Become a better diver with strength training for freediving

Become a better diver with strength training for freediving

How should we train? Is strength training for freediving a good idea? Are bigger muscles better or worse? Should we hit up the gym in the off season?

I have alluded to some of these questions in previous posts and newsletters. In my mind, there is no doubt that a well trained muscle performs better during freediving activities. Unless you are purely interested in statics, strength training will benefit you.

Muscles store both energy and oxygen, and a trained muscle can store more of both. But (there is always a but), it is difficult to load a muscle with oxygen, or rather, the oxygen carrying protein myoglobin. So instead I’ll show you how you can load it with energy, or rather, the phoshate molecule creatine phosphate.

Powerlifting & ATP-CP

All cells are powered by ATP. ATP in turn is replenished by CP. The combined ATP-CP battery can provide you with energy for about 15 seconds of all-out exercise. It does so without using O2 and without generating CO2.

Powerlifters are highly dependent on ATP-CP to provide them with the energy needed for their sport. We can use their methods to increase the energy our muscles carry.

Strength training: deadlifts and squats

There are two very efficient exercises to train the lower body and core: deadlifts (for the lower body and core) and squats (for the lower body) .

ATP-CP has to be used where it is created. These exercises will be beneficial only if you use your legs and/or core for most of your propulsion. In other words, these exercises are for the 99.9% of divers out there that use fins, but not so much for CNF only divers.

The deadlift

The deadlift is known as the king of high resistance exercise, for a good reason. It is a fantastic all-body workout and trains your legs, back, core, arms and shoulders. Your whole body works to keep good form. The deadlift is also a great exercise to make your back injury-proof, or to recover from injuries (with lower weight). So, what is it?

During a deadlift, you lift a weight from the ground to approximately knee level. Your back stays neutral and you hinge around the hips to lift and stand straight.

To do a deadlift:

  • Place your midfoot underneath the bar, and position yourself so that the feet are pointing out at 5-10 degrees. When you bend your knees, they should be tracking over your second toes. Your feet should be hip width apart so your arms can fall straight down to the bar.
  • Your shins should be very close the bar, but not touch it.
  • Now, bend the knees slightly and bring your hips backward so your upper body lowers. You should be feeling a stretch in your hamstrings and perhaps calves.
  • Lower yourself no further than your hamstrings allow you. Your knees can be bent, but your lower back should not round.
  • With a neutral back (not hyper arched or rounded), thrust the hips forward and lift the weight. The bar never comes higher than just above your knees.
  • Your shoulders and upper back should work to keep your shoulders in position. Don’t allow the shoulders to drag forward.
  • Lower the weight quickly, but slow enough to control the movement. Try to find a balance between ramming it through the floor (gym management does not like it) and taking so long that it impacts your next lift.
strength training freediving
Starting position for the deadlift

The deadlift is a fantastic exercise, but can wreak havoc on your back if done wrong. I strongly recommend that you either get a personal trainer or (at the very least) go to the gym with a friend and take some photos of each other during the lift. You can then analyze whether your back is in the right position before you increase the weight. If you have trouble doing a normal deadlift, consider the Sumo deadlift, a variation with a wider leg stance.

The Squat

If the deadlift is the king of high resistance exercise, the squat is the queen. It is more difficult to perform because it requires a lot of shoulder, elbow and/or wrist flexibility. The squat predominantly trains the legs, but is also great for the core, back, and shoulders. We will discuss three variations, the high bar back squat, low bar back squat, and the front squat. There are many more variations but these are the three most common ones.

The back squat is the most common variety of squats. The bar rests on the traps or across the posterior deltoids. The most common issue in the back squat is a lack of shoulder mobility. This may lead to the bar resting on the bony bump at the base of the neck. This is your spine, and not a good place to rest a very heavy weight on. Either you need to tense your traps, so the bar does not rest on the spine, or lower the bar. If shoulder mobility does not allow you to do the back squat, you need to defer to the front squat.

strength training freediving
The bar rests on the upper traps during a high bar squat (trapezium muscles shown in the lower left). During a low bar squat the bar rests on the posterior deltoids (shown in lower right)

The front squat is done with the bar resting on the anterior deltoids. The front squat requires good wrist and elbow mobility. If you do not have the mobility, you can use two small straps and use these to hold the bar in place. You are only using your hands (with or without straps) to hold the bar in place.

strength training freediving
The front squat, which requires excellent wrist and elbow mobility, is done with the bar resting on the deltoids.

These variations should be done without weight on the bar until you have the movement right. Experiment with the width of your stance and the different varieties of squats to find out what works best for you. Always make sure that the knees track straight over the second toe.

To do a squat:

  • Place the bar on the rack, below the height you are going to lift it to, and load it with the appropriate amount of weight.
  • Get in position and lift the bar, take one or two small step(s) so you are away from the rack.
  • Your stance can be wide or narrow, depending on what feels right. A wider stance tends to be less strenuous on the back.
  • As in the deadlift, your back should be neutral. Do not hyper arch or round the back.
  • Create total body tension from the feet up to protect the joints.
  • Sink as quickly as you can but as slowly as you need to be in total control of the bar. If you can, have your hamstrings touch your upper calves.
  • Your lower back should not round during the descent. If it does, you have reached your limit. Either experiment with a different stance width if you want to sink lower, or just don’t go any lower.
  • The hardest part of a squat is when the upper legs are just above parallel with the floor. Push the bar backwards with your traps and push the hips underneath the bar to drive it up.

Like the deadlift, the squat is a fantastic exercise, but it is not easy. If you want to get the most out of the squat, book a session with a personal trainer so you know you have the technique right.

Sets, repetitions & resistance

If you want to train your ATP-CP battery, you have to do short sets, a few reps, and very high resistance. This is ideal:

90% of 1RM, 3 sets of 3 repetitions with 2 – 3 minutes rest in between.

What does that mean?

1RM stands for 1-rep-max. If you are able to deadlift 450 lbs for 1 rep, that is your 1RM and a 90% 1RM lift is 405 lbs.

Instead of trying to find your 1RM by doing 1 lift to the max, you can figure out your 5 rep max and multiply that by 1.2. For example, if you can do 5 reps at 320 lbs your 1RM should be 320 x 1.2 = 384 lbs and you should be doing the following exercises at 90% x 384 = 345 lbs.

Your deadlifts would be as follows:

  • 3 sets @ 405 lbs (this should take a total of about 20 – 30  seconds, no more than a few seconds rest in between)
  • 2 – 3 minutes rest
  • 3 sets @ 405 lbs
  • 2 – 3 minutes rest
  • 3 sets @ 405 lbs

Done! Same thing for the squats. Make sure you have done a decent warmup beforehand.

So how effective is this?

Well, that will differ for everyone. These exercises focus only on a specific type of fast twitch muscle fiber. There are three types of muscle fiber, that all contribute to dives. Training for just one is not perfect. However, this specific method of training is definitely one of the easiest and fastest methods.

If you liked this post, or if you want to know other methods of training you are going to love this.


Jaap is a geologist by trade and a freediver by passion. Jaap wrote the book Longer and Deeper in 2018. His book teaches how to train for freediving and spearfishing on land.

This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply