Optimal training for swimmers includes a high degree of strength work and conditioning. Explosive strength is needed to propel yourself through the water, so the focus should be on training your body to develop muscular power.
Strength training is the baseline of well-rounded fitness, as it enables the body to produce force. The most efficient way to gain strength is by putting your muscles under ‘stress’, which is typically known as resistance. Some common examples of strength/resistance training are using free weights or weight machines at the gym.
Strength training is based on the principle that by training and conditioning your body to push and pull heavier weight loads, your muscles will become stronger. The types of strength training that are beneficial for swimmers include ‘swimming-specific’ exercises, that can transfer back into the pool. Examples of these include push-ups, bench-presses, wide-grip lat pulldowns and dumbbell shoulder presses.
As you can see, these are all arm-centric exercises. Most of a swimmer’s strength and force comes from their arms, especially in competitive sprint swimming. To produce more strength in your arms, it’s important to condition them in order to build some muscle mass.
Why should swimmers do strength training?
Swimmers don’t engage in strength training for the soul purpose of producing stronger muscles for explosive speed, but as a way of preventing injury both in and out of the pool. Strength training is more than just improving strength and power as the name suggests, especially in sports like swimming that require the repetitive use of the same muscle groups.
In a sport that requires this over-exertion of the same muscles, there is little to no recovery from the large number of overhead movements needed. Strength training, whilst seemingly counterintuitive as you’re actually still training and using these muscles, effectively aids in quicker muscle recovery.
This is because strength training forces you to learn proper technique in functional movement, thus reducing the risk of strains and sprains, and additionally increasing bone density, leading to stronger, healthier bones.
Stamina and endurance
Strength training for swimmers is also about building endurance and aerobic strength. The sport requires an unnatural amount of exertion by forcing athletes to move through an unstable environment. The resistive drag of the water puts a lot of pressure on aerobic capacity and cardiovascular endurance.
Like runners, swimmers rely on their ability to travel long distances with controlled breathing. The adequate energy needed for such stamina is increased by strength training, as it conditions the body to be able to perform intense training and movement for long periods of time. If you can improve muscular endurance, you can prevent muscle fatigue in the pool.
Lastly, the intricate role of breathing while underwater is improved through inspiratory muscle training, which is essential for overall performance and injury prevention.
As stated, swimming is an endurance sport that requires overall strength and stamina. For optimal performance in the pool, it’s essential to undergo strength training outside of the pool. Like all sporting athletes, keeping strong outside of the sporting arena is a part of a wholesome, beneficial fitness program. A good strength training program will aid in the capacity to go faster and further in the pool.
How to strength train as a swimmer – exercises you can do
When it comes to strength training outside of the pool, the focus should be on the functional movement of each muscle group that is engaged during swimming, as well as incorporating exercises focused on the posterior chain. Strengthening areas like the back, shoulders, glutes, and hamstrings will correct any imbalances or muscle weaknesses in the areas that swimming doesn’t typically stimulate.
A stable core and back will help to support and improve your stroke in the pool, while shoulder and arm-specific exercises will build muscle and power in your propulsive movement.
4 effective strength exercises for swimmers
1. Bench press
The bench press is a popular weight-bearing exercise, which engages your pectoral muscles. In swimming, the pectoral muscles (the muscles in your chest) play an important role in supporting strokes, specifically freestyle and breaststroke.
Most bench presses are performed using a barbell, however, for swimmers, it’s recommended to use a set of dumbbells instead. This is because is encourages greater core activation leading to proper body position in the water, as well as improving scapular stability which helps with a more coordinated stroke.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lay down on a flat bench, with dumbbells in each hand resting on top of your thighs, palms facing toward each other.
- Lift the dumbbells straight up overhead. Rotate the wrists forward so that the palms of your hands are now facing away from you.
- Begin lowering the dumbbells down slowly, making sure to tighten the chest as the weights come down beside you.
- On an exhale, powerfully press the dumbbells back toward the ceiling locking the arms at the top and squeezing the chest. Repeat 8-12 times for a total of 3 sets.
2. Back squat
Squatting engages the quads, glutes, and hamstrings which improves strength and power when it comes to performing kicks, starts, and turns. Performing a back squat engages the core and back, leading to a stronger posterior chain which further supports stability in the water.
- Feet shoulder-width apart, position a barbell across the upper back holding the bar in position using an overhand grip.
- Begin to lower down into a squat, trying to maintain a semblance of upright posture. Staying tight in your chest and upper body is one of the keys to a strong squat.
- Once you’ve reached full-depth, (thighs parallel to the ground) drive through the heel and mid-foot to get back up to the starting position. On the way up, you want to drive the hips forward and squeeze the glutes until you’re locked out.
3. Wide-grip lat pulldowns
The “lats” or latissimus dorsi muscle are your middle back muscles which play a major role in propelling you in and out of the water during butterfly and breaststrokes. Using a wider grip with palms facing away (pronated grip) activates your lat muscles far better, resulting in better strength and stamina in the water.
- Sit down on a lat-pulldown machine with a bar attached to the top pulley.
- Assume a wide grip (wider than shoulder width) and grasp the bar with palms facing forward.
- Bring the torso back about 30 degrees creating a slight curvature in your lower back while pushing the chest out. Bring the bar down until it touches the top of your chest being sure to draw back the shoulders and upper back.
- Slowly release the bar back to the starting position until your arms are fully extended. Repeat 8-12 times.
To learn more about the anatomy of your back, as well as some key exercises that increase back strength, click here.
4. Lying leg raises
Your core/ab muscles should be strengthened in order to hold yourself up in the water and produce strength through the resistive drag. Strong core muscles also help to reduce injury by aiding in proper posture.
- Lay down flat on your back on the floor or a bench, legs extended in front of you. Place your arms down your sides, keeping the shoulders down and away from the body.
- Keeping legs extended, raise them to a 90-degree angle with the floor. Hold the contraction at the top for a couple of seconds before slowly lowering them back down to starting position.
Improve your swimming strength
If you’re looking to start or improve your strength training as a swimmer, you might need some help. Bailey Fitness has personal trainers that can help you figure out a strength training program to help you take your swimming to the next level. Get in touch with our team today.