How to Develop the Perfect Swimmer Body

Most sportsmen and women have beautiful bodies – muscular, lean, and toned, but there is no doubt that swimmers have the best bodies of them all. Swimmers have distinctive physical characteristics that set them apart from other sportspeople – V-shaped torsos with strong lats and shoulders, long, lean limbs, defined abs, lats, and triceps, and core muscles like rocks, and not an ounce of fat anywhere.  

Swimmers also tend to be above-average height with a long torso and upper limbs – Michael Phelps’ wingspan is 6.7 feet (2.03m) – three inches more than his height! While the greatest swimmer of all time was born with a unique swimmer’s body, many of these features can be acquired with a focused and dedicated swim regimen.


Michael Phelps’ wingspan is 6.7 feet (2.03m) – three inches more than his height! Michael Phelps on the awards podium on June 13 after winning the 400 freestyle by
JD Lasica / Wiki Commons / CC BY 2.0

What are the Unique Characteristics of a Swimmer’s Body?

Anthropometry is the study of human body measurements and the physical variations found in different human bodies. Studies show that swimmers have certain physical attributes that give them an advantage in the water over others, such as long limbs, a large wingspan, short legs, and a long torso.

While it’s impossible to create the perfect body for all four strokes – freestyle and backstroke swimmers will have different physical attributes to breaststrokers – certain physical characteristics are conducive to creating the top swimmers.

Anthropometric traits which are conducive for fast swimming include height, long arms, short legs (more power, less drag), large hands, feet, and lungs for natural buoyancy and endurance.

1. Long Limbs and Wide Wingspan

The term “swimmer’s body” often refers to the height of the swimmer and both men and women benefit as swimmers if they are tall. Being tall is beneficial for swimmers in several ways:

  •         A taller swimmer creates less of a wave drag than their shorter counterparts.
  •         A taller swimmer uses less energy and strength than a shorter swimmer and, therefore, tires slower.
  •         Longer arms and larger hands, which are generally found on taller people, work like oars and paddles, allowing the swimmer to pull more water with a higher velocity.
  •         Tall swimmers generally have large feet which help with propulsion.

Elite international swimmers who are tall have a great advantage over their rivals. Nathan Adrian stands at six feet six inches tall (1.98m) and Michael Phelps at six feet four inches (1.93m), while world record-holder Katie Ledeckey and Sarah Sjostrom are both six feet tall (1.83m), and 100m freestyle gold medalist Simone Manuel is five-foot-eleven inches.


A taller swimmer creates less of a wave drag than their shorter counterparts. Korea’s Park Taehwan Men’s 400m Freestyle Silver medal race at the 2012 London Olympic Games by
Korea.net / Wiki Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

2. Center of Mass

All swimmers have a center of mass which is the balancing point in the water, however, elite swimmers’ center of mass is closer to the lungs (the center of flotation in the body) which makes it easier for the body to float horizontally with very little effort. Most elite swimmers with a center of mass close to the lungs have long torsos shaped like a triangle.

3. Flexibility

Flexibility is essential for swimming, particularly in the ankles and shoulders and elite swimmers will have super-mobility in these areas. Swimmers need to have flexible shoulders to help with rotation while maintaining a hold on the water in freestyle and backstroke, and to press down on the water in the short axis strokes like breaststroke and butterfly.

Flexible ankles are crucial for having a powerful kick. The surface area of the foot is increased when the ankles are flexible, making the feet like flippers and allowing swimmers to push more water backward, which, in turn, increases forward propulsion.  Flexible ankles also work the two largest muscles in the body – the gluteus maximus and quadriceps – by allowing more force to be exerted on them.

While joint flexibility is usually a natural trait that is inherited, it is possible to become more flexible through stretching.

4. Hyperextension

Hyperextension, also known as being double-jointed, allows swimmers to extend their limbs excessively beyond a straight line. Hyperextension is particularly helpful for backstroke swimmers, who can reach further behind the head and catch more water with each stroke.  


Hyperextension is particularly helpful for backstroke swimmers, who can reach further behind the head and catch more water with each stroke.
Gordan Kožulj from Croatia, swimming backstroke at Eindhoven by Michiel Jelijs from Groningen / Wiki Commons / CC BY 2.0

5. Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers

Swimmers with fast-twitch muscle fibers have the advantage of more explosive and powerful starts and turns in the water. There are two types of skeletal muscle fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch, and two types of fast-twitch fibers: fast-switch A fibers and fast-twitch B fibers.

Fast-twitch A-fibers can be used in both aerobic and anaerobic training, while fast-twitch B fibers are only geared toward anaerobic training. Slow-twitch muscles are better for endurance events if they are less explosive, while fast-twitch muscles are ideal for sprinting and shorter events.

Swimmers with many fast-switch A fibers are the most versatile swimmers and can swim a range of events – Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, and Tracy Culkins are a few.

6. Mental Strength

Discipline, confidence, focus, and a good work ethic are just as important as physical characteristics, and the most important attribute for becoming a fast swimmer is mental strength. With mental strength, swimmers will never reach their full potential, even with all the best physical attributes.  

So, what do you do to get the perfect body for swimming? While you are born with the body you have, with hard work and dedication, you can mold your body into a swimming machine that will help you achieve your goals.

How to Develop the Perfect Swimmer Body

Developing a swimmer’s body doesn’t happen overnight. Elite swimmers spend many long hours in the pool swimming at a high intensity to develop strong, lean, and powerful bodies with defined muscles. They also spend many hours in the gym and on dryland working on flexibility to develop these features.

1. Swim, Swim, Swim

A swimmer’s body is built in the pool and to build the perfect body, you need to spend many hours in the water. Michael Phelps swam 12 times a week and logged over 12 miles of swimming each day, so it’s no surprise he developed a uniquely powerful body.

The more you swim, the more your body transforms into a swimmer’s body with broad shoulders, a V-shaped torso, and long, lean muscles. Broad shoulders will develop naturally from swimming countless repetitions of freestyle, backstroke, or butterfly, while the quad muscles will grow in size and strength with hours spent swimming breaststroke.

Swimmers generally have powerful lats (latissimus dorsi muscles) as they are the major powerhouse muscles used in all four of the swimming strokes. Combined with broad shoulders, strong lats create the V-shaped body many swimmers have.


A swimmer’s body is built in the pool and to build the perfect body, you need to spend many hours in the water. Ryan Lochte at the 2010 Santa Clara Grand Prix by
JD Lasica from Pleasanton, CA, US / Wiki Commons / CC BY 2.0

Elite swimmers have massive triceps built from many repetitive stroke motions during training. They are used for a powerful propulsion phase in swimming and make up the most volume in a swimmer’s arm. They also tend to have small waists with defined abdominal muscles and very little body fat. This is the result of hours of high-intensity cardiovascular and calorie-burning exercise.  

And lastly, the legs! Swimmers have powerful, well-defined legs that are not overly bulky. Strong legs play a major role in a swimmer’s success as they are needed for explosive starts and turns, underwater work, and overall propulsion without creating drag.

2. Dryland Training

Dryland training is another essential component of a swimmer’s daily program and plays a major role in developing the perfect swimmer’s body. Elite swimmers will have a comprehensive cross-training plan that includes strength training and Olympic weightlifting, as well as flexibility exercises to prevent injury.

Various dryland strength exercises contribute towards building a beautiful swimmer’s body and these include:

Planks – Planks are an excellent way of developing and stabilizing the core, which is one of the most important physical elements needed for swimming. If planks are performed with core-based strokes like butterfly, the abdominal muscles become super-defined.

Lat Pull-Downs – Lat pull-downs are excellent for developing, strengthening, and defining the lats (latissimus dorsi muscles) and back muscles, which are the major powerhouse muscles used in all four of the swimming strokes. Lat pull-downs can be done as neck pulldowns, pulldowns to the chest, and pulldowns using a V-shaped bar.

Rowing Machine – Rowing is an excellent aerobic activity and cross-training exercise for swimmers. It works in all areas of the body, including the core, the back, the arms, and the legs, as well as increases the heart rate.

Crunch Press – A crunch press is essentially a crunch done in conjunction with a dumbbell press. This exercise works both the core and shoulders at the same time and is a great exercise for strengthening the core, the lower back, and the shoulders.


Various dryland strength exercises contribute towards building a beautiful swimmer’s body.

3. Nutrition

Nutrition is another vital aspect of developing the perfect swimmer’s body. Elite swimmers who are spending hours in the pool and the gym every day burn thousands of calories while working out so need to follow a balanced and nutritious diet to have enough energy to burn.

However, this doesn’t mean that they can eat anything they like. It is essential to eat a diet that has a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats will keep a swimmer looking, feeling, and performing to the best of their ability.

Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates will make up the bulk of a swimmer’s diet as they provide slow-releasing energy for those long hours in the pool. Examples of good carbohydrates include whole-grain bread, oatmeal, brown rice, butternut, and bananas.

Proteins – Protein is essential for building muscles and strong bones, and aiding recovery after hard workouts. Approximately 25% of a swimmer’s diet should be protein, including eggs, milk, yogurt, white meat, and fish.

Fats – A small amount of fat is an essential part of a swimmer’s healthy, balanced diet as it is a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot produce itself. Vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E are fat-soluble vitamins that are absorbed by the body with the help of fats. Examples of good fats include avocados, olive oil, and nut butter.


Nutrition is another vital aspect of developing the perfect swimmer’s body. 

4. Periodization

Periodization is the organization of your swimming and dryland training plan across each workout, training phase, and season. Macrocycles include the full season; mesocycles cover each training phase, and micro-cycles cover each workout.  

Swimming and Dryland Programs for Developing the Perfect Swimmer’s Body

It’s time to start working on that perfect swimmer’s body. Here are some dryland and swimming programs to help get you started.

Dryland Program

Dryland workouts for swimmers are designed to complement the training they do in the water by providing a foundation of strength, power, and mobility to improve performance in the water. These workouts build muscle strength and overall power; they help build core strength, improve posture, and fix muscle imbalances that the swimmer might be experiencing.

Best Low Impact Dryland Exercises for Core Strength

Swimming is based around the core of the body and a strong core is vital for swimmers as it can help with balance, posture, stability, strength, and flexibility both in and out of the water. Solid core strength helps swimmers with body position in the water, underwater kicking, and flip turns, as well as an explosive start off the blocks.

Certain swimming-specific dryland exercises help to strengthen the core which can be incorporated into the best dryland workouts for swimmers.

1. The Plank

This exercise replicates the correct body position in the water and focuses on building core strength. Focus on keeping your body in a straight line, engaging your core and glutes, and squeezing your belly button to your spine.

2. Russian Twists

Russian Twists are a core-focused exercise that works the torso with rotating movements that are very similar to freestyle swimming. This exercise helps to build control and strength around the core and prevent corkscrew twisting in the water and improve your speed.

Sit on the ground and bend your knees so that they are a few inches into the air. Lean back until you can feel your core engage. Now turn your upper body to one side and touch the ground, then do the same on the other side. You can add a medicine ball or weights of some kind to make this exercise even more effective. Movements should be slow and controlled without allowing your legs to turn, drop or move around.

3. Superman

The Superman is a must for working your abs, core, shoulders, and lower back muscles. This is an excellent exercise for improving posture and preventing swimmer’s shoulder or rotator cuff injuries, which are a common swimming ailment.

Lay on your stomach on the ground and extend both arms in front of you. Raise one arm above the ground while lifting the opposite leg. Hold for a few seconds, then switch. Movements should be slow, fluid, and controlled and the longer you hold the pose, the stronger your core will become.

4. Raised Leg Crunch

Raised leg crunches work the core without the need for any equipment. Simply lay on your back and slowly lift your legs to a 90-degree angle. Place your hands behind your head. Now lift your head and shoulders off the ground and crunch toward your legs. Slowly lower your head and repeat!

5. Flutter Kicks

This exercise mimics the kicking movement in the water and helps to improve the core strength you’re your kick at the same time. Lay on the ground on your back and lift your legs a few inches off the ground to work your core and hip flexors.


Dryland training workouts are designed to build strength, power, and mobility. 

Dryland Workout for Swimmers (Advanced)

This advanced dryland workout for swimmers is designed for developing endurance, power, and speed.

The main set is meant to simulate swimming with maximum effort in the water, with enough rest to keep effort and power output at a high level.

  •         Duration: 4 weeks
  •         Workouts: 16 (4 x week)
  •         Average workout: 30-40 minutes each

Equipment Needed

Resistance bands

StretchCordz

Skipping rope

Medicine ball or pull-up bar

Foam Roller

Warm-Up/Activation

10 x arm swings in all directions: front, back, double front, double back, alternating

10 x leg swings front-back, side-to-side

20 x dead-bugs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_BYB0R-4Ws)

2 x 10 resistance band pull-aparts (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okRUV0bdXAU)

2 x hip-bridge hold for 30 seconds

2 x front plank for 30 seconds

2 x jump rope for 60 seconds

2 × 10 med ball slams against the floor

5 x squat jumps at maximum height

Main Set

8 x 30-second set of butterfly pull with StretchCordz – 30-second rest in between sets

8 x 30-second set of squat jumps with medicine ball (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwehokMRJ6A)

8 x 30-second set of freestyle pull with StretchCordz – 30-second rest in between sets

Core

3 × 30 flutter kicks on your back

3 × 30 Russian twists

3 × 30 mountain climbers

3 × 20 banded glute bridge marches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlAn3JHvTRs)

 

Recovery

15-minute stretch with a foam roller


Resistance bands help to mimic the strokes on land. 

Swimming Program

Workout 1

Distance: 2,900 yds / 2,900 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 250 alternating breathing pattern: 25 yards breathing every 6th stroke, 50 every 5th stroke bilateral breathing, 75 every 4th stroke, 100 every 3rd stroke (bilateral breathing)

v  4 x 100 choice of strokes – any stroke except freestyle – 30 seconds rest between each set

v  8 x 50 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 25 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  4 x 100 IM – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  Cooldown: 200 easy swim

Workout 2

Distance: 3,000 yds / 3,000 m

v  Warm-up: 200 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 200 IM in reverse order – 30 seconds rest between each set

v  4 x 100 butterfly with fins – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 backstroke – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 breaststroke – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 freestyle – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  Cooldown: 200 easy swim

Workout 3

Distance: 3,250 yds / 3,250 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  400 IM drill with fins – right arm, left arm, double arm, full swim through all four strokes

v  200 kicking – any stroke

v  6 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  4 x 50 butterfly kick fins – right side / left side – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  6 x 75 freestyle with paddles – going every 1:45 seconds on the clock

v  4 x 50 breaststroke kicking – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  Cooldown: 200 easy swim

Workout 4

Distance: 3,300 yds / 3,300 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  10 x 50 butterfly / freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  4 x 200 IM with fins – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  8 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x 50 butterfly / freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  Cooldown: 200 easy swim

Workout 5

Distance: 3,100 yds / 3,100 m

v  Warm-up: 500 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x flip turns – practice taking 4 strokes and doing a flip turn followed by 4 strokes without a breathe

v  2 x 200 freestyle – going every 3:30 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x flip turns – practice taking 4 strokes and doing a flip turn followed by 4 strokes without a breathe

v  4 x 200 IM with fins focusing on turns and transitions between strokes

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  8 x 50 freestyle focusing on turns going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  8 x 25 IM order with fins – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  Cooldown: 200 easy swim

Happy swimming!