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Strength Training for Swimming in Triathlon

Ben Rotherham

How to build muscle & strength to swim faster with more confidence

A strength training for swimming program to improve your speed and efficiency in the water should focus on targeting the entire backside of your body (including your glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles). A strong core, along with strong hips and shoulders, will serve you well, too.

Swimming-specific strength training can transform you into not only a serviceable swimmer, but an above average one. You can expect to be stronger and more efficient in the water, reduce your risk of injury, promote healthy hormones, and maintain your muscle tissue as you get older with only a few strength sessions per week.

A 2009 study found that just two weekly sessions of maximal strength training is enough to improve swimming force(1). Maximal strength training means lifting weights as heavy as you can with proper form.

Swimming has some major advantages that cycling and running do not. It’s a low-impact, full-body workout each time you’re in the water. It burns calories, builds muscle, and actually aids in your overall recovery process. 

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How to swim faster with the help of strength training;
  • The exercises to do that will make you faster and stronger in the water; and
  • The two pieces of equipment you need to build muscle and strength.

Can swimming build muscle?

Yes, swimming absolutely builds muscle. The constant pushing and pulling of water acts as a sort of built-in resistance while you swim. It won’t build the large, bulky  muscles you see in track sprinters or weight lifters because swimming is a low impact exercise. 

Sprinters and body builders are under enormous amounts of stress, which allows them to grow larger muscles more quickly.  Water is 800 times more dense than air, so it provides constant resistance that builds strength, but because it’s not the massive amounts of weight being thrown around by bodybuilders, swimming tones muscle as opposed to builds muscle.

Swimming will take a bit longer than bodybuilding to see muscle building results, but trust that it’s happening; just look at the physiques of elite sprint swimmers to see how muscular swimming can make you. (To be fair, elite swimmers put in countless hours in the pool and the gym to achieve that body composition.) The good news is that because swimming is low impact you can do it more frequently without increasing your risk of injury.

Swimming vs Weight Training

To swim faster, you should swim as often as possible. Being in the water will almost always be more beneficial than being out of it, if the goal is to improve your swim performance. For the majority of triathletes, swimming requires travel to and from the pool which adds to the time commitment. So, it’s understandable if you want to swap a pool session for a strength session during the week. 

The best bodyweight exercises to build your routines around for swimming are lateral lunges, supermans, and glute bridges, because they work many of the larger muscles used while swimming. 

Lateral lunges open up your groin and hips. This movement will help with your hip rotation which is essential for triathletes covering longer distances. 

  • Start with your shoulders, back and chest upright
  • Sit your hips back and keep your bodyweight on your heel, on the side that you lean toward
  • Keep your chest up with a straight back, and squat down to a reasonable depth
  • Drive up and then push back to your starting position
  • When performing the side lunge, ensure that one leg is straight, and that your foot, knee, and hip are aligned on the side you step up to

Supermans will create tension throughout the backside of your body from your shoulders right through your calves. This will allow for greater stability in the water.

  • Lie face down, legs straight, feet together, with your arms out straight above your head
  • Squeeze your glutes to slowly raise your legs and arms, while slowly arching your back
  • Return to starting position

Single leg hip bridges will give you better range of motion through your hips, increasing your hip rotation while also strengthening your glute muscles. Stronger glutes will build endurance leading to a more powerful and efficient kick in the water.

  • Lay on your back with knees bent, and feet flat on the floor under your knees
  • Put one foot in the air
  • Lift hips by driving through your heel on the ground

How to build swimming strength without the gym

Exercises using swim cords (go with the gold ones; the color of the swim cords indicate how much resistance each cord will provide) will also help build swimming-specific strength that will have a positive translation to the water, especially for lake, river, and ocean swims. Using this piece of equipment will help you develop strength and stability through the shoulders to help generate more power as you pull through the water. 

In addition to the strength gains, using swim cords consistently over time will create a more stable stroke. When you’re getting bumped, kicked, and moved off track in open water, your stroke will be efficient and strong enough to power through it.

On we recommend that athletes start using StretchCordz before every swim during race season. Athletes will start with 2x30 reps before each swim, then every week they increase by 10 reps until they reach 2x90reps before their swims. We do this for good reason.

A study found that incorporating a pulley system, similar to swim cords, activates a considerable portion of the muscles involved in swimming, and that aerobic improvements with this type training are directly transferred to swimming(2).

If you simply cannot fit in supplementary strength training or only make it to the pool once or twice each week, then you should focus on using paddles (we like the Finis paddles) during a portion of your swim workouts. That could be during some of your warm-up drills and then again for a short duration (no more than a few hundred yards or meters) during the main set. You should not wear paddles for your entire swim workout. This will help develop your sport-specific muscles to make you faster and more efficient in the water. 

Paddles help you gain strength by catching more water, providing more resistance to better work your lat muscles. This will allow you to generate more power through your stroke. In addition to a more powerful pull through the water, you’re also significantly reducing your risk of injury by removing unnecessary stress on the shoulders.

If you’re looking to take the next step to get stronger at the “dreaded” swim, and finally feel totally confident and comfortable at the starting line, check out Triathlon Swimming Foundations.

How to create your strength training for swimming program

You have all the ingredients now to build your own strength training program for swimming in triathlon. Now that you know the exercises that will have a direct translation into the water and the pieces of equipment to use in and around the water, you can begin putting your plan in place.

If you’re already swimming at least three times a week, adding in 2-3 strength training routines for 20-30 minutes each will be sufficient. If you can’t make it to the pool one day for whatever reason, making it a strength day is a fine alternative. Do your best, too, to include some paddle work into each swim session to help build strength and power in your stroke.

Swimming just once or twice a week makes strength training more essential. You’d notice significant benefits from incorporating strength training 2-3 times a week. The beauty of this is that you can do it right from home without equipment. Like we mentioned above, it will also be beneficial to include paddle work each time you’re in the water.

If you perform this strength training routine for swimming consistently and properly, you’ll be more efficient so you’ll use less energy while training and racing. You’ll also be less likely to get injured.

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Ben Rotherham
Ben Rotherham

Ben is a four time Ironman finisher featuring a personal best of 8:20 at Ironman Louisville. He is a personal trainer and head coach and founder of Mission Multisport.

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