Weight Training for swimmers

Weight training for swimmers can be in the water during swim workouts, or on dry land at home or at the gym. Weight training for swimmers is an extremely important, and often overlooked, component to being a successful athlete for a few of the following reasons:

  1. Strength training prevents injury. Developing stronger muscles in the areas a swimmer uses most gives that swimmer the ability to avoid overuse injuries. He or she can also strengthen important stabilizing muscles in order to help support the muscles they use the most.
  2. Weight training strengthens the important muscles needed to develop a stronger stroke, to be able to swim at a faster pace, and to improve balance and form in the water.
  3. Consistency is ideal for swimmers. Missing workouts in the pool can have a negative impact on a swimmer’s success. Strength training helps the athlete be able to handle the continuous stress that high volume swim training puts on their body.
  4. Weight training can help improve a swimmer’s form. Form is more important in swimming than almost any other sport. A swimmer needs to be strong enough to to able to make form changes and hold their form in the water.
  5. Strength training for swimmers is also important for times of injury. If, for some reason, a swimmer cannot get in the water to train, they can help minimize their loss of fitness by performing strength training exercises that mimic their strokes.

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Important Muscles for Swimmers

weight training for swimmersBiceps – 

The biceps are on the front part of the upper arm. They are very important in swimming as they work together with the other shoulder and arm muscles for propulsion through the water.

Triceps

Triceps are the antagonist (or opposite) muscles to the biceps. These muscles are on the back part of the upper arm. The triceps are most important for the final part of the swim stroke’s “pull” – when the arm straightens. They are also important for the exit of the arm out of the water. Biceps and triceps muscles should be strengthened simultaneously in order to create balance and support.

Shoulder Muscles

The supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis are the muscles of the shoulder. They are extremely important for swimmers and used throughout the entire stroke. Strengthening this area and these muscles prevents injury and pain that can be the result of overuse and and regular swim training. See below for the I-T-Y shoulder strengthening exercise, which is the most ideal weight training exercise for your shoulders that you can add to your routine. You can also do these simple exercises on their own; it’s a great idea to start doing these and stay consistent with them even when you don’t have time to do a full strength training routine.

Latissiumis dorsi or “lat” –

The lat is one of the largest muscles of the body and is THE largest muscle of the upper body. You often see professional and elite swimmers who have pronounced lats, because it is such an important muscle for swimming. Lats are located on each side in the middle of the back and wrapped around the sides. When a swimmer pulls their arm through the water, it is the lat that is doing most of the work. Obviously, it is important for a swimmer to strengthen that muscle! See below for swim strength training ideas – the swim stroke motion is the most important for strengthening the lats.

Quadriceps or “quads” – 

Many athletes forget to think about their leg muscles when it comes to swimming because the focus is primarily on the arms. However, a swimmers legs are just as important as their arms. If a swimmer lacks good form or strength in their lower body, their legs will not be able to be in an ideal position and will create drag in the water. They will also not be able to use their legs efficiently to kick, which makes them faster. Quads are located on the front of the upper legs on each side. Any quad strengthening exercise will help increase quad strength. See below for information and tips on kicking exercises that you can add to your swim training routines. Isolating the kick and practicing it will help a swimmer strengthen his or her quads. Using fins helps strengthen the quads as well.

Hamstrings –

Similar to the quads, hamstrings are often overlooked when considering swimming. However, a swimmers legs are just as important as their arms. If a swimmer lacks good form or strength in their lower body, their legs will not be able to be in an ideal position and will create drag in the water. They will also not be able to use their legs efficiently to kick, which makes them faster. Creating and maintaining strength in the hamstrings is important for faster swimming, balancing out the quad muscles to prevent injury, and maintaining a good body position in the water while you perform your swim stroke. Any hamstring exercise is good for increasing strength, specifically kicking exercises. See below for tips and information. Swimmers can also increase hamstring strength with hamstring curls and bridges.

Abdominals and other core muscles –

In my mind, the core muscles are probably the most important muscles for swimmers. Almost every muscle a swimmer uses is attached to the core. The core muscles keep a swimmer balanced in the water. They help a swimmer maintain the correct body position. They support all of the other muscles of the body to help prevent injury. The abdominal muscles are below the ribcage across the front of the torso. Other core muscles, such as the obliques on the sides of the body beneath the ribcage, are attached to the abdominals.

The muscles of the back are very important core muscles as well. A swimmer should include abdominal, oblique, and back muscle strength exercises in their normal weight training routines to prevent injury, develop a stronger stroke, help keep balance in the water, and improve their swim stroke form. See below for tips and information on planks and back extensions, which are great exercises for core strength for swimming.

Weight Training for Swimmers – Leading Equipment

Kickboard

weight training for swimmersThe kickboard is used during swim workouts to improve the strength and efficiency of the kick portion of the swimmer’s movements. See below for specific exercise ideas to use with a kickboard.

Paddles –

weight training for swimmersPaddles are worn to create extra resistance for your hands, making it more difficult to pull through the stroke in the water. Therefore, Paddles develop strength in the shoulders and throughout the muscles of the entire arm.

Parachute 

weight training for swimmers

A parachute adds resistance to the swimmer’s propulsion and makes it much more difficult to move forward in the water, increasing the strength and effort needed to swim.

Resistance Bands

weight training for swimmers

These are for dryland strength training and develop the muscles and movement used in the catch and pull parts of the swim stroke.

Dryland Strength Training Exercises for Swimmers

Swim stroke with resistance bands

This is the most ideal exercise for a swimmer who cannot get in the pool for a swim session, for those swimmers who may have an injury and have to take some time off of workouts, and for swimmers to perform in between actual swim workouts. This exercise mimics the swim motion, using resistance to build strength and muscular endurance. It is also ideal for helping swimmers work on their form. For this exercise, you will need resistance bands. (See above for “Strength Training Equipment for Swimmers.”) Putting both hands in the grips, you will pull back so you have moderate resistance, and bend at the hips to at least 45 degrees.

Then you will perform a swimming stroke motion. You can use alternative variations of this exercise by doing one arm only, both arms at the same time, or lying on a table face down to perform the same motion.

Pushups

Pushups are a good old tried-and-true way to strengthen your arms and shoulders. To perform a push up, lay down facing the floor and, keeping your back and legs straight, raises your body by pushing down on your hands. Lower back down almost to the ground, hovering just a couple inches off the ground. Then raise back up again. Repeat this motion for as many times as you can hold the correct straight-body form. Build endurance to with your push-ups by adding one or two to every weight training session as you become stronger.

You can also try adding pushups to your swim workout at the pool! Get out of the pool every 50 to 100 yards after reaching the wall and do 5-10 pushups. Place your hands on the pool deck leaving your feet in the water. Slowly push your hands down, lifting your head and body up and keeping your elbows at your sides. Lower back down, and repeat. Try for 10-12 reps, then swim another lap. You will feel this exercise throughout your next few strokes!

Planks and Side Planks

weight training for swimmers

Planks are great for swimmers because they develop core strength and balance. It is a simple and effective exercise that can be done anywhere and any time. You do not need equipment or even very much space. Put both of your forearms on the ground with your elbows lined up directly below your shoulders, and with your arms parallel to your body at approximately shoulder width distance apart. Your hands can either lay flat on the ground or be clasped together. Hold for 30-90 seconds and build up your endurance by increasing the time as you become stronger.

For side planks, place one arm directly underneath one shoulder and lay with the other side and arm up in the air, bringing your hips off of the ground. Feet can lay on top of each other. Again, hold for 30-90 seconds and build up your endurance by increasing the time as you become stronger. Repeat this exercise on the other side for the same amount of time.

Wood Chop

Woodchop exercise is ideal for swimmers because it is a full body exercise that strengthens the muscles used most often in the swim stroke. Woodchop strengthens the abs, back muscles, shoulders, and hips – all of these muscles work together to perform the exercise. Swimming uses bilateral movement, which means you are not doing the same thing on one side of your body as the other. These exercises uses bilateral movement as well while engaging the core, making it an excellent addition to a swimming weight training routine.

To perform a wood chop, use a resistance band.  Starting low, at or below your hips, slowly rotate your arms up and across your body, to an endpoint where the resistance band is positioned near your shoulders (like you are chopping wood). Try to keep your head, chest, and hips stable without rotating, and keep them facing in the direction of your arms.

Back extension

It is important for swimmers to maintain balance with muscular strength. There are many core exercises that focus on the abdominals and shoulders. In order to support those areas and prevent back pain and injury, a swimmer should include back extensions or other back strengthening exercises in their weight training regimens.  To perform a back extension exercise, lie on the ground face down with arms overhead and lift your arms, upper torso, and legs up using your back muscles.

Do not overextend. Alternatively, you may use a back extension machine. Repeat for 6-12 reps and 2-3 sets. You can slowly build up your endurance by adding reps to your exercise routine as you become stronger each week.

I-T-Y Shoulder Exercise

The I-T-Y exercise is a simple exercise that can be done with free weight dumbells, or even with no weight at all! Just like the plank, it doesn’t take much time, it can be done anywhere at anytime, and it goes a long way for helping swimmers become stronger. This exercise strengthens the shoulder muscles and prevents rotator cuff injury from overuse with swim strokes by supporting the muscles that surround the shoulder area. It also helps make the shoulder muscles stronger, creating a faster and more efficient swim stroke. Perform the I-T-Y exercise by standing upright or bending over to about 45 degrees. With straight arms, raise your hands just to shoulder level out to each side, making a T.

To make an I, raise the arms up to shoulder level when you are standing upright, or up to your head level if you’re bent forward. To make a Y, simply move the hands up to the area between the I and T. Start with just a few reps of this exercise and you can built the reps slowly as you become stronger. You can add these to your regular weight training routine. You can also do these simple exercises on their own; it’s a great idea to start doing these and stay consistent with them even when you don’t have time to do a full strength training routine.

Ab exercises

Pretty much everyone has performed some kind of ab exercise during a strength workout at some point! There are many different types you can choose from, but the main idea is to strengthen the muscles below the ribs in the middle of your torso. Sit-ups, crunches, ladder reaches, leg lifts… the choices are endless. It is important to maintain ab strength, which translates into part of your overall core strength, to give yourself the best chance of having good form and posture while you swim. It also helps support the other muscles of your body to prevent injury.

In Water Strength Training Exercises for Swimmers

In addition to adding a routine of strength and weight training exercises in the gym or at home, swimmers can add strength training exercises to their workout sessions in the pool. This is a fun way to break up a monotonous swimming session, a long swimming session, or a workout where you are specifically working on strength and form.

Kicking Drills

You can use a kickboard to perform kicking drills, or you can kick with your arms reaching forward, above your head, without a kickboard. (See above for swimmer’s strength training equipment for a recommendation on a kickboard.) Kicking strength is an important part of the swimmer’s overall speed and efficiency. Kicking also helps a swimmer stay balanced in the water, and helps the swimmer maintain a rhythm with their stroke.

There are many, many ways you can incorporate kicking into your daily swimming workouts. The most simple way is to add it into the warm-up or cool down set of your swimming workout session.  Kick with good form for 25-200 yards. You can add to this as you feel like your kick is getting stronger. Another way to help strengthen your swim kick is to use different efforts. Try this: Kick for 100 yards, but start the first 25 easy and build the effort until the last 25 yards is very hard and fast. You can also use alternate efforts. Kick for 200 yards, alternating efforts with each 25 (so you would do 25 easy, then 25 hard, then repeat).

Kicking on your side is a slightly more difficult exercise that helps a swimmer learn to balance in the water and maintain control of their body position. To perform a side kick, choose one side, place the bottom arm straight forward and next to your ear, balance on your side with your other arm down flat on your side, kick with good form, and breath as needed. You can switch sides every 25 yards or when you hit the wall to turn around. It is a good idea to use a combination of double leg and single leg kicking drills in each workout.

Paddle Use

Paddles are a very effective way to increase shoulder strength and improve form for a swimmer. Paddles are a plastic plate worn over each hand with an elastic band to attach them. They are somewhat perforated with holes to allow a little bit of water through. A swimming paddle increases the amount of resistance for the hand and arm as it pushes and moves through the water during the part of the swim stroke called the “pull.” Paddles move the swimmer through the water more effectively and faster, but it takes considerably more strength for the swimmer to move forward. That is the main reason it is such a great tool for building swim strength.

Paddles also improve the swimmer’s feel of the “catch”, the part of the stroke where the hand enters the water and turns downward to begin the pull phase. Paddles force the hand to be in the correct position when the catch phase begins, building muscle memory and strength in the hand and forearm.

Swimmers should be careful when first starting to use paddles. They can cause injury or pain with overuse. Start with just 100-200 yards during your swim workout session, just to get your shoulders used to using the equipment. Shorter paddles can give less of a chance of injury, as they provide less resistance, so it might be a good idea to start with smaller ones.  As with any strength exercise or equipment, slowly build the reps, or strokes, as you get used to the paddles and as you get stronger.

Wrapping it up!

Strength and weight training for swimmers are important for many reasons.  It is often an overlooked component of an overall successful swim training program. There are many exercises that a swimmer can perform to enhance their efficiency, speed, and balance while swimming. Weight training can also be very important in preventing injuries. If a swimmer stays injury-free, they can train more consistently and become an overall better athlete. Many of the strength training exercises use equipment such as resistance bands, paddles, and kickboards, but there are some you can perform with no equipment. These exercises do not take up too much time, are simple and easy to perform, and can be done anywhere – in the gym, at the pool, or just at home. I would strongly encourage you to make a strength training plan for yourself – in just a few short weeks, you will see improvements, and you’ll be glad you started!

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