Strength Training For Swimming – Garage Strength

Strength Training For Swimming

Strength Training For Swimmers

Butterfly, back, free or a combination of the few- no matter which way you stroke it (pun intended), swimming any kind of stroke is a breed of its own. Much different than most other sports out there, taking your speed, power, agility and coordination to the water can offer its own share of challenges. Being that it's the epitome of a full body sport, learning how to train optimally and get the most bang for your buck can be somewhat complex. We do know that while the water specific training is obviously important (duh) we can also validate that the dry land training can help you level up your ability.

Optimizing your dry land training, taking the work to the weights, is the secret sauce, the magic potion if you will, that can have you flying, gliding and sailing your way to being a more efficient, streamlined and overall stronger swimmer.

Why Swimmers Should Strength Train

Being that swimming is a full body sport, it might be easier to list reasons why swimmers should not strength train. There are 3 places that the weight room can translate into improved performance in the water. So, let's start there with why you should strength train.

Off The Start

What could be worse than having a start that already leaves you behind? Nothing, probably.  So, integrating dry land strength training to your schedule can help ensure you are starting right off the block with a step ahead of the next guy.  What is a great compliment a swimmer can get when starting off the race? “Wow, he exploded out of there!”  And that's what strength training can do, help you improve your explosive strength and power to start off any competition a step ahead.  Incorporating explosive specific strength movements often translates to solid starts.

Along with training explosive power for strong starts, understanding how to hold certain positions for periods of time, similar to your start position before the horn blows signaling a start, can be beneficial.  Being able to essentially complete an isometric hold immediately into powerful, explosive movements in the weight room can translate well into holding at the start before leaping to the water with as much power as possible. There are many explosive strength movements that translate well for a strong start, but more specifically Olympic lifting can be key.

Strong Stroke

A strong stroke is huge in water sports.  This means we need a strong upper body in general.  Strong lats for the pull through the water, strong pecs for a more stable shoulder girdle which can help improve power output, and more strength in general can lead to more power output as well. Why is power, specifically upper body power here, so important in the water?  When you are racing to the finish in the water, the athlete with more power output in each stroke will ultimately have a faster lap.  This is because more power means less strokes to get from one end to the next.  Work smarter not harder.

Strength training to improve strength in the stroke is also important for maintaining solid posture in the water. Without a solid posture, you're in trouble.  A streamlined position, which can also relate to dynamic trunk control which we will talk about in more depth below, is important for building speed and overall efficiency.  Minimize drag in the water, maximize potential. 

Off The Wall

The push off the wall is the second-fastest speed that a swimmer reaches during the length of the pool, just after the dive. That flip and push off the wall is comparable to your deepest squat then trying to punch out of the hole with additional resistance and drag.  Water slows things down, period.  You need to be explosive, powerful and strong from the end range of the squat. Dry land training, strength specifically, helps you work in these somewhat unique positions as well as train the power necessary to get from one, an end range squat, to the next, full extension found in the streamline, as quickly as possible.

Top exercises for swimmers

A few key words you may have noticed when talking about strength training that translates well into the water: power, explosive, strong. It makes sense when we break down the 3 major components of swimming. How does this now translate into practical application in the gym? 

Traditional Strength Exercises

Bench press, squat, pull up. Three basic movements that you might already be familiar with and even so much as incorporating in your fitness. The bench press can offer a stable shoulder girdle. But to level up this movement, consider benching with dumbbells to add a unique level of instability. This is preferred as it also forces dynamic trunk control and there is more training of scapular stability with a dumbbell versus a barbell.

The obvious reason we love a squat is to get strong, powerful legs to help with both the launch off the start and blasting off the wall. But let's not forget the sneaky strength it contributes to your trunk control which can help swimmers streamline their stroke and pull through the water, allowing both upper and lower body help you move with ease through the resistance that is the water.

Upper Body

Three movements you will benefit from for a powerful stroke, translating into more efficiency in the water and through each lap:

Pull Ups

The versatility at which you can train pull ups translates incredibly well into the water.  Strong lats win strokes.  You can train your pull up strength with many different grips- narrow, neutral or traditional- as well as on different handles- rings, ropes, pull up bar.  Along with the versatility of where you can train your lat strength when it comes to pull ups specifically, getting creative with tempo work can add a new layer of challenge.  Slowing down or performing an isometric hold can be one way to add variety.  But doing things like adding audible cues to train reaction timing, speeding up the pull out of the bottom and even doing sets as quickly as possible can be challenging and beneficial for the stroke strength in the water.

Rope Climbs

Another way to test your pull ups would be to grab a rope or two and train using your arms only getting to the top. But when thinking about a typical rope climb, it is similar to swimming in that it's a full body movement that requires coordination and control. Rope climbs also offer a level of dynamic trunk control.

Miracle Gro

Not to be confused with the common dumbbell pull over, the miracle gro is a great addition for strong lats but also incorporating even more dynamic trunk control and strong triceps. Similar set up to the dumbbell pullover, the main difference with the Miracle Gro can be seen in the bend of the elbows.  This allows greater range of motion in the shoulders and therefore lat engagement.  You will also feel your triceps working to control the weight going from above your head to ideally tapping a mat on the floor overhead. Arms, lats, trunk, all in one movement?  Thank you, yes please.

Olympic Lifts

Explosive strength is key in each part of your swimming.  Off the start, through your stroke and off the wall, you will certainly want to prioritize this in your training.  Not to mention, some of the greats have paved the way to demonstrate the importance of explosive power, which can most easily be trained through Olympic lifting

High Hang Power Clean/Snatch

Just as you need to hold positions and then, at the sound of a horn, burst into flames with explosiveness off the starting block, a high hang clean or snatch can offer something similar.  Finding an appropriate set up to begin, holding for a short moment, then bursting into action to get the barbell to its finish (either your shoulders or overhead, depending on which lift you are doing) can translate well into powering off the starting block. Also consider catching in a quarter squat rather than full depth, also known as the power position, to ensure you are doing your best to pull the bar up to catch rather than diving under for a catch. The more end range of motion squats can be trained here but separating them out might offer a more detailed way of breaking lifting into swimming.

Muscle Snatch

Swimming requires you to continuously develop force overtime as you race from one end of the pool to the next, often over and over again.  This constant force development needs to be coordinated with staying streamlined and a powerful kick.  Similarly, a muscle snatch has a long finish since there is no pull or drop under the bar as you are using mostly your hip drive and extension and a quick arm turnover to get to the finished position.  This long finish helps you develop force over an extended period of time while also coordinating the use of your quads, hamstrings and dynamic trunk control.  The similarities between swimming and muscle snatching and force production go hand in hand.

Leg Power and Plyometrics

You need your legs to be powerful.  The start, the kicks, the turns- again, swimming truly is a full body sport.   And while water resistance needs to be taken into consideration with plyometric work, in that it won't necessarily translate well into your push off the wall, plyometrics and leg power alike can be useful in the start off the blocks as well.

Skater Squat

Working on strengthening your lead leg off the blocks is a no brainer.  Adding skater squats, possibly in a plyometric superset, can help.  Consider combining skater squats with single leg hurdle hops. 4-5 sets of 4 reps of each squat and hop per leg is ideal.  Remember, the focus is strengthening the lead leg so start with that leg and allow the weight used to be dictated here.  This combination is a great way to work out any potential imbalances that training more of the traditional compound movements hides.

Back Squat

We already mentioned squatting as a way to ensure you are strong in the water. But what about back squatting with a pause and then adding a low seated jump with it. Depth jumps or jumping for height, you don't have to be picky about it but choose one and get hopping.

The back squat will help provide strong legs while the pause will provide added tension. The superset addition of a low box jump will mimic your projection off the wall, just as you project out of that seated position into your jump. Try this superset for 5 sets of 3, with 1 minute rest between a set of squats and a set of jumps.

Dynamic Trunk Control

Any swimmer knows that staying streamlined can make or break your efficiency as you glide through the water.  A key component of being streamlined and therefore efficient is dynamic trunk control. Not only that, but when you hold a solid posture in the pool it will also make the stroke from your upper body a bit less taxing and again- work smarter not harder.

Having good core and back stability can lead to that more streamlined position, and to get this you want to work on improving dynamic trunk control. 

Believe it or not, when each of the above exercises are trained correctly, you will be training trunk control at the same time. Everything from a well-executed Olympic lift or squat to the miracle gro and the full body recruitment of a rope climb, dynamic trunk control is imperative in swimming but as you can see, it's imperative in sport in general.  While it's important to not overlook the integration of your trunk muscles while you are training these other movements, you can consider adding a few additional trunk specific exercises to your training. 

Ironklad abs can help train your core but more importantly maintain posture and lumbar flexion rather than allowing that lumbar spine to arch.

The walrus is another option that puts you in a dynamic plank position.  You will be as flexed as much as you can and squeeze your midsection to ensure your hips dont sag.  One key component is to make sure your thumbs face in as you are crawling forward with this active plank.

Other Considerations


While we can not stress enough the importance of smart dry land training, proper programming is also key. Saying something like “be sure to train volume early in a cycle and add intensity and weight later in the block” is all well in good- if you can translate that onto paper. Throwing random things at a wall and hoping they stick is likely not going to be the path to success. Instead using an app like Peak Strength can help you find the combination of strength and water work that's right for you.


Your next workout is only as good as your current recovery protocol. In order to get the most out of the time and effort you put into your training, taking a look at what you are doing outside of the gym to recover from the massive efforts you are putting into getting better is just as important. Everything from how you mobilize to how you eat and sleep can be taken into consideration. And with the right amount of effort given to these variables, they might be the thing that can take you to the next level.

Final Thoughts

Any seasoned athlete knows that to excel at their sport, they need to be well rounded and versatile. When it comes to performance in the water, the translation from dry land into a pool is unique. With the many different approaches that can be taken, finding the groove that works best for you is imperative. Understanding how to properly integrate upper strength with lower strength all while prioritizing explosive output and making sure you still have higher muscular endurance for the output needed at the end of a long session is where swimmers find their magic. Our peak strength app is available to help you refine your movement and programming to be that explosive, well rounded athlete in and out of the water.

Gaylemarie Kayes

Gaylemarie, but just call her GM, is a seasoned fitness and nutrition professional with nearly two decades of experience in the industry. With a diverse clientele ranging from ultra runners to high-level competitors, gm brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise. As a former high-level athlete in running, CrossFit and Olympic lifting to now, a busy yet active mother, she understands the challenges of balancing fitness and goal getting with a hectic lifestyle. Gm's approach emphasizes discipline, ownership, and hard work, tailored to honor each individual's life season for optimal health and well-being.

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