Updated: Jul 15, 2021
After our blog on the humble turbo trainer, we received requests for my thoughts on swim benches and other swim tools used out of the water. As we are now seeing most people around the world with no access to swimming pools, I thought I could pass on a little history with swim benches
Let's first answer the burning question, do you believe they are beneficial? The answer is an unequivocal yes. However, it depends on what kind and if you use it to:
Replace a swim workout
Incorporate it with your training session because you don't have a pool alternative.
Then there are the many different swim benches available. Before I discuss some of them in detail, let me list them in my order of merit:
Isokinetic swim bench
Pulley system swim bench
Weighted pulley system swim bench
Own bodyweight resistance swim bench
Stretch chords. Or a bench set up with chords
Each of these apparatuses can be improved further with a small tool, called the swim halo. With this device on your machine it can promote an arm position that mimics the correct position of the arms in the water.
Done properly swimmers who drop their elbows can be taken through the correct movement on the swim bench out of the water, so instruction can be very effective indeed.
As far back as 1978, I was using isokinetic boxes to develop my own swim benches. As I became a little more sophisticated around 1986, I was making them on the walls of our gym to be specific for breaststroke as well as butterfly. My squad would do a swim workout from 9am - 11am but I would still add between 2 and 4 workouts a week on these machines. These swim bench workouts being a minimum of 45 minutes of work.
It is fair to say that in triathlon I have not used them, as time becomes critical training for swim, bike and run inside the one Triathlon program. However, as a teaching aid, or a replacement for lack of pool availability, they are excellent.
Why do I prefer the isokinetic over the other 4 types of benches? With this device, the power output lifts with the effort and acceleration of the stroke. This is crucial. Benches that do not do this are counterproductive as the weight or resistance is static along the full movement and hence is dictated by the weakest point of your stroke. The power phase of the stroke does not then have the necessary resistance to be developed as it could be. This is a massive problem. I have experimented with just strait isometric exercise on some of my lesser loved machines and I have found that I get a better result doing that in 3 or 4 static positions rather than doing the full swim stroke.
The second reason I 'love the isokinetic movement' is that once accustomed to it there is zero muscle pain the day afterwards - none. This is so important when doing multiple sports. We can do very very hard workouts for 1 hour 30 minutes on isokinetic machines and the next day zero soreness. I have done only 25% of the work on other benches and athletes can't lift their knives and forks at mealtimes for 3 days, they are that sore and impedes training in the other disciplines.
One last point I'll make on the execution of technique is when using a swim bench, and trying to include the proper swim arm recovery. After the initial first ever session I personally abandoned that procedure. We recover the arm just by letting it swing back normally. I'm positive not doing a full swim recovery is not impeding improvement.
In summary, also under normal circumstances if an athlete has pool access and only swims 3 times a week would I replace one of these swim workouts with a swim bench workout? Just the same answer when I'm asked should I replace one of these workouts with a gym session that will make me stronger. The answer from me is no.
However, it is a legitimate tool to improve swimming if used correctly and when there is little or no availability for pool swimming. Also, it is a great piece of kit for any level of swimmer.