Improving your swimming times

Any time you want to improve sports performance, you need not look any further than the actual body movements involved. As trainers, we analyze these and focus on the muscle groups that control the movements. Next we work on making those muscles better – stronger, more powerful, more durable, better endurance.

With swimming, we find a sport that enjoys wide popularity in the recreational world. Not only that, it is one of the few sports that is a genuine life skill and something that could in fact save your life. And when it comes to training we notice that it can often simply be made up of…well…swimming!


While this is certainly necessary for improvement, if you are going to be serious about it, we also need to take a look at specific training of the muscle groups used for swimming strokes. Once we improve them, we are a better physical specimen and therefore, better swimmer when we get back into the water.

Weight lift for swimming

Here I want to outline the muscle groups involved and also the specific exercises to improve them. Some of these might be a bit of a sleeper, and we certainly use many muscles in synergy when we move, but this is a discussion of some of the vital components of a swimming stroke.

These muscle groups include: Lats, Upper Arm (triceps), Forearm, Obliques and a trifecta of the Glutes/Quads/Hamstrings.

Any time you bring your arm from above the head down to your side, you are using the lats. A standard swimming stroke is a perfect example of this. This is a power stroke!

The preferred exercise is a wide-grip, palms-forward chin-up. Since many people cannot do these, you can substitute a lat pull-down, also using a wide grip.

Weightlifting exercises to improve swimming times_2

When we extend and straighten the arm from the elbow, the triceps must contract. The swimming stroke uses this extension as part of the power.

Be sure to include triceps press-downs as part of your training. Use a high cable with a cambered handle. Hand width should be 6”–10” apart. Keep elbows glued to your sides. Start with forearms parallel to the ground and push downward to full arm extension. Return halfway up so forearms are again parallel to the ground. You’ll find that you need a split stance for stability, so one foot forward, one foot back.

Here’s one that most people overlook. As you stroke through the water, the resistance will try to bend the wrist back. You need a strong forearm, specifically the flexors.

Try this great exercise: Stand and back up to a barbell on the rack. Grab the barbell from behind, hands up against your buttocks. Unrack the barbell and step forward. Next, allow the barbell to “roll” downward to your fingertips. This is the “start” position. Now bend/flex the wrists upward as far as you can. You’ll feel this on the underside of the forearm. Try for a lot of reps! You can go a bit heavier but the weight will generally be on the light side.

Since swimming involves some amount of trunk rotation, you don’t want to ignore your obliques. They form two of the four “corners” involved in trunk rotation (the lats form the other two “corners” and we’ve already included them in the above discussion).

Try a “reverse trunk twist”. Lie on the floor, face up, arms straight out to your sides like a “T”. Next bring your knees up so you are bent 90 degrees at the hips, thighs straight up, knees bent 90 degrees, and shins parallel to the floor. This should leave both your hips and knees bent at 90 degrees. Using your outstretched arms for stability, begin slowly rotating your knees to one side. Keep knees together. Go as far to one side as you can, then reverse back all the way to the other side. As you rotate to the side, do not allow the opposite shoulder to come off the ground. If you are doing this correctly, you will feel yourself “walking” on your buttocks as you swing from side to side. This is normal. You’ll actually move down the floor a bit.

This “trifecta” is simply the kinetic chain used for many things: locomotion for example, but it is also crucial to the “kick” in a swimming stroke. I recommend a couple of movements to help.

Start with a stationary lunge. No need to dip down too far, rather perform a “bobbing” motion up and down. Perform reps on one leg, switch foot position and perform reps for the other leg.

Secondly, try a leg/glute extension movement which is very simple yet very effective: Stand upright, facing up against a stationary structure. I prefer a racked barbell at shoulder height where I can rest my folded arms on top of the bar…kind of like a “genie”. Now I’m stable and cannot bend over forward. Next, extend one leg back behind you. Keep knee locked, stiff leg. You won’t be able to move it back very far but you will feel a terrific contraction of the glute and hamstrings on that side. This contraction will also extend up into the lower back on that side. Try for high reps (20) on each leg.

These movements will improve your ability to perform a swimming stroke. If you have questions about more specifics on these movements, just check out my WatchFit articles (by subject) and you will find some in-depth discussion and tips for these exercises.

Read more from WatchFit Expert Bill Wilson

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