Weight Training for Swimmers: 7 Simple Exercises to Improve Your Strength

Aside from technique and stamina, the key to becoming a better swimmer is strength. Strength to pull harder, go further, swim faster. If you’re a beginner swimmer, work on your front crawl and breaststroke technique first as these two compliment each other (this article will not cover backstroke or butterfly unfortunately). And if you need to improve your stamina, work on your running or cycling which we can discuss in another article.

This article will focus purely on building overall strength. The easiest way to building strength is to swim more laps (duh) however, a more scientific approach is through weight training.

Weight Training for Swimmers | 7 Gym Exercises

Swimmer Prerequisites

If you’re an intermediate swimmer (which is whom this article is intended for) then I’m going to make some assumptions about you:

  • You swim regularly at your local pool ie. 2-4 times a week
  • You can perform a decent looking front crawl and breaststroke
  • You have experience lap swimming in a 25m lane without supervision
  • You can swim more than 5 laps continuously and not be completely exhausted
  • You want to improve your overall strength as a swimmer

If you don’t check all of the above, then keep practicing and get the right training. If you do meet all of the above, then read on.

A Scientific Approach: Start At the End

Gold Maggie Mcneil
Always start with the end goal in mind

Before we pick up a dumbbell, begin with the end in mind: What is your target? What is your final goal? For most swimmers, it usually looks like this:

I want to swim X number of laps in X amount of time performing (insert stroke name here)

For beginners, swimming 4 laps (100m) of continuous front crawl is a good start but since we’re more advanced, 20 laps (500m) is the gold standard. If you’re purely a sprint swimmer (eg. 2-4 laps or 50-100m) that is fine, this formula can still work for you so keep reading. Finally, if you’re still working your way up to 20 laps don’t worry, we won’t factor in ‘X amount of time’ just yet. There is another factor that is more important: the number of strokes (or arms) used per lap.

Count Your Strokes

Your first homework assignment is to swim one lap (25m) of front crawl (or one lap of breaststroke if that is your preferred stroke but front crawl is simpler to measure) and count the total number of strokes used ie. how many times did you pull with your arms. This will be used as a baseline; a number to gradually lower like in golf. For example, if you swam 25m and counted 23 front crawl strokes then your target is to get to 22, then 21, then 20 and so on.

25m pool count your strokes
Step 1: count your front crawl strokes using a 25m lane pool

Different Strokes

For 25m, here is a rough guideline to measure your front crawl strokes:

  • 22-25: Needs a lot of work
  • 20-22: Could be better
  • 18-20: Hey not bad
  • 16-18: Good!
  • 14-16: Great!
  • 12-14: Fantastic!
  • 10-12: Umm.. are you Michael Phelps?

Ideally we want to aim for around 14-18 strokes on average but take this with a grain of salt. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t factor in the size of the swimmer (eg. are you a child or a 6 foot tall adult?) or how tired you’re gonna be as you are nearing the end e.g. the number strokes used in the first lap is widely different compared to your last lap. If your stroke count is high don’t worry, we will use weight training to bring that number down.

Apply the Formula

Let’s say we counted 20 front crawl stokes (hey not bad) and our target is 20 continuous laps (500m). The formula would look something like this:

20 strokes x 20 laps = 400 strokes

This translates to: In order to swim 500m I have to pull the water with each arm 400 times!

Fit male swimmer out of an outdoor pool showing body strength
The swimmer body (chiseled to perfection)

Pulling the water 400 times sounds crazy at first. Luckily with weight training we can bring that number down. Now here is where things start to get interesting. For swimmers, I like to apply 10% resistance or weight training into the formula. If you are solely focused on sprint swimming the I would apply 25% resistance in order to make up for the lower amount of laps. So in this instance, our weight training target will look something like this:

400 strokes x 10% resistance training = 40 reps

For any weight training exercise we perform in this scenario, our target is 40 reps per set. Yes I know legs and abs can be measured individually, but to keep things simple here, just stick to this formula for now:

Any weight training exercise = 40 reps per set

For example:

Lat pull down = 40 reps per set

Leg extension = 40 reps per set

Ab crunches = 40 reps per set

and so on.

High Reps High Rewards

As you can see, weight training as a swimmer requires a higher number of reps than normal. Remember that you are training as a swimmer, NOT a bodybuilder! Don’t make the mistake that I made when I was young by using heavy weights and low reps.

Before I was a swimmer, I was a wrestler in high school. My wrestling coach introduced me to the gym and lifting heavy which (you guessed it) made me pack on size. As a teenager I was the most muscular student lifeguard amongst my classmates and the slowest swimmer when it came time to testing. If I had to do it all over again I would lift lighter and run longer so please learn from my mistakes.

Gym Bro
Train as a swimmer (not a gym bro)

The next question then is: What weight or resistance should I use in my exercises? The answer is simple: Use a weight that you are able to perform 40 reps with. For example, if you are able to complete 40 reps of dumbbell presses using 5 pound dumb bells then so be it.

Start with the lightest weights possible and work your way up. Remember, heavy weights produce heavy muscles and heavy muscles sink! Our goal is to build lean muscles strong and durable enough to tackle the harshest waters. Stick to the plan for at least 3 months working out 2-3 times a week and you will see gains of a different sort. Soon, performing 40 reps using 5 pound dumb bells will be easy and you can move up to 6 pounds dumb bells, then 7 pounds and so on.

Your 3 Month Gameplan

Now that we know how many reps to target it’s time to plan for the next 3 months. I recommend sticking to your workout program for at least 3 months in order to see real results.

Weight Training For Beginners

If you are new to weight training or working out in general, here are my recommendations:

  • Join a gym. Home workouts are convenient but are boring in my opinion. Try a new environment. Working out with others around you will keep you motivated and committed for the next 3 months
  • Community centre gyms are better than commercial gyms. Commercial gyms have sneaky contracts, hidden fees and are painful to cancel. Community centre gyms come with none of these and are my favourite places to workout. I recommend trying a few places out before committing by doing a drop in session.
Community Center Gym
Community centre gyms: highly underrated places to train
  • Make your own schedule. Doesn’t matter if you workout in the morning, afternoon or evening as long as you commit to working out 2-3 times a week for at least one hour per session. Just remember that peak times are usually weekdays 5-8pm (full of gym bros).
  • Start with one set. Start by performing one set of each exercises shown below. Once you get stronger, try adding a second set to a maximum of three sets.
  • Circulate your blood. Always switch from upper body exercises to lower body exercises. As swimmers we use our entire body in the water and the same principle should apply to our workouts. Remember we’re not bodybuilders. There’s no leg day or arm day for us.
  • Warm up and cool down. Always remember to warm up before starting your session and cool down after. I prefer jumping rope or using the rowing machine for warm ups and stretching as a cool down.
  • Bring a water bottle and a towel. Self explanatory.

Now that we have a gameplan it’s time to look at the actual exercises I recommend performing.

Exercise 1: Single Arm Lat Pulldowns (Front Crawl Arms)

The first exercise is single arm lat pulldowns using a cable machine as shown in the video below. This movement is best at mimicking the front crawl pulling action compared to any other exercise. Watch the video first and then I will recommend making some refinements:

Single Arm Lat Pulldown (Exercises.com.au)

Now that you’ve seen how this guy does it, here are my adjustments:

  • Change your grip, palm facing away from you. This is a better representation of the front crawl pull.
  • One arm down, other arm up. As we pull the water with one arm, the other arm should straight in front or in this case, right above our heads.
  • Face looking forwards but eyes looking up. Don’t rely on the mirror or your reflection. In swimming our head is facing down but we look forwards with the eyes.
  • Alternate your arms during the set. We’re not front crawling 25m by only using one arm so practice passing the cable attachment to each arm after each pull.

By applying our formula above: 1-3 sets x 40 reps (using a weight that you can handle)

Exercise 2: Single Leg Extension (Flutter Kicks)

A lot of people struggle with flutter kicks so to strengthen our leg muscles single leg extensions are very useful. Watch this video showing you how to use the leg extension machine:

How To: Seated Single-Leg Extension (Cybex)
  • Always point your toes. A flutter kick isn’t comprised of just quad muscles but the entire leg from the hips all the way down to the toes. Point your toes throughout the entire movement and focus on using the whole leg to lift the pad.
  • Mimic your front kicking rhythm. The guy in the video is going pretty slow and pausing a lot in order to focus on his quads. Flutter kicks are a lot faster and continuous so speed up the movement and don’t pause.
  • Alternate your legs during the set. Place both legs down. We’re not flutter kicking 25m by only using one leg so practice passing the pad to each leg without stopping.

By applying our formula above: 1-3 sets x 40 reps (using a weight that you can handle)

Exercise 3: Narrow Dumbbell Press (Breast Stroke Arms)

This dumbbell exercise is important because it mimics the striking action or recovery phase of a breaststroke. To do this, you need some light dumbbells which you push upward using your chest and shoulder muscles as seen in this video:

Narrow Dumbbell Press - exercise tutorial
  • Strike hard. The timing of the breaststroke is like riding a rollercoaster. When you pull it’s like going up a rollercoaster ramp and when you strike it’s like going straight down. As you press, push hard and fast and slow down the motion as you lower the dumbbells.
  • Strike first, exhale second. The arms should be out in front before our head re-enters the water so make a note to adjust the timing of your breathing by exhaling after the dumbbells have reached the top.

By applying our formula above: 1-3 sets x 40 reps (using a weight that you can handle)

Exercise 4: Hamstring Curls (Whip Kick)

This hamstring exercise will help improve your breaststroke whip kick especially when a lot of people have trouble recoiling their legs back towards their butt consistently. Watch how to use the hamstring curl machine effectively:

  • Lie down, don’t sit. There’s a seated version of this machine that you’ll probably come across in your gym. Always use the lying down version as it is a more accurate representation of a whip kick with your belly facing down.
  • Toes facing out. His toes are straight but in whip kick as we reach the top, our toes are bent and facing out so we can grab the water with our inner leg.

By applying our formula above: 1-3 sets x 40 reps (using a weight that you can handle)

Exercise 5: Oblique Twists (Side Breath)

If you want an effortless side breath when doing front crawl then you need to rotate your entire body which involves engaging your side abs aka obliques. You can perform this exercise using a stick while standing or a medicine ball while seated but I prefer using a cable machine as demonstrated in this video:

How to perform an Oblique Twist properly

By applying our formula above: 1-3 sets x 40 reps (using a weight that you can handle)

Exercise 6: Ab Wheel (Strengthen Your Core)

There are so many ab exercises to choose from in order to strengthen your core but the one that stands out the most to me is the ab wheel exercise. A normal ab crunch is pretty easy compared to doing one ab wheel rollout as the latter utilizes your entire body to stretch flat out as you can see in this video:

How to do ab wheel rollouts the right way
  • Start small. Since this move is very difficult I recommend working on your form first by completing one clean rollout going really slow.
  • Don’t worry about reps. If you can’t do 40 of these in a row don’t worry. Just do as many clean rollouts as you can as you build up your core strength.

Exercise 7: Jump Squats (Pushing Off the Wall)

Wall Push
Pushing off the wall is actually a jump squat

No matter what lap you are on, pushing off the wall is a prerequisite. When you’re pushing using your legs, you’re actually performing a jump squat. And when you’re doing 20 laps (500m) you’re actually doing 20 jump squats so working on leg power is something worth considering. Watch this video on how to perform a jump squat safely:

WORKOUT TECHNIQUE | How to safely do a Squat Jump?
  • Stay on the balls of your feet. When we push off the wall we’re never flat footed. Only the balls of the feet have contact with the wall so keep that in mind as you perform the jump squat.
  • Legs only. This guy is using his arms to propel him upwards but in the actual wall push, our legs do all the work.
  • Hands up. A lot people performing jump squats advise you to keep your arms to the sides for balance but in the actual wall push, our arms are straight and locked like an arrow above our heads. As you advance in jump squats try performing them with your arms locked above you with your head tucked in.
  • Use a barbell for more resistance. If jumping using your own bodyweight gets too easy move onto barbell jump squats.

I recommend performing twice the number of jump squats to your actual wall push so for example, if you’re swimming 20 laps (500m) then do 40 jump squats at 1-3 sets.

Get Fit, Get Ripped

Swimmer Body Michael Phelps
Do I look like a bodybuilder?

You now have 7 new exercises to play with at the gym for the next 3 months:

  • Single Arm Lat Pull Downs
  • Single Leg Extensions
  • Narrow Dumbbell Press
  • Hamstring Curls
  • Oblique Twists
  • Ab Wheel
  • Jump Squats

Apply the formula and figure out how many reps you need to perform at a comfortable weight/resistance. As you get stronger, gradually increase the weight/resistance and number of sets. Once you get to an efficient stroke count, work on lowering your swim time:

Eg. I want to swim 20 laps in under 20 minutes performing front crawl

Remember to stick to your goals and know that swimmers are not bodybuilders. They do however, train similarly with runners, fighters, cyclists, rock climbers and athletes competing in long distances. Share your progress with other swimmers and ask for help if ever you get stuck. Good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I perform these swimmer focused weight training exercises at home?

community center gym in richmond bc canada great for swimmers to train

Yes if you have the correct equipment. Unfortunately not everyone can afford to purchase various weights, dumbbells, barbells or exercise machines at home which is why I recommend going to a community centre gym in order to save money.
If you have to workout at home then I recommend doing the ab exercise with an ab roller, oblique twists using a stick and jump squats using your own bodyweight. Also invest in a pullup bar and try two arm lat pulldowns.

Is it better to weight train or swim in the morning or at night?

Fit male swimmer out of an outdoor pool showing how weight training improves strength

Whether it be swimming or weight training, it’s always better to train on an empty stomach in the morning which burns more fat however staying consistent is more important.
If you can only train afterwork or in the evening that’s ok. Train consistently for 3 months doing 2-3 weight training or swimming sessions at one hour per session.

Should I take any weight training supplements as a swimmer?

Gym Bro

As a swimmer, no you don’t have to, but taking whey isolate protein powder helps in losing weight and gaining lean muscle. Glutamine powder does help in recovery of sore muscles and creatine helps in gaining energy but these supplements are geared more towards heavy lifters aka bodybuilders and aren’t necessary in my opinion.

I’m overweight and want to get in shape by swimming and weight training, what should I do differently?

Man at the starting block of a pool wearing black Arena jammers

Perform the 7 exercises explained in this article, swim regularly 2-3 times a week at your local pool at one hour per session and weight train in between those sessions.
For example, swim Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while weight training Tuesdays and Thursdays. Also add 2-3 cardio sessions aka running, hiking or cycling for one hour into your weekly regimen plus a strict diet plan.

I need a strict diet plan. What should I eat in order to lose weight and get stronger as a swimmer?

Swimmer squatting at the bottom of an indoor pool floor

Swimmers eat a lot, especially after a swim session. If your goal is to lose weight and get stronger then I recommend learning to cook in order to measure and adhere to a strict diet plan.
Learn how to cook and prepare the following foods: oatmeal, eggs, lean steaks, chicken breast, sockeye salmon with vegetables, salads, brown rice or sweet potato. Spaghetti with beef, coffee, green tea, fresh fruits and carrot juice are all good for energy but avoid breads, pastries, pop (especially diet or zero calorie) and energy drinks.

I’m very muscular and want to swim, what should I do differently?

Man squatting in shallow water in an indoor public pool

Swimming with a lot of muscle will be difficult but not impossible. You will be slower than others and tire out more easily when it comes to swimming long distances. Try sprint swimming 1-2 laps as your body may find it easier.
If you want to become an efficient swimmer then you will have to lose muscle mass. The way to losing muscle mass is by cutting weight as most fighters or boxers do. Wear a sauna jacket and do roadwork aka running 3-5 times a week for at least 3 months. Aim for one hour sessions with a goal of running 10km.

7 Day Swim