Competitive swimmers have always spent long hours in the pool training at various intensities to improve their swim performance. In the few decades, however, swimming has become more competitive with the world’s top swimmers producing faster and faster times.
Elite swimmers now have to look for methods of training in addition to swimming that will allow them to perform better and an edge over their competitors. One of the methods is to hit the gym for strength training.
According to British Swimming, strength can be described as “an individual’s ability to produce force in any given movement.” Strength can have a major influence on the performance of any swimmer – a swimmer who can produce more force in a swimming action than his peers will be faster.
A range of different strength qualities come into play during different periods of a training session or a swimming race from diving off the blocks to exploding out of a turn. Therefore, a strength training program for a swimmer needs to be specifically designed for certain areas that need improvement.
It also needs the age and level of the swimmer, as well as the stroke they swim into consideration. A strength training program for an age-group freestyle swimmer will differ from that for an Olympic breaststroke swimmer.
Strength can have a major influence on the performance of any swimmer.
The Importance of Strength Training in Swimming
The importance of strength training for swimmers cannot be underestimated, however, swimmers must be given strength programs at the right time in their development. Depending on the age and level of swimmers, strength training comes in a variety of forms.
Beginner and young swimmers will begin strength training with some dryland exercises to start building their athleticism. As they develop in both age and athleticism, weights will gradually be added to incorporate strength and power into their dryland routines.
Benefits of Strength Training for Swimmers
There are numerous benefits to adding strength training to your swimming program, the least of which is that it will increase your power in the water and make you faster. Here are some other benefits to hitting the gym with a strength training program:
Helps Prevent Injury
Swimming involves many repetitive motions, which place underdeveloped muscles under stress, and which, in turn, can lead to injuries. Common injuries experienced by swimmers include rotator cuff in the shoulders and lower back issues.
Strength training can target these underdeveloped muscles and make them stronger to relieve the demand on them while swimming. Stronger muscles will also protect joints, ligaments, and tendons that may also be under stress after many long hours of training in the pool.
It Helps Generate More Power
An increase in strength equates to an increase in power and this helps you gain speed in the pool in several ways. More power enables a stronger launch off the blocks at the start of a race or off the wall after a turn, as well as a greater explosion into your stroke off the wall. This explosiveness can be developed on land with a strength training program.
More power enables a stronger launch off the blocks.
Build and Develops Athleticism
Athleticism is an important concept that all swimmers should master. Defined as “the physical qualities of athletes, such as strength, fitness, and agility,” athleticism is an essential concept of sport that if mastered, allows swimmers to enjoy the full benefits of the sport without being injured. Strength training can build and develop athleticism by working on aspects like balance, coordination, focus, and stability.
Strength Improves Taper
Strength training works wonders towards improving your taper before a big meet. A taper is a period leading up to a big competition where swimmers decrease their training volume while increasing their rest to prepare their muscles and nervous system to swim their best times.
The more muscle a swimmer has, the more muscle there is to rest, however, that strong performance is retained for several weeks during reduced training. It has been found that if a swimmer has built up strength during the season, that strength will be maintained and ready to use during the competition.
Strength training works wonders towards improving your taper before a big meet.
The Seven Commandments of Strength Training
- Only strength train on non-swimming or recovery (easy) days.
- Always stretch lightly during the rest period between sets.
- Do movements slowly and always move through the entire range of motion.
- Lift slowly and smoothly for two seconds on the concentric (lifting) phase and for two seconds on the eccentric (lowering) phase.
- Breathe normally during each lifting exercise routine and exhale slowly with every exertion.
- Never sacrifice form for added weight. Lift to become a better swimmer, not to boost your ego.
- Use the correct technique and build weight gradually.
Important Aspects of a Strength Training Program for Swimmers
A strength training for swimmers can be organized into 12-week segments and will progress gradually from week to week. The most important aspect of creating your weight training program is that you need to train the biggest and most important muscles for swimming namely the core, back, arms (mostly triceps and shoulders), chest, lats, and legs.
Focus on your weaker muscle groups and target them with specific exercises. This will balance out all the muscles in your body and will prevent those regions from getting injured due to underdevelopment.
Exercises for Each Muscle Group
Core: Planks, Jack Knives, sit-ups, cycle sit-ups, leg raises, and Russian twists
Lats: Rowing, pull-ups, and lat pull-downs
Legs: Calf raises, box jumps, lunges, squats, and split squats
Back: Deadlifts, barbell rows, and pull-ups.
Chest: Bench press, dips, and push-ups
Arms: Bench dips, tricep pulldowns, tricep extensions, and overhead presses
Strength Training Program for Swimmers Split
Monday – Full body workout
Tuesday – Rest day
Wednesday – Full body workout
Thursday – Rest day
Friday – Full body workout
Saturday – Rest day
Sunday – Rest day
Best Strength Training Exercises for Swimmers
Strength training is both an art and science in competitive swimming and each program must be designed specifically for each swimmer depending on their age, level of swimming, and where they are in their swimming career.
Here are some basic strength training exercises for all levels of swimmers that can be incorporated into any strength training program.
1. Push Ups
Push Ups are an excellent exercise to add to a strength training program for swimmers as they work the pectorals and latissimus dorsi muscles, which are used in swimming to create power while moving forward.
The best way to do push ups is slowly – this not only makes them more challenging but also builds up strength in your arms and chest. To make them even more challenging, do elevated push ups with your feet elevated on a stool or bench behind you.
Watch this video for a host of different ways to do push ups:
2. Squat Jumps
If you want a faster and more powerful dive off the starting block or a stronger push off the wall after a turn, then squat jumps are the answer. Squat jumps will strengthen your calves, glutes, and quad muscles and give you that extra power when you need it most.
You can do squat jumps in several ways – you can just use your body weight; you can hold weights like dumbbells or wrist weights, or you can use resistance bands by placing a hip circle band around your thighs while you jump. This is very challenging and should only be done when sufficient strength has been built in the legs already.
Pull-ups are one of the essential exercises for strength training, particularly for butterfly swimmers. Swimming butterfly demands a lot of power and strength from the deltoid muscles in the shoulders, as well as the trapezius muscles on the side and behind your neck. Pull-ups help to build strength in these areas and provide much-needed power in the water, especially over longer races like the 200m butterfly.
Pull-ups can be done using just your body weight, or with weights or a resistance band for an extra challenge.
Planks are a simple, easy-to-do exercise for strengthening the core muscles. In terms of strength training for swimmers, the core is at the center of swimming and is responsible for maintaining the correct body position in the water as well as contributing towards both endurance and speed. A strong core can also prevent injuries and improve your position while rotating as you swim.
There are many variations of the plank, however, the most important element is to focus on keeping your back straight and your head and neck in a neutral position. To maintain this straight posture, tighten your abs and glutes and ensure your neck stays straight – look ahead of you rather than downwards.
If you are just starting with planks, begin by holding a good plank position for 30 to 60 seconds. You can then slowly work up to as long as five minutes, or even add some weight to make it more challenging.
5. Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers work your whole body and are excellent strength training for swimmers. This exercise works your shoulders, glutes, triceps, legs, and core, as well as improves your cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory endurance. Additional leg strength creates a stronger kick for all four strokes, and improved cardiovascular endurance will allow swimming faster for longer.
Mountain climbers should be done up to three times per week for the best results.
6. Medicine Ball Lunge with Rotation
The medicine ball is an excellent piece of equipment for incorporating into your strength training program. The weighted ball can be used with rotating lunges to improve your lower body strength and flexibility in the hips.
Medicine ball lunges with rotation work the abs, glutes, and quads, and improves the body’s balance and proprioception (the awareness of where your body is in space). Lower body and core strength help with body position in the water, powerful pushes off the wall, and better rotation in freestyle.
7. Kneeling Superman
Kneeling supermans are a vital part of strength training for swimmers as they work the core and help to strengthen and balance opposite sides of the body at the same time. This exercise is particularly important for backstroke and freestyle swimmers who have one weaker side of their body as they strengthen the abs, glutes, and back.
Kneeling on all fours, stretch your right arm forward while your left leg goes out straight behind you. Hold here for a few seconds before repeating on the opposite side.
8. Russian Twists with Medicine Ball
Russian twists with a medicine ball are another fantastic exercise to add to a strength training program for swimmers. They work your hips, obliques, and shoulders and ultimately help you develop a more efficient stroke. Strong obliques help you to change direction quickly and develop faster turns, and a more efficient stroke helps you to be more streamlined in the water.
Make sure your legs are extended while doing the twists with a medicine ball to get maximum benefits from this exercise.
9. Reverse Fly
Reverse fly works the upper back and shoulder muscles and is a good strength training exercise for protecting your shoulders from injury. Strengthening the upper back and shoulders will not only give you more power in all four strokes but will also improve your posture both in and out of the water. This exercise can be done with dumbbells or a resistance band for an extra challenge.
10. Chop Wood
The chop wood is a core-centric strength training exercise that works the abs and obliques together. The twisting and lifting movement of this exercise is brilliant for your core as it replicates some of the moves done in the water while swimming. A dumbbell or a resistance band can be used to add an extra challenge.
11. Cable One Arm Kneeling Row
This is a brilliant exercise for strengthening the core, hips, obliques, and shoulders. Strengthening these areas of the body will help develop a more efficient stroke, endurance and speed in the water.
Kneel with one knee on the ground with the other foot out in front of the body. Grip the resistance band with one arm, stretching the arm out completely. Keep the arm close to the body, pull the cable towards you keeping the elbow tight to the body until the elbow reaches the torso.
Don’t twist – keep the body in a straight position at all times. Return to the starting position and repeat.
12. Lat Pull-Downs
The lat pull-down is a functional exercise popular among swimmers as it targets the lats and back muscles, which are responsible for a strong and efficient pull in the water. It is recommended to alternate between lat pull-downs and pull-ups, as they are quite similar and you would simply be targeting the same muscle groups.
Strength Training Program for Swimmers
- Duration: 6 weeks
- Workouts: 3 x week (on non-swimming days)
- Average workout: 15-20 minutes each
- Reps can be increased to sets of 20 after three weeks
10 x arm swings in all directions: front, back, double front, double back, alternating
10 x leg swings front-back, side-to-side
10 x dead-bugs
20 x jumping jacks
Hip-bridge hold for 30 seconds
Front plank for 30 seconds
Jump rope for 60 seconds
3 x 15 Squats
3 x 15 Kneeling Supermans
3 X 15 Lunging Rotations with Medicine Ball
3 x 15 Push-ups
3 x 15 Pull-Ups or Lat Pull-Downs
3 x 15 Russian Twists with a Medicine Ball
3 x 15 Mountain Climbers
3 x 30-second plank
Mia Russell is currently the head swim coach at Aquasharks Swimming Academy in South Africa. She has worked as the head swim guide at SwimQuest Open Water Swimming Holidays in London and was previously a Swim Coach at Cybersmart Aquatics. She has a AIDA International Level 3 Freediving Certification, PADI Open Water Advanced Certificate, SSI Level 1 Free Diver Certificate and RYA Beach Lifeguard Certificate.