The Best Strength Training Workout for Swimmers

The Best Strength Training Workout for Swimmers

By Mackenzie Lobby

Like any other sport, the quickest path to becoming a better swimmer is to practice, practice, practice. In athletics, it’s known as the principle of specificity: When the optimal training is the most relevant activity, which is the activity itself. However, the duties of everyday life — and plain old, logistics — can keep you out of the pool. Never fear; there’s an array of exercises that are ideal companions to your swim training program and will help you develop into a better overall athlete.

Strength Training for Performance

The primary purpose of strength training for swimmers is to increase their ability to produce force against the water.

“This is to improve the load-bearing capabilities of muscles and tendons and to reduce the time-to-fatigue of muscles,” says Marty Gaal, a full-time triathlon coach and U.S. masters swim coach.

As you increase your strength, your ability to pull more water with each stroke improves. In other words, with greater power, you’re able to propel yourself through the water more effectively and cover the same distance in less time. Since swimming requires the use of nearly every muscle in your body, it’s important to make sure they’re strong and ready to pull, kick, and turn.

Strength Training for Injury Prevention

While most swimming injuries can be avoided with proper training, strength work can serve to reinforce the muscles you use when you’re in the pool. Several common issues swimmers experience can be remedied with the inclusion of strength training, particularly lower back pain.

“This can be mitigated by strengthening the core muscles, such as the abdominals, obliques, hips, and erector spinae muscles,” Gaal says.

Increased strength also can lead to better swimming form in the water, which may help you skirt injury. Sometimes poor form can lead to overcompensation, which causes you to overwork certain muscles, eventually resulting in injury. If the proper muscles are strengthened, they’ll be able to adequately do the work swimming requires without having to sacrifice form and technique.

Strength Training Workouts

The number of sets and repetitions varies based on your experience level and age. In general, Gaal recommends two to three sets of eight to 15 repetitions. Try to complete this routine once or twice a week during your main season and two to three times per week in the offseason.

“You can usually do more strength training or add more resistance during the offseason as you won’t be quite as worried about muscle breakdown and recovery time if you aren’t swimming as much during this period,” Gaal says. To determine the exact amount of weight to start with, consult a personal trainer or coach.

“Athletes should build up their frequency, duration, and intensity slowly and methodically,” Gaal says. “Take proper rest periods and pay attention to appropriate nutrition as well.”

Gaal recommends the following exercises to help take your swimming performances to the next level:

Lateral Shoulder Raises

With a dumbbell in each hand and your arms at your sides, raise your arms up straight out to your sides, pause and lower.

What this works: Rotator cuff

Front Shoulder Raises

This is similar to the lateral shoulder raise. Instead of bringing your arms up at your sides, raise them up in front of your body with your knuckles facing forward and down; pause, and lower.

What this works: Rotator cuff

Lat Pulldowns

With a cable pulldown machine, put your feet flat on the ground and place your hands on the bar slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Slowly pull the bar down towards your chest and then bring the bar back up until your arms are again fully extended over your body.

What this works: Deltoid and latissimus dorsi

Seated Rows

On a cable seated row machine, lean forward, grasp the handles, and slightly bend your knees. With each motion, lean forward while maintaining good posture, extend your arms, and pull back. Your arms and core should do the work, not your back.

What this works: Scapula stabilizer muscles


Find a stable bench or ledge. With your back to the ledge, place your hands behind your body on the ledge, knuckles facing forward. Extend your legs out in front of you and use your arms to lower your body down and then back up.

What this works: Latissimus dorsi, rotator cuffs, triceps, scapular stabilizers

Pull Ups

Grasp the pull up bar and raise your body up towards the bar until your chin reaches the height of the bar; then slowly lower.

What this works: Latissimus dorsi

Push ups

If you can’t do a regular push up, start on your knees and graduate to your feet. Be sure to keep your back straight and lower your body close to the ground with each motion.

What this works: pectorals and triceps

Core work

Include a variety of core exercises that work the abdominal muscles, such as sit ups and crunches. Establish a routine that works for you that can be implemented several times each week.

Marty Munson is a triathlon coach and writer whose work has appeared in Triathlete, Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and Find more of her workout tips and strategies at