One of the most common myths around swimming is that you can only be faster, stronger, and more fluid underwater if you train in the water. While this is partly true, as you need to be in the pool to learn the basics and advance in training, the foundation can be built out of the water. I discovered all these while I was training for my half ironman marathon.
Swimming involves a lot of kinesthetics, and you have to be precise about your form and movement in order to execute each stroke very well. This also makes it one of the most difficult sports to learn, as form is pretty tough to correct and perfect. I’ve learned how to swim since I was a young adult but it’s only very recently that I started to freestyle and butterfly correctly.
I believe that one of the most renowned trainers of triathlon, Mitch Reiss, said it best when he talked about how swimming is all about developing your stability. And in order to achieve stability, you need to work on the strength of your body. From your core, legs, arms, and back— all of these need to be built in order to sustain longer and harder laps.
I’ve looked outside the pool and listed down the best strength training for swimmers which will be more beneficial to you once you’re in the pool. It’s not all about doing more laps frequently anymore. I hope you find this list useful to help you optimize your pool performance.
5 Best Strength Training Tips For Swimmers
1. Chin Ups
Chin-ups are easily one of the exercises that many swimmers, athletes, and fitness buffs either love or hate. Some can do multiple easily while others can barely make one. When I started working out, I could barely lift myself a few inches from the hanging position– it was just too difficult to do.
One of the major muscles that chin-ups work on is the latissimus dorsi. This directly translates to the ‘broadest muscles of the back’. It is the largest upper body muscle and is usually why you’ll see swimmers have that broad shoulder and widened back.
Bodybuilders often refer to this muscle as lats, and chin-ups are one of the most effective ways to tap and trigger this muscle. It’s a no-nonsense exercise as you only need a stable stationary bar and your own body to execute it. And the only way to get better at this is to practice it.
You will probably start by doing only half a chin-up, then progress to one, two, until you can do it with ease. The main goal when you do a chin-up is to lift yourself up from a hanging position using only your upper back and arms to do so. At this point, your elbows would have been bent and your shoulders extended a bit.
A few things you have to keep in mind in order to maximize the strength building of this workout is to minimize momentum. There are variations of this workout that utilizes momentum especially high-intensity training programs, however, to keep the benefits optimal for swimmers, and to reap upper body benefits, executing chin-ups without momentum is the most effective.
Here’s how you can make sure your chin-ups are on point
2. Bench Press
Probably a favorite among bodybuilders, bench presses are essential to help work and build your pectoral muscles. While swimming won’t give you those hard pecs that you’re longing for, it changes it’s shape and form drastically.
First off, ‘pectoral muscles’ is actually a fancy terminology for chest muscles. It is the thick muscle that can be found under the breast. These muscles are shaped like a fan and occupy almost the whole chest area up until a bit of the side of your arms and armpits. These muscles help exert force on your upper limb area.
Primarily, the job of your pecs is to ensure that your shoulders are moving to allow you to execute the different strokes. Swimming is mostly through the movement of your shoulders. When you lift your arms to do a freestyle, your pecs help the flex and rotation motion on your shoulders. On the other hand, when your arms land back to the water, it’s still your pecs which helps you push your shoulders back down as well.
You would think that with that kind of movement, swimming already gives enough resistance to build strength. However, it doesn’t actually give you that workout that would build up your muscle intensely. And this is where the bench press comes in.
There are many ways you can execute this workout. You can use dumbbells or a light barbell on a flat bench if you don’t have access to a specialized one. There’s also the option of using a smith machine, just choose the right weight for you.
One thing that you have to remember if you are only starting to bench press is to always have a spotter with you. He or she will help you in case you have difficulty when you lower the barbell or lift it. In any case, don’t lift anything too heavy without gradually building up your strength first.
Here’s how to do it right.
3. Core Exercises
The core, the core, and the core. You will always hear coaches saying this: engage your core! You’ll hear that in almost any sport, more so in swimming.
The first thing that you’ll notice in professional swimmers is how their physique is almost close to perfection. Broad shoulders, big chests, and rock hard abs. These aren’t just for aesthetics: having abs with exceptional core strength is one of the critical requirements if you want to advance as a swimmer.
Stability is the main reason why you need to work your core. This will help you increase your speed and improve your overall technique when you’re in the water. Also, having a strong core will help you power through the water in a stable position.
Working out your core muscles will help you support the main and larger muscle groups being used for swimming which is your arms and legs.
It is more than twice the effort to sustain and exert force underwater, and having a strong core will help in keeping with the propulsive force needed. More than anything, this will help stabilize and strengthen your lower extremities so that you can kick and paddle with force and consistency for longer durations.
Almost all ab exercises will help develop and build your torsos. Side V-ups, Russian twists, sit-ups, side sit-ups, toe reaches, side-to-side crunches, and planks— all of these will work and contribute to giving you a stronger core. The main thing that you have to know though is that you have to be able to reach a certain body fat percentage before you actually start seeing those hard rocks abs that you see with swimmers.
Also, if you can’t see that definition yet, it doesn’t actually mean that you haven’t built core strength. So don’t get discouraged and continue pairing your workout program with an equally sound nutrition program and reap the full benefits.
Here are other core exercises you can do.
The main muscle that squats work out is your quadriceps or more popularly known as quads. This group of muscles which covers the whole of your upper leg is critical in swimming as you can think of these as your engines: they help you jump and kick at the appropriate moment with the right amount of force. This means that it’s very important at the start of your swim when you jump off the pool wall and when you turn to make a lap.
Swim strokes like the butterfly and freestyle rely heavily on your legs to propel forwards, and that’s one of the reasons why you should work out your legs on land. When you’re starting to drag and get slow in the water, your quads should help you gain back that speed in order to reach your record lap. And as much as you can train and work them while you’re in the pool, building muscle in the pavement will make a lot of difference.
This is where squats come in. Before diving into weighted squats, warm up your quads first with only your bodyweight. Remember to keep the proper form as you execute your squats and make sure that you are engaging your quads. When you have the form perfected, then it’s time to move on the weighted ones or squats wherein you can incorporate some equipment.
You can incorporate a Barbell Front Squat to your workout which is one of the most common weighted squats being executed by bodybuilders. You would need a rack for this especially if you’re just starting on this exercise. You won’t need a barbell that’s too heavy as well because, in order to build your quads, you need to get more reps in.
You can also try Goblet squats. The form and execution are quite similar to a barbell front squat only that you’re using a goblet for the weight. Personally, I think this is a friendlier workout to start with more than barbell squats especially if you’re just starting out.
Here’s a goblet squat tutorial.
5. Lat Pull Downs
Another critical muscle that you need to work on for optimum swimming performance is your tricep muscles or triceps. This is situated on the opposite side of your bicep, at the back of your arm. The main purpose of working out this muscle group is to ensure that you will be able to execute a strong stroke when you’re in a freestyle stroke, butterfly, and backstroke.
When you start working your triceps, you are actually helping your lats to bring more stability to your arm and shoulder movement. It also helps you improve your flexibility as well as increase your upper body power underwater. Strong triceps are essential for muscle synergy in your upper body as it goes together with your deltoids and lats in order to produce strong movements.
Lat pulldowns are a great way to work out your triceps but you would need a smith machine to do this. There are other alternative ways though: you can do parallel dips or bodyweight skull crushers if you have a barbell at home. If you have dumbbells, you can do single-arm bench supported rows, which is my favorite out of all the alternatives you can do.
Here’s how you can execute a lat pulldown.
Swimming is a sport that demands a lot from all your major muscle groups in order to perfect and perform. And it’s something that needs to be worked on outside the pool in order to gain optimal strength.
The key to building strength for swimming is to organize a very harmonious exercise routine wherein you’re targetting not just one or two muscle groups, but your whole body. I know it may get a bit intimidating and you might be thinking: I can just do more laps and swim more frequently to be a stronger swimmer. If you’re looking for a way to track your swimming, then check out the best smartwatches for swimming that I’ve managed to review.
But you have to keep in mind that water offers only a bit of resistance. I suggest that you start small, bodyweight exercises are a good way to go. Then eventually move your way up to weighted ones using more equipment to build more strength gradually. The key is consistency and slowly does it.
Let me know what you think of these exercises and if you think I should add more to the list. Until then, swim strong, finish stronger! If you’re itching for more content on swimming check out the top 5 reasons why swimming burns more calories!
Marko Rakic is a trail runner and fitness enthusiast from Sydney, Australia. He is the lead writer for The Ultimate Primate and believes the best way to live a happy life is to take a holistic approach to fitness and health.