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How can the gym improve performance in your sport?

“How the gym can improve performance in a sport?”

The gym and the work done there plays a huge part in any athlete’s career and is a major component of any athlete’s success, no matter what the sport. Whether you are a world class weightlifter, professional footballer, or Olympic pentathlete, the gym will be a part of your training programme and how you approach it will have a major effect on the results you attain.

As a swimmer, many people would be surprised to hear how big a role gym can play in our training, even for a distance swimmer such as myself. Despite spending a large amount of time in the water, the work we do on land plays a crucial role in our results in the pool. As this is a relatively new concept in swimming training, the gym is often the place where you can make the most gains against your components. 

Trust me when I say that I am no Adam Peaty when attempting to do a superman plyo press-up, but I am no stranger to the compound movements and exercises that many a gym addict include in their daily programmes. 

 A little bit of background.

I have been swimming for the best part of 10 years now and have achieved far more then I could have ever expected when I first took up swimming. As the years have passed I have progressed along the swimming rungs as it were. I’ve won numerous county, regional and national medals. At the age of 18 I became Junior European and Commonwealth champion in my main event – the 1500m freestyle. Now I face a more difficult challenge in establishing myself as a senior athlete.

Regarding the gym, I first started lifting weights around the age of 15 and have been obsessed ever since. I initially bought some UK gym apparel, and hit my first gym session. From then on in, the passion was there. For many swimmers, dry land and the gym are the worst part of their training week…they hate it! They are like a fish out of water! But for me, it is something different and it allows me to channel my inner gym lover. My love for sport in general has led me to start studying Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Bath, with the hope of one day becoming an S & C coach myself. 

How often do you train?

Currently I train with the National Centre Bath Squad at the University of Bath, alongside Olympic medallists such as Jazz Carlin and James Guy. Training for us involves 10, two and a half hour swimming sessions a week: twice on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; and then once on a Wednesday and Saturday. Regarding the gym, we have 3, one-and-a-half-hour gym sessions on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. These are always supplemented with physio, pilates, and soft tissue appointments throughout the week. This makes the week fairly full on so when Sunday comes along, it is when and truly used as a rest day!

Balancing the gym and swim 

Obviously, the work we do in the gym varies depending on what event we specialise in – a 100m sprinter will no doubt have a different gym programme to a 1500m distance swimmer like myself; however, despite wanting a large aerobic base, my gym programme thankfully doesn’t just involve an endless amount of body weight circuits. For me this year, gym, or land training as us swimmers call it, has included a variety of exercises to try and help me improve both my strength and power. Swimming has evolved a lot in the past decade and even distance swimming has become so fast that you need to be powerful and fast to be able to compete at the highest level. So I put on my fitness apparel and hit my workout!

The biggest conversation that occurs between the head coach and the S & C coach revolves around how to best manage the work we do in the pool and to balance this with the gym. This often comes down to planning what we are going to be focused on in the pool and then matching that up with what we focus on during our land workouts. For example, during preseason, the main emphasis for our swim training is around building up fitness and intensity over a period of around six weeks. In the gym, therefore, we focus on a build phase that looks to improve not only our strength but our tissue capacity as well. So, what does this mean? A land programme in preseason looks to include a lot of slow eccentric work on exercises such as:

  1. Squats (Front and Back)
  2. Deadlifts
  3. Pull Ups
  4. Loaded Press Ups
  5. Romanian Deadlifts 
  6. Bulgarian Split Squats 
  7. Seated Rows


Coupled with high reps and a large amount of volume this seeks to achieve the goals of the training phase. As you can imagine, this is potentially the most painful period of gym we do over the year. When the work in the pool isn’t as crucial, the S & C coach has an excuse to hurt us as much as he likes! 

As we move into the season, we tend to go into a high endurance phase in the pool which usually lasts arounds three weeks after which we have a recovery week. During this period, the work we do in the pool is very long and aerobic and we can rack up weekly meterage’s of around 70-80km a week. The gym also reflects this, with the main focus of the programme focussing upon strength endurance and maintaining muscle mass over a period of high aerobic training. An example of this is shown in the paragraph below. Thankfully, the coaches usually have it synchronized up so that a recovery week in the pool matches alongside a recovery week in the gym. A week you certainly make the most of!

The last block of training we do before a big competition is the anaerobic phase. This phase is all about developing speed and power, with the aim of looking to do a lot of high quality- fast swimming. The meterage drops but the intensity increases. As my coach says: “It is high risk, but high reward”. As the work in the pool is so crucial, the work we do in the gym does slightly drop during this phase so that we are fresh enough to perform in the pool. The emphasis turns to power orientated exercises twice a week and one strength maintenance type session on the third. Therefore, we start to see the inclusion of med ball slams, plyo press- ups and countermovement jumps. As well as low rep, heavy weight exercises. We regularly test the force we produce per kg in our jumps, as it has been shown that a more powerful jump correlates to a faster time to 15m at the start of a race. A part of the race which is crucial to any athlete as you do not want to be behind at the start!

The gym not only acts as a way of increasing our strength and power. For me the gym is also the place whereby I aim to get my body into its best composition before my main race of the year. Many people seem to recognise a swimmer’s physique: broad shoulders and a narrow waist. However, for me, the main gains I get to my body’s appearance come through the work I do in the gym and my nutrition. Like bodybuilding, nutrition is a key aspect to any athletes’ success. For us, it may not be hitting the lowest body fat as possible, but it is about getting down to your race weight after a few months of being at training weight, without losing any of the gains you have made. 

What may a typical gym session look like?

Below is an example of a programme I may follow during an endurance phase of training. As the emphasis of this period is about building endurance rather than strength, the aim of this workout is to improve my strength endurance so that I can apply my power in the water for longer. The workout is split up into four blocks, with each block being set up as almost a circuit. For example, I would do 8 deadlifts into 16 lunges, into 8 box- jumps, and the repeat this a further four times. Progressive overload is always a factor, so over the three weeks block I would either increase the weight I lift on the weighted exercises each week or the reps I do on the body weight exercises. I would happily admit that this is probably one of the most painful workouts I do during the week both in the pool and on land!



 Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I hope it has been a good insight into the world of high performance sport. 


Also, thank you to Absolute Fitness Apparel for all the support and great gear I can use in the gym. If you compete in sports and use the gym to aid yourself, then shop the best versatile active wear on the market here...

If you want to get in contact with me or follow me on my journey head over to my Instagram page @tom_derbyshire66    


Tom Derbyshire- Absolute Fitness Apparel Affiliate.