important to a swimmer
  • Periodisation of exercises
  • Explain when strength training should occur

Weight training can make athletes more powerful, improve movement patterns and stimulate the body and its tissue to become stronger and more resilient to a demanding practice schedule (Layne & Nelson, 1999). When writing a strength program, the coach must consider a number of variables that can be manipulated to design programs and individualise each one to certain caliber athletes and events. These variables can include:

  • The exercise
  • Repetitions
  • Sets
  • Speed of movement
  • Order of exercises
  • Rest periods

Creating a strength program is a form of art, there are hundreds of different ways to design a strength program, but following a simple method based on research with proven results is the key to improving a swimmers strength and power.

Below is a table designed by (Pelot, 2012) showing two different training programs, Program A has a high volume, lighter loads and minimal rest periods. Program B is a low volume with high intensity and longer rest periods.

Table 1

Program A

Exercise one

Three sets of 10 repetitions at 100lbs

Rest: 30- 60 Seconds

Approximate total work is:

3x10x100= 3000lbs


Strength Gain= Moderate

Muscle gain= High

Residual fatigue affect= High

Program B

Exercise one

Three sets of 5 reps at 150Lbs

Rest: 2 Minutes

Approximate total work is:



Strength Gain= High

Muscle gain= Low

Residual fatigue affect= Low

(Pelot, 2012)

These two programs produce different physiological changes in the body over a period of time. Program B would increase muscle strength and power, this would not increase fatigue like Program A would. If a swimmer is already completing 15-30 hours of training in the pool, their aim should be purely to increase strength and power, rather than to elicit more fatigue from high reps at lower intensity with short rest periods. Therefore Program B would be a more effective training program for athletes wishing to improve strength and power, but also minimise fatigue. These simple but effective variations could improve a swimmer’s performance in a competitive setting.

Another example of an effective strength program would be to work off your 1 Repetition maximum.

1 repetition max is similar to a swimming PB, it’s the heaviest weight you can lift for 1 repetition, and similar to the fastest you can swim for a short period

In swim training your sprint sets or thresholds sets are usually at a percentage of your best time, e.g 6x50m on 6mins holding PB +1 or 95%.

So why shouldn’t you strength programs be the same??

A recent article published by Dan baker titled ‘Cycle Length Variants in Periodised Strength/Power training’ (Baker, 2007) explains the variations that can be used to effectively improve an athlete’s strength and power. Below is a part of a table taken from the article that shows how a Primary Strength exercise can be prescribed over a 12-week period to increase an athlete’s 1RM.

Table 2

Sets x Reps


Week 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Block Linear 4×10
























(Baker, 2007)

With the aim of strength program being used to increase strength and power, then periodisation of certain exercises is crucial to obtaining maximum adaptations for the athlete.

For a coach the best way to periodise strength training program would be via the force velocity curve as well as incorporating the above table.

Force-Velocity-Curve 1 

(Jusdanis, 2014)

The force velocity curve is a great tool when periodising a strength program, the more force (e.g. the heavier the weight you lite (force), the slower you Lift it (velocity), inversely the faster you lift (velocity) the lighter the weight (force).

Example of a periodised program for a Primary Strength exercise- Back squat:

  • 4 weeks of Hypertrophy (4×10 repetitions at 60-70% of 1RM)
  • 4 weeks of Basic strength training (4×5 repetitions 75-90% of 1RM)
  • 4 weeks of Maximal Strength training (3×3 repetitions 90 to 100% of 1RM)
  • 4 Weeks of Maximal Power training (Jump Squat 45-55% of 1RM)

(Baker, 2005)

Prescribing a training program similar to this for a swimmer would again be more beneficial then the Program A in Table 1, progression of a proper strength program would see increase adaptations in the athletes and improving performances.

I’m not saying this is the only way to prescribe a strength program, as there are a million different ways to individualise a program, but you have to remember that a strength training session has to compliment what is done in the pool. If you are a sprinter who swims 50 to 100m, and you are doing large volumes (e.g German volume training of 10×10) in the gym, excluding conditioning programs such as Strongman, skipping, boxing. You need to confront your strength coach and ask why you are doing this? Everything has to justified!

Just because your race might last between 22 and 55 seconds depending on the event, doesn’t mean you need to be completing body weight exercises for a similar time frame. That’s why you train in the pool, you do your sport specific training in the pool and in the gym you strengthen the muscle groups used for your event.

I’d also like to talk about when strength training should be completed, if your goal is get stronger; you should be completing your strength program prior to getting into the pool.

Few reasons that may not always be possible due to time constraints are:

  1. Cardiovascular training can make your blood more acidic, with excess hydrogen ions building up in your blood, thus leads to muscle fatigue, reducing the ability to forcefully contract your muscles (Fischer, 2014).
  2. Injury prevention – technique is an extremely important factor when lifting weights at a percentage of 1 rep max. If the stabilising muscles are weakened due to fatigue, this might lead to incorrect technique and therefore the potential for injury increases.
  3. Lower energy stores post training may lead to fatigue and therefore you may not be able to lift what you are capable of (Fischer, 2014).

This information I have provided isn’t the only way you will see benefits from your training program. But I have briefly outlined some of correct methods based on research on how to effectively periodise a strength program that can compliment training in and out of the water. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with some special exercise or program. Basic programming works.




Baker, D. (2007). Cycle Length Variants In Periodized Strength/Power Training. National Strength and Conditioning Association , 10-17.

Baker, D. (2005). Methods to increase the Effectiveness of Maximal Power for the Upper Body. National Strength and Conditioning Association , 24-32.

Fischer, M. (2014, 10 9). Bridge Athletic . Retrieved 6 28, 2015, from

Jusdanis, L. (2014, 4 1). Speed endurance . Retrieved 2015, from

Layne, J. E., & Nelson, M. E. (1999). The Effects of progressive resisitance training on bone density. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise , 25-30.

Pelot, T. (2012). Strength and Power Training for the elite swimmer. Olympic Coach Magazine , 1-10.