Strength Training Essentials for Swimmers

Strength Training Essentials for Swimmers

Learning how to swim better and stronger is not an easy task, but if you share these techniques with your clients, they will be able to greatly improve their performance.

If some of your athletes are swimmers by trade or preference, you might imagine that they’re doing enough power and strength work in the pool. Or if they’re primarily cyclists or runners pulling double duty in the water for triathlons or cross-training, maybe they’re worried about pushing themselves too hard in the weight room.

Yet it’s likely that if your clients aren’t doing dedicated strength work at least twice a week, their muscles and connective tissues lack the load tolerance to handle everything. In which case, they’re probably not as stable or strong as they could be. Here’s how to remedy that. 

My biggest issue when I got back into swimming a couple of years ago was that even though I was relatively powerful and strong, my stabilizers were weak. This was causing me to overcompensate by over-rotating my hips and led to me painfully straining my neck while fighting for oxygen. That’s why I suggest that your swimmers do what I did to fix this issue and really work on their core strength and trunk stability so they can keep a neutral spine as they move through the water. Becoming stronger will also provide a stable platform so they can channel their strength and power through the primary mover muscles like the pecs, lats and shoulders.

Planks, Pushes and Pulls

Doing front planks in both high (the top of the pushup) and low (with forearms flat on the floor) positions and then moving on to plank walkouts and doing bear crawls slowly and under control is a good way to start improving your swimmers’ core stability. They should do pushups because the pectoral minor and pectoral major muscles are two of the prime movers in the swim stroke. They can keep their elbows tucked in tight to their ribcage to focus on the pecs, perform a variation that emphasizes the triceps or put their elbows out a little (the latter is how most people do the exercise and how it’s taught in schools). All three versions of this core exercise can be beneficial so don’t stick to one style.

There is some crossover from the gym to the pool. If you think about the stages of the swimming stroke, once the elbow is up and the hand is vertical to the elbow, the push phase begins. As soon as the athlete enters this phase, they’re using their triceps to push the water back and are then trying to pull themselves past the anchor point. Instead of thinking of moving the water, they should be imagining moving their body ahead of their anchor—in this case, is their hand in the pool. Doing so can improve how the swimmer visualizes the whole thing. They can then focus on obtaining a functional reach and next, getting their elbow up and hand down. That makes for a better catch, and now they’re able to pull themselves through the water. And instead of just using their hands, they’re going to want to utilize everything from their fingertips all the way up to the armpit.

One drill we do a lot is swimming with closed fists. This minimizes the role of the hands in the swimming stroke and forces the athlete to use their whole arm to propel themselves forward. That is so hard to do because if they’re not achieving a vertical forearm, they lose force moving forward. But it shows them how to use the other parts of your body once you get that initial catch with their hand in the water.

One device I use in developing swimmers’ strength is the Concept2 SkiErg. Speaking from personal experience, it helps me to set up my pull. The nice thing about the SkiErg is that the amount of resistance depends on how hard you pull, and you can change it by altering the level of the damper. It’s best to start on level one, two, or three rather than dialing the damper up to nine or 10. The key isn’t pulling hard but mastering the movement pattern. Encourage your athletes to make their SkiErg stroke more like pulling water rather than sand. They should be emphasizing efficiency and control, not feeling fatigued at the end of the session.

Learn to Engage the Anterior Core

When it comes to developing swimmers’ strength, I also recommend doing goblet squats. This movement helps the athlete engage their anterior core musculature. Most of the time when you put a heavy barbell on your back, all you’re going to do is lean forward to compensate. Therefore, a goblet squat will be better suited to improving your athletes’ range of motion and keeping their torso at a good, upright angle.

Once they’ve mastered goblet squats, I have my athletes also work on front squats. Bilateral squat variations tend to help swimmers explode off the wall. This is a great method for improving the start position and moving off the pool wall with power and speed.

Developing Unilateral Strength

When it comes to the swim stroke and kick, unilateral strength rules. Master coach Mike Boyle has been saying this for the last 15 years: single-leg strength should take precedence over bilateral strength. Each kick and pull is performed with one limb and is done with a fluid and dynamic pattern. The more efficient the athlete is at producing power unilaterally, the faster and more fatigue-resistant they become.

The hinge is another primary athletic movement that every athlete should be able to do well. Think about when the swimmer is on the blocks. What do they do? Yep, they hinge. When an experienced coach observes the most talented swimmers, he or she might well think, “Wow, they really know how to actually load their hamstring and glutes. And they’re creating tension that allows them to shoot off the starting blocks like a rubber band.”

Stronger Core = Faster Swimming

Additionally, your swimmers need to develop a solid core, which I refer to as all the muscles and connective tissues that attach to the pelvis. I usually begin core development with planks as referenced above. In the pool that is going to translate into avoiding the anterior pelvic tilt that can start to drag them down in the water.

If you watched Katie Ledecky or Caeleb Dressel, they seem to glide across the top of the water. To do likewise, your clients must build core strength and control so that they can keep their pelvis neutral even when they’re applying a lot of power. In other words, they must develop 360-degree strength.

To work on this, I’ll put one end of a resistance band around a client’s waist and anchor the other side. Then they do lateral bear crawls that require them to control their body movement as they resist the pull of the band in the opposite direction. I also have clients do pullups with their hands just wider than shoulder-width apart and palms facing forward. My swim coach preaches the importance of keeping a neutral pelvis in the water, and the way to mimic that and keep your spine organized while doing pullups is to point your toes up, maintain a neutral pelvis, squeeze your glutes and abs, and keep your feet slightly out in front of you. This allows the client to create the same kind of tension that they’ll need to pull themselves through the water efficiently.

Movement coach Carl Paoli suggests keeping a “hollow rock” position while doing pullups. They can practice this body movement without the pullup too, as it’s a wonderful exercise for developing core strength and body control. Especially because a lot of people are not going to be able to do a full pullup. If this is the case with one of your athletes, they could try an assisted pullup with a band or an inverted row from a bar or TRX Suspension Trainer.

Mastering swimming by improving movement competence and strengthening certain parts of the body is not an easy task. But if you share these techniques with your clients, they’ll be able to greatly improve their performance and make the parts of their body that are utilized in competition more durable. In the long run, practicing and repeating the strategies detailed above routinely will give your athletes the capability they need to excel in and out of the pool.

Swimming Strength Exercises to Share with Your Swimmers

Here are some movement videos you can pass on to your clients to improve their core and overall body strength:

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