For some reason when the Olympics roll around every four years, most people I talk to jokingly say that they can’t wait for the water polo match. Why? I’m not too sure why they use water polo, or handball for that matter, as the butt of their joke. Regardless of the sport, any time an athlete reaches an elite (Olympic) or professional status, it means they’ve done what an extreme majority of people in the world can’t do.
Water polo, along with other sports, such as handball and soccer, combines the unique ability to sprint fast repeatedly with very short rest intervals. What Hohmann and Frase found in their study “Analysis of Swimming Speed and Energy Metabolism in Competitive Water Polo Games” is that these athletes rarely sprint longer than 10 seconds (1). This fact alone, according to the NSCA, tells us that these athletes are mainly dealing with the phosphagen and fast glycolysis systems (2). With the former being your short bursts, high power output energy system.
Training for water polo is very much like soccer from a fitness standpoint because you need the ability to repeat sprints with very little rest. Although, needing a cannon of an arm you could only find on the top Major League Baseball pitching staffs is somewhat of a necessity. Using traditional methods for power development (Olympic lifting and squatting) are always of benefit, but a water polo player must also have a high power output in their upper body due to their throws. The throwing motion is very similar to that of a baseball pitcher, but the baseball pitcher will have the ability to create forces from the ground all the way up through the body, whereas water polo players have no ground support. This is the reason why water polo athletes need to rely significantly on upper body, core and rotational strength. With the swim training, much of the chest and shoulder will taxed and to prevent overuse injuries, much other upper body weight room training should consist of pulling i.e. rows or pull-ups.
These athletes swim over a mile a game (1) on the elite level, which is over 35 lengths on an Olympic-size pool, with a majority being max effort sprints. Pair that along with the kicking, hitting, and the ripping-your arm-out-of-your-socket blocking, I’d call it legitimate.
Hohmann, A. and R. Frase. “Analysis of Swimming Speed and Energy Metabolism in Competitive Water Polo Games”. Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming: Swimming Science VI. (1992). 268-274. Print
Baechle, Thomas R. and Roger W Earle. National Strength and Conditioning Association. Essentials of Strength and Conditionging. 3rd ed. Champaign IL. Human Kinetics. 2008. 32. Table 2.3. Print.