Weight Training for Swimming
By guest author Michael Cai
“My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”
—Alfred Hajos, the first ever Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist, after being dumped into the frigid waters of the Mediterranean with his fellow competitors in 1896.
The sport of swimming has come a long way since the time of Alfred Hajos, when even Olympic-calibre swimmers had to struggle in the icy waters of the Mediterranean. In 2013, we can drive over to a warm and (relatively) clean pool within a couple of minutes.
With these improvements in sport conditions have come insights into how to use modern strength and conditioning methods to improve swim power and performance.
Yet many swimmers don’t combine weight training with swimming. That’s a mistake. If you’re a swimmer, I highly recommend that you support your swimming with some strength and conditioning work.
Here are 5 reasons why.
5 reasons to weight train for swimming
It’s hard to build muscle through swimming alone.
You build muscle through stressing your muscles, and swimming through water does not put a particularly large amount of stress on your muscles. Most of the muscle stress comes from repeated motions you do while you swim.
Also, research has shown that female collegiate swimmers have the lowest bone density out of a variety of athletes from different types of sports. Lower gravity and impact may increase your risk of osteoporosis if you don’t combine swimming with weight training or other activities. (Cyclists have also found problems with low bone density, largely because of the lack of impact.)
Weight training helps us overcome our natural inefficiencies in the water.
The human body is not designed to move quickly in the water. Even that tuna you had for dinner last night could swim ten times as fast as Michael Phelps, and for longer periods of time.
Weight training helps strengthen your core.
Because there’s no support for your body in the water, most people tend to swim with their head up and torso (and possibly legs) drooping in the water.
This position is bad for your back and your breathing.
It’s also extremely inefficient: You are swimming “up” and not forward while facing enormous amounts of resistance because your body is not flat.
Weight training helps strengthen your major muscle groups, which are used in swimming.
Swimming uses a lot of muscles in your body, but the most important ones are your lats, pectorals, shoulders, quadriceps and hamstrings. Training these muscles in the weight room will help you to feel faster, better and more efficient in the pool.
Varying movements helps reduce injuries.
Swimming has a lot of repetitive motions. Doing them over and over increases the chances of injury for your muscles and joints.
Some cross-training with weights can give your muscles time to rest and alleviate the boredom of always doing the same thing.
Conversely, swimming will also help you loosen your muscles after a tough weight training workout.
The basics of a swim stroke
Although swimming is quite complicated, there are some basics to keep in mind while you swim. Here’s a link to my site describing the top 5 common swimming mistakes.
How and why to choose your exercises
Since, again, swimming requires a plethora of muscles, you can do many exercises. There really isn’t any exercise you shouldn’t do (barring anything obviously stupid or useless), but here are some guidelines to follow.
Balance yourself end-to-end
Many people assume that swimming is all about the upper body. In fact, your body in the water is a see-saw with your core as the fulcrum.
If your torso and legs aren’t properly balanced, the see-saw will tip towards one end, creating more resistance when you swim.
Thus, if you want to swim well, you have to train both your upper and lower body, as well as your core.
Note how in the left picture, the swimmer’s body position is balanced, but in the second picture, the swimmer’s legs trail the body, leading to a feeling of “Swimming uphill.”
Balance yourself front-to-back
Another common assumption is that swimmers should focus on chest training and the “hugging” type motion that mimics pulling the hand towards the body (as, for example, in the front crawl).
For years, I focused on my pectorals more than my back muscles, and the imbalance caused me to develop a hunchback: My pecs were so strong that they were pulling my shoulders in and stretching my shoulders, exacerbating my already painful shoulder conditions.
This is an important lesson: Your muscles work together. Their opposing and synchronized action creates balance, coordinated movement, and stability.
- If you do exercises that straighten your arm (such as presses), also do movements that bend your arm (such as pulls).
- If you do exercises that straighten your leg (such as leg extensions), do exercises that bend your leg (such as hamstring curls).
- If you do exercises that flex your spine (such as crunches), do exercises that extend/straighten your spin (such as low back extensions or planks).
You get the idea.
Make sure your muscles are capable of supporting each other, or you will increase the chances of muscle and joint injuries.
Always work out your core
Imagine, for a moment, that you are lying flat on your stomach, precariously balanced on the middle of a see-saw.
Now, flail your arms and legs as hard as possible.
Here’s the catch: you have to keep the see-saw completely flat and level while you’re flailing.
Not so easy now, is it?
This motion is basically what your core has to go through for every single motion do you in the water.
If your core is not able to handle the strength of your motions, your body will end up in a funny (read: inefficient and un-hydrodynamic) position, or you will be forced to weaken your motions and lessen the benefits of the exercise.
Thus, make sure you work on your core as much as possible during your weight training session.
Be asymmetrical and unstable
Swimming is all about instability, as the “flailing on a see-saw” example above illustrates.
I know I just told you to create balance and stability. Paradoxically, we learn to be more stable and balanced by training with instability and asymmetry.
Thus, use free weights such as dumbbells or kettlebells instead of barbells as often as possible. Do lots of single-armed or single-legged work.
As an example, instead of doing bench presses with a bar, use a dumbbell in each hand. You can even try an alternating press — the slight turn in your body will add another layer of core demand as your body struggles to stabilize itself.
As I’ve said, you could do any exercise as long as they are balanced, but here are a few of my favourites:
Standing lat pulldowns
This exercise strengthens the biggest muscle you will be using to pull through the water – your lats. Doing them standing also improves core strength.
Use a wide overhand grip with good spinal posture. Don’t cheat by using your lower back muscles.
Navy SEALs are known as the best and baddest swimmers around, so anything they do will probably turn you into an aqua-ninja too.
Don’t get intimidated by the name of this movement — it’s actually a really good and fun exercise!
Grab two round-edged weights (10-15 pounds, or whatever you’re comfortable with), and set them vertically down side-by-side on the ground.
Now, get into plank position and put your hands on the handles of the weights, with straight elbows. You should now be in a plank position with your hands next to each other, on the weights.
Slowly spread your hands while still keeping hold of the weight handles – the weights should be rolling in your hands.
Stop at double your shoulder width and do a pushup. After the pushup, roll the weights back together.
Bring the left weight up to your chest, and then the right weight – be careful to not slip and fall!
Et voila, you have just done your first SEAL pushup!
Remember to keep your back straight the whole time, and to tighten your core. This exercise is good for your back, your core, and a variety of your upper body muscles including forearms, pectorals, triceps and biceps.
These are time-tested favourites for giving your legs that extra kick in the water when you need it. Here’s Gary Hall Sr., a former World Record Holder talking about the importance of your legs in swimming:
Remember to always squat all the way down to truly work your lower body. Squatting out little chicken hops with 200 pounds is not nearly as good as going down all the way with 125 pounds. [Krista’s note: This message is Stumptuous approved.]
Like the lat pulldown, pull-ups build serious back strength. They also build core stability, as you’re forced to stabilize your whole body in free space, similar to trying to stabilize your flailing body in the pool.
If you can’t do a full pull-up yet, try using a resistance band for counterweight rather than relying only on lat pulldowns or a machine-assisted pull-up. The resistance band will make the movement easier by decreasing the load, but you’ll still be swinging from the bar.
Although this exercise is great for overall body strength, it’s also very hard on your joints if you don’t do it properly. Make sure you warm up more than adequately, and remember to use controlled motions to minimize stress on your muscles and joints!
Here are some tips on mistressing the pull-up.
I’m busy training for swimming! I don’t have time for weight training!
Actually, doing both weight training and swimming together is an efficient and effective way to train.
A half-hour of weight training and a half-hour of swimming can do much more than just an hour of swimming or an hour of weight training.
Swimming can help you rest and restore those joints so you can work out harder, and weight training can help you swim faster and more efficiently by building up your muscles.
If you are devoting your time to swimming and are worried about fitting in more workouts, remember that most swimming pools have a weight training area (or at least a space to do some bodyweight movements), and you can work out for 20 to 30 minutes before you hop in the pool.
Not only will this benefit your muscles, it will also warm you up and you won’t feel any lingering soreness once you swim for 5-10 minutes!
Try this basic sample combined workout!
Weight training portion
Lat pulldowns: 3 rounds of 10
Alternating dumbbell bench press: 4 rounds of 8
Pull-ups or band-assisted pull-ups: 3 rounds of 10 or however many you are able to do
Squats: 10-8-6 ascending weight
SEAL push-ups: 3 rounds of 10
Get changed, and head over towards the pool!
Swimming training portion
Start off slowly with 8 lengths of freestyle (front crawl); your muscles will be sore at the beginning, but they will feel better after the 8 lengths.
Grab a kickboard, and only kick for 4 lengths; take 15 seconds of rest at each wall.
Put the kickboard away and swim 4 rounds of 2 lengths, with even rounds smooth and odd rounds hard.
About the author:
Michael Cai is a healthcare blogger who believes in educating readers about the benefits and risks of activities, as opposed to merely telling readers what to do.
He’s a former nationally ranked competitive swimmer and has represented Canada at the World Junior Championships, coming in 6th in 100 meters breaststroke.He currently works at Connect the Doc, an online booking platform that allows anyone to find and book regular and next-day healthcare appointments, free of charge. For more information, please visit www.connectthedoc.com.