Similar to other performance sports, swimmers benefit hugely from targeted and focused Strength & Conditioning in support of the technical and event specific training they undertake in the pool. But unlike running and cycling, some swimmers worry that that Strength & Conditioning may be counterproductive to their overall performance A common belief being that they may become too bulky to be streamlined in the water. This is not the case. When programmed appropriately, strength training will help swimmers improve their technique, increase their muscular endurance and express more power during their event. Ultimately making the swimmer go faster for longer. In this post I suggest some of the most appropriate gym based exercises that a swimmer can use to build a Strength & Conditioning programme. Focusing on targeting the major muscles that will have the most directly transferable effect on swim performance.
Swimmers rely upon their legs to provide propulsion as well as the their arm stroke. But equally importantly, maintaining a streamlined flat profile in the water is vital; and maintaining this whilst expressing maximum force from the shoulder and hip joints. This demands significant core (or torso) strength as well as strength from the working muscles driving the arm pull and leg kick.
Time to hit the gym.
This type of strength training effectively targets many of the same muscles that swimmers rely on to move their bodies through the water whilst maintaining an optimum streamlined position in the water. It strengthens lats, forearms, arms, shoulders, and traps. A versatile compound exercise that delivers big gains for time invested. If I could only do one strength exercise as a swimmer, this would be it.
Slightly more narrowly targeted than the Pull Up, but still a compound movement. The Bench Press introduces the pectoral (chest) muscles to the mix. For swimmers the Bench Press is better executed with a pair of dumbbells rather than a barbell. Performed with dumbbells, allows the shoulders to move in a more natural pattern and with a greater range of motion. By working each arm individually, you can start to address muscle imbalances and reduce muscle strain on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Whilst often seen as a barbell exercise, the use of dumbbells increases the requirement for core whilst introducing components of balance and stability. All transferable and valuable in increasing power of the arms in swim strokes.
Swimmers rely heavily on their legs to provide propulsion through the water. In freestyle we seek to maintain a long straight leg line, so it may seem counter intuitive to be using squats (that have a very different movement pattern). But doing regular squats will improve your technique by increasing the amount of power and speed in turns as well as developing the potential of the Glute Max muscle which plays an important role in the flutter kick.
Squats can take many formats, but for swimmers looking to improve their core strength as well as leg strength, front weighted squats are preferable.
Much of the power used in swimming comes from the lower end of the body like the hamstrings, calves, and lower back, as well as previously noted from the glutes. Doing a Glute Bridge helps to strengthen upper leg (glute & hamstring) and core muscles and improves stability.
The position of a swimmer’s body is crucial while in the pool. It’s important to keep the back straight and maintain that streamlined posture, so a strong core and glutes are crucial. A solid plank reduces the chance of injury and closely mimics the event specific set up we seek. After the Pull Up, Planks would always be my next “go to” exercise in my own swimming S&C training.
Working the upper back and shoulders, the reverse fly adds additional power to a swimmer’s strokes whilst also assisting with good posture in the water. This exercise can be done with either resistance bands or dumbbells.
A chop wood exercise is one of the best exercises to strengthen the core and the obliques. The twisting and rotation done during the exercise are also very similar to the requirement for rotation in the water during swimming freestyle.
Swimmers who have noticed that one side of their body is weaker than another can strengthen it by performing a kneeling superman. This is a conditioning workout for swimmers that can be done with or without weights, and in pretty much any location! It’s performed by getting on all fours, lifting the arm and opposite leg, holding for a few seconds, lowering it, and repeating on the opposite side. These repetitive movements help to strengthen the arms, legs, abs, and back.
Medicine Ball Lunge with Rotation
Flexible hips are essential for swimmers. This exercise works the quads, glutes, and core while simultaneously improving balance and spatial awareness. In addition to increasing hip flexibility, this strength training for swimmers improves lower body strength. The medicine ball can be replaced by any suitable weight (dumbbell or plate for instance).
So there you have it, nine exercises that develop the most important muscles involved in swimming. Most of these exercises can be performed in any setting, doesn’t have to be a gym.
Give it a go!
If you would like to try these out you can find the “S&C for Swimmers” workout for free on my BitFitter.app
(If you don’t already have one, then just create an account for free and you can start using the app!). As with all my generic workout outs, you will find the weights set to zero, Find a weight that means you can only just complete the prescribed number of sets. Of course if you would like a workout programme that is bespoke to you, your ability, and the equipment you have available then get in touch and I will be pleased to help you.