The 10 Best Exercises for Swimmers

Man swimming in pool

Competitive swimmers are among the most overtrained athletes in sports. They often spend up to 20 hours a week in the pool spread out over six days and nine practices.

So the last thing they need is additional workouts. Not surprisingly, some swim coaches dispense with dryland training altogether. Worse yet, other coaches put their athletes through brief sessions of bodybuilding-inspired exercises that provide little benefit and possible damage to their overtaxed shoulders.

But an effective dryland program, performed just twice a week, can pay huge dividends in the water while reducing the potential for injury. Even the most accomplished swimmers tend to lack joint stability on land because of the movements in the pool, and any swimmer can benefit from increased lower body power to get further off the blocks and the wall.

By working on stability in the joints, rotation through the hips, core and shoulders, and lower body power on land, swimmers can shave times off their races in the water.

Here are 10 basic exercises that can do just that.

Pete Williams is a NASM-certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.

1. Lateral lunge

Why you should do it: It opens up the muscles of the groin and hips, improving hip rotation, which is vital in swimming.

How to do it: From a standing position, step to the right, keeping your toes pointed straight ahead and feet flat on the ground. Squat onto your right leg, keeping the left leg straight and the weight on the right leg’s midfoot to heel. Squatting as low as possible, keep the left leg straight and hold the position for 2 seconds. Return to standing position, and repeat for 10 reps then switch sides.

2. Lateral pillar bridge

Why you should do it: To open up the hips, generating more rotation and power in the water.

How to do it: Lie on one side with your body in a straight line and your elbow under your shoulder, feet stacked. Push your hip off the ground, creating a straight line from ankle to shoulder. Hold for three seconds. Do 10 on one side and then 10 on the other side. Be sure to keep your head in line with the spine. Don’t sag or bend.

3. Physioball leg curl

Why you should do it: Like the glute bridge, this keeps the hips extended and forces the hamstrings to work, ultimately improving leaping ability and posterior strength.

How to do it: Lie on the ground, face up, with legs straight and heels on a physioball. Brace your shoulders and relax your neck. Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips, and pull the ball toward you. Don’t drop your hips as the ball comes toward you. Extend your legs again, then repeat the leg curl for 10 reps. Make sure your hips never touch the ground.

4. Leg cradle

Why you should do it: This is another great exercise to open up the hips, which helps with rotation in the pool.

How to do it: Lift your right foot off the ground while standing on your left leg. Lift the right knee, placing your right hand under the knee and your left hand under the ankle. Pull your right leg as close as you can to your chest in a stretch while squeezing your left glute. Step forward with your right foot. Switch feet. Do 10 reps per side.

5. Alternating dumbbell press

Why you should do it: It promotes shoulder stability without placing undue pressure on the joint, as a barbell press might.

How to do it: Lie face up on a bench, holding dumbbells at the outside of your shoulders and with palms facing your thighs. Lift both dumbbells over your chest. Keep one dumbbell raised above your chest as you lower the other dumbbell, touch it to the outside of your shoulder, and push it back up. At the top of the movement, push farther with both hands, as if trying to punch the ceiling. Switch sides. Repeat for 10 reps.

6. Pullups

Why you should do it: A proper swim stroke generates full extension through the lats, back, shoulders, and wrist. A pullup, done properly, mimics such movement.

How to do it: Hanging from a bar with either an overhand or reverse (underhand) grip, pull your shoulder blades back and down to lift your body up. Finish by pulling with your arms. The key is to return to the fully extended position after each rep. Otherwise you’re not reaching full extension, the movement you want in the water.

7. Mini band external rotation

Why you should do it: To strengthen your hips and glutes, which provide much of your power in swimming.

How to do it: Wrap a mini band around your legs just above the knees. Get into a half-squat position, with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and your back flat. Keeping your left leg stationary, move the right knee in and out for 10 reps. Switch legs and repeat. Be sure to keep your feet flat on the ground. Don’t let the knee of your stationary leg drop inward.

8. Goblet squat

Why you should do it: To develop power in the lower body so the swimmer can explode better off the wall.

How to do it: Hold a kettlebell with two hands against your chest as if preparing to drink from it, goblet-style. Squat by sitting the hips back and down, keeping the weight in the heels of the feet without lifting the toes. Maintain contact between the kettlebell and your chest. Your elbows should touch your knees lightly. Rise and extend powerfully through the hips. Repeat for 10 reps.

9. Squat jump

Why you should do it: This works the hips, knees, and ankles. The so-called triple flexion response creates power off the blocks and off the wall.

How to do it: Stand with feet just outside the shoulders and hangs behind your head. Squat, keeping your knees behind your toes. After holding this position for two seconds, jump vertically. Pull your toes toward your shins in midair to prepare for landing. Land in the starting squat position, hold 3 seconds and repeat for 10 reps. Be sure to land softly—catlike, even—with your hips back and down.

10. Medicine ball rotational throw

Why you should do it: This improves a swimmer’s ability to store and release energy from the hips.

How to do it: Stand facing a concrete block wall about 3 feet away. Hold the ball at waist level. Rotate your trunk away from the wall as you wind up. Initiate the throw by thrusting your hip toward the wall, followed by the trunk, arms and the ball. Throw the ball off the wall, then catch it with your arms slightly bent, one hand under the ball, the other behind it. Repeat for 10 reps, then switch sides.

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