Diving activities call for the use of muscle power, strength and endurance. Various training methods using weightlifting have been devised to develop the different muscle attributes necessary to maintain scuba diving fitness.

A little more than 2,500 years ago, the Greek athlete Milo realized he could increase strength by using workloads above those normally encountered. He began lifting a young calf every day. The calf’s maturing weight provided progressive resistance until, it was said, he carried the grown bull around the Olympic arena. He became a military hero and, as an Olympic wrestler, was undefeated.

Whether Milo lifted an increasingly heavy calf in legend or in fact, it is well established that the different capabilities of muscle can all increase through progressive resistance, also known as overload. Carrying increasingly heavy loads, for example, increases strength. On the other hand, progressively increasing the number of times you lift a light weight improves muscular endurance.

You draw on strength, endurance and another important muscle capability – called power – for varying activities in diving. With increasing strength you can more easily sling tanks and gear bags around and reduce your chance of musculoskeletal injury from doing it. Improved muscular endurance reduces your chance of leg cramps and eases long swims. Strength, endurance and power all contribute to get you out of a current or through surf and back to the boat or shore.

Strength, endurance and power depend on different structural and chemical attributes. Because they are different, each responds to different training methods. Most lifting can help you get healthier and look better. But, not all exercise strengthens. Not all lifting makes you big. Bulking up requires methods not needed by those training to fin long distances underwater.

How to get the muscles you want


How to get strong: Muscles get stronger by increasing three things – their size, the rate that nerves serving them can fire and the number of nerve-muscle units (called motor units) that can fire together. All three are trainable in varying degrees.

The first change that occurs to increase strength is a motor learning effect. Motor learning increases knowledge of how to do the lifting task, which improves lifting ability with no strength increase. After becoming accustomed to the task and for the first three to four weeks of strength training, neural factors predominate to increase strength. After that, strength increases in young males primarily by increasing the cross sectional area (the size) of the muscle. Older men increase strength less through size than neural mechanisms. Women also increase strength through more neural than size adaptation even with strength changes comparable to those of a young man. Of course, women and older men can increase muscle size through training but size is not the only predictor of strength. Strong things may come in small packages.

Because maximum strength contributes to winning specific Olympic events and, even more crucial, football games, studies have subjected strength training methods to microscopic scrutiny. They found that to get stronger you need to contract muscles at close to their maximum. That takes heavy weight and is why most exercise class floor work does not strengthen. Your leg is just not heavy enough. The majority of studies agree the maximum number of times to consecutively lift a heavy weight for strength gain is between four and eight repetitions or “reps.” These same studies find less gain with more or fewer reps. Why? If you can do more reps with the same amount of weight you are not using a weight heavy enough for maximum gain. Fewer reps also don’t sufficiently overload a muscle enough to gain strength.

One group of repetitions is called a set. To maximize strength, do three sets of four to eight reps. Between each of the heavy sets you need rest. Rest allows you to recover enough to maximize muscular tension for the next set of four to eight reps. One to four minutes rest between each set is usually enough. Allow a minimum of a full day between weight training sessions for muscle repair and strength building processes to proceed without interference. When you have progressed to where you can easily lift the weight four to eight reps for three sets, increase the weight. Resist going overboard. There are all sorts of regimes that vary the intensity and number of days per week to avoid over-training while still training hard – but that is for another article.

Some people are afraid to weightlift for fear of hurting themselves. Done properly, you are more likely to improve your health and reduce the chance of later injury from other activities. Get instruction and start easy, even too easy in the initial weeks of a new strength program. Get the feel of it first. Then, and this is important, get to like it. Progressively work up to heavy weights. Using the heaviest weight you can lift six times maximizes strength, however, a more moderate weight increases strength with less risk of injury.

It’s a myth that strength, by itself, reduces coordination or flexibility. No diver can be too strong. You can be strong with poor skills but not too strong.

Strength in a nutshell: Do three sets of six using a heavy weight. Take long rests between sets.

How to get endurance: Muscular endurance is the ability of any particular muscle or muscle group to continuously carry on repetitions of an activity at low intensity. Examples are found any time you resist against light weights many times, like leg lifts or peddling a bicycle. Muscular endurance is different from cardiovascular endurance. An untrained muscle may get tired before you are out of breath. Trained muscles have specific enzymatic and cellular adaptations to increase endurance capacity. These adaptations don’t change muscle size. Running, peddling a bike and kicking with fins use lower body muscles differently, which adapt differently. Kicking with fins, therefore, better prepares you for diving than jogging or biking. Training is simple. When you have progressed to where you can easily continue for a set number of kicks, reps or minutes, increase them. Alternate easy and hard workouts, rest adequately and don’t overdo.

Endurance in a nutshell: Do continuous repetitions using a light weight with no rest between reps.

How to get power: Power is the product of strength and speed. Lifting a scuba tank takes strength. Throwing a tank takes power (and no brains – this is an illustrative example, don’t try this yourself or you may get an inkling of why power is also called “explosive strength”).

Different percentages of strength and speed contribute to different power events. To throw the discus and put the shot you take a moderately heavy weight and hurl it fast and far away. Offensive linemen try to do the same to very heavy defensive tackles. Diving involves varied activities that require varying proportions of strength and speed. You may have to drag an incapacitated buddy quickly through the water then lift him/her onto the dive deck or up the shoreline, fin against a tough current or throw a light rescue line fast and far.

To develop power, lift a weight you customarily lift but lift it more quickly. There are special weight machines specifically made for power training. Be more than a little careful when training for power with weights. The potential for serious injury throwing weights around is high. Never lean over and lift quickly unless you really want to ruin your back. Developing power in the pool is safer and simpler. Increase your fin swimming power by finning very hard every few laps. Rest by finning easy laps. Be sure to be well warmed by 20 laps or so before beginning power laps. Also, practice throwing a rescue line and maybe even dragging your buddy around.

Power in a nutshell: Lift a heavy weight fast. Take long rests between sets. Be careful.

How to get size: Size, bulk, mass, hypertrophy, beefcake, big. By any name, the musculature adorning body builders is a topic of intrigue. An unfortunate number of women and even men shun weightlifting and its associated health benefits on the assumption they will grow hopelessly huge. My response to them is simple. Big muscles don’t happen by accident. It takes more work than many are willing to do. You can weightlift to get strong, enduring, powerful and healthy. You will get firm and look good but you won’t bulk up big without some very specific and intense work.

One look at power lifters and you know they’re strong. Yet they look different than body builders. Power lifters train for strength, body builders maximize size. What do they do differently? Two things, mainly. One is called volume. The other is definition.

Volume is the product of how much weight you lift and how many times you lift it. To maximize volume do more reps and more sets. Lift more slowly than you would for strength or power. You still need heavy weight but to be able to do more reps, not quite as heavy as for strength. Use a weight you can lift 12 times before muscle failure stops you. Do more sets and take only short rests between those sets. When you can easily lift 4 sets of 12, increase the weight and, later on, add another set. Definition comes from losing fat under the skin that covers your nooks and crannies.

Someone with huge rolling muscles may not be able to lift as much weight in a single effort as a smaller person who trained specifically for strength. Again, you can’t make assumptions about the strength of women or older men, or anyone for that matter, based purely on muscle circumference.

Size in a nutshell: Do 4 slow sets of 12. Take short rests between sets. Exercise and eat a low fat diet so muscles can’t hide beneath the fat stored under your skin.

How to get firm: Firm is easier than strength and size and easier than maximizing endurance. Lifting weights will firm you. You don’t even have to push it but, of course, more work makes more firmness.

Firm in a nutshell: Regularly lift a comfortable weight a comfortable number of times, for example ten, building up from one to three sets.


Why not? Scuba diving needs some of each fitness aspect rather than exceptionally high capacity in any one. Improve scuba fitness with safe and sane weightlifting to develop strength, endurance and power.

To keep weightlifting from being accidentally unhealthy, start slowly and easily. Check with your physician if you have existing or suspected health problems.


Strength: Three sets of six. Heavy weight. Long rests between sets.

Endurance: Continuous repetitions with light weight, no rest.

Power: Very fast execution of each lift. Long rests. Great care is needed to avoid injury.

Size: Four sets of 12. Heavy to moderate weight. Lift slowly. Short rests between sets.

Firmness: Regular comfortable weightlifting. One to three sets of ten reps with a comfortable weight.


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