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6 Strength Training Exercises to Improve Your Swim

by John Hansen

Swimming strength exercises

A properly designed strength training program is among the easiest and best ways for improved endurance performance. This is true for endurance swimming as well, and this article will provide you specific information on how to take advantage of this aspect of training to optimize your swimming performance.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), resistance training has many performance benefits for triathletes which include:

  • Improvements in body composition by maintaining or increasing lean body mass
  • Reduced delayed neuromuscular fatigue in extended endurance training and racing
  • Improve exercise economy, lactate threshold, and anaerobic capacity
  • Reduce the incident of muscular and joint injuries.

There are key training principles that are also important to understand in order to get the most out of your strength training and they include:

  • Progressive overload(stimulus beyond current capabilities) and training specificity (focused effort on targeted physiological and muscular components) should be fundamental characteristics of a resistance training program.
  • Periodize your strength training so it progresses from an adaptation phase, through a progressive build phase where you increase the demands at an appropriate rate, into a maintenance phase during your race season.

As for what exercises to choose, as a triathletes, there are plenty that you could choose from that will give you positive results. In this article I will provide you several but as you progress in the sport follow these principles when selecting new or additional exercises:

  • Pick exercises that you can learn relatively easily or that you know already
  • Prioritize compound (multi-joint) exercises that work multiple muscle groups when possible
  • Prioritize free weights over machines when possible to get a more functional workout

With respect to exercise selection specific to swimming, triathletes need to focus on exercises that emphasize stability and endurance, not power. The average triathlete puts in between 10,000 and 20,000 meters per week, yielding anywhere between 8,000 to 25,000 shoulder rotations. All of this mechanical-repetitive movement is performed in a medium which is 773 times denser than air, and 55 times more viscous.

Also, since 90 percent of the forward propulsive force in swimming comes from the upper extremities, swim strength training requires a focus on upper body strength, and stability in the shoulder girdle, hip capsule, and core to create more efficient long-axis rotation. Triathletes consequently, need to execute multi joint exercises with lighter weights at higher reps for enhanced stability and muscle endurance. In addition, as noted above, exercise choice should mimic the freestyle stoke and target muscles used in training and racing but that provide opportunities to affectively stress the body (overload) to enhance adaption.

The 6 Commandments of Strength Training

  1. Strength train on easy triathlon training days.
  2. Stretch lightly between sets during the rest period.
  3. Move through the entire range of motion; full extension through full contraction.
  4. Lift smoothly for 2 seconds on the concentric (lifting) phase and for 2 seconds on the eccentric (lowering) phase.
  5. Breathe normally during each lifting exercise routine. Specifically, exhale with each exertion.
  6. DO NOT sacrifice form for added weight. Use proper technique.

Medicine Ball Squat Thrust

Standing with feet separated to shoulder width w/knees slightly bent hold medicine ball is held at shoulder height, elbows pointed forward.

Squat, then drive out of the squat completely extending the arms overhead while releasing the ball into the air. The three previous steps are one continuous motion.

Allow the ball to fall to the ground.

Repeat until you have completed a set.

Walking  Lunge

Standing with feet together at shoulder width apart, the medicine ball held away from the body with straight arms.

As you lunge lower hips down until your trailing thigh is parallel to the floor. 

As you are stepping forward, rotate your trunk to the same side as your forward leg

Continue lunging across the floor until you have completed the set.

Don't let your front knee move farther forward than your front foot. 


Lying on your stomach, palms just wider than shoulders. 

Flex your toes so that your hands and soles of your feet share the weight of your body.

Pushing with your arms raise your trunk and legs off the floor. 

Keep your back straight and do not let your stomach sag.

Cable one arm kneeling row

Kneel with just one knee on the ground with the other foot out in front of the body.

Grip the cable allowing the arm to be stretched completely. Keep the arm close to the body, pull the cable towards you keeping the elbow tight to the body until the elbow reaches the torso.

Ensure that your body remains in position. Don’t twist the body. 

Return to starting position and repeat.

dumbell reverse fly

Lie on an incline bench with face into the bench or bend over at the waist leaning your head on the back of a chair.

Grip the dumbbells allowing the arms to hang freely. Keep the arms close to the body. 

Raise the dumbbells sideways and up so they are with the shoulders.

Slowly let the dumbbell drop away from you, back to the starting position.

Don’t use the legs to assist in the exercise.

medicine ball russian twists

Sitting in a crunch position, hold a Medicine ball or Sandbell in both hands, with arms completely extended forward at shoulder height.

Rotate/twist the trunk side to side keeping the arms straight and the ball at chest height. Do not allow the hips to rotate.

Continue with this pattern until you have completed the set.

chopping wood

Standing straight up, with feet apart just past shoulder width hold a cable in both hands, one hand over top the other. The hand on bottoms is the hand closest to the apparatus.

Rotate sideways while squatting down at the same time. This movement is done while keeping the arms straight (think of them as an extension of your torso) pulling on the cable down at an angle across the body ending to knee height. 

Reverse the motion, in a slow controlled manner to the starting position.

This exercise should be done in a continuous motion.

Repeat until you have completed a set, switch legs and repeat.

John Hansen, USAT, and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified coach, Folsom California, with 23 years of coaching experience. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen has coached athletes from beginner to pro level, competing at many major US Age Group National Championships and World Championships, as well as the US Men's Pro championships. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team with multiple teams placing in the top 12 and several athletes placing in the  top 20, in the past eight years at the Collegiate Club National championships. Hansen also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit or email


NSCA Position Statement, Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes.

NSCA Position Statement, Health Aspects of Resistance Exercise and Training.

Specific Strength Training for Swimming, Shane Niemeyer 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.
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