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Weight Training for Swimming

Build Strength and Endurance for the Swim


Updated September 25, 2011

Swimming start

Swimming start

(c) Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Swimming requires a high level of technical skill for proficiency. Ultimately, training in the pool or alternative water location is required for mastering basics and to improve. Once a certain level of competency has been reached, weight training in a gym or elsewhere may be useful. Naturally, you need to include aerobic conditioning as well.

A word of warning: swimmers are prone to shoulder injuries because of the repetitive nature, and often extreme ranges of motion required. Weight training of the upper body can be useful but you must take not too aggravate or initiate overuse injury to the shoulder joint. At any sign of pain in the joint, during or after exercises such as presses, pullups or rows, cease that exercise and consult a strength and conditioning coach, or even a physician depending on the severity.

About the Swimming Weights Program

The best programs are always specific to an individual's current fitness, goals, and access to resources and coaches. A personal trainer or coach can always provide a more specific and targeted program. In addition, training for power and strength events like the 50 metres races will naturally differ from endurance events like the 1500 metres.

If you're new to weight training, brush up on principles and practices with the beginner resources.

Always warm up and cool down before and after a training session. A medical clearance for exercise is always a good idea at the start of the season. Now, let's get started:

Strength and Muscle Program

Starting out you will build strength and muscle. The emphasis is on lifting moderately heavy weights in order to train the nervous system in conjunction with the muscle fibers to move bigger loads. Hypertrophy, which is building muscle size, does not necessarily imply strength, although in this foundation phase some muscle building will serve you well for strength development.

Strength will be the foundation for the next phase, which is power development. Power is the ability to move the heaviest loads in the shortest time. Power is essentially a product of strength and speed. For swimming, it could mean a better start or more efficient turn on the wall -- or just more power and speed. During competition season, lighten loads and execute the lifts faster to emphasize power development.

Time of year: All year round
Duration: 12 weeks, break for 2 weeks, continue with lighter loads and faster execution during competition season.
Days per week: 2-3, with at least one day between sessions
Reps: 8-10
Sets: 2-4
Rest in between sets: 1-2 minutes


Points to Note

  • Adjust the weight so that the final few repetitions are taxing but don't cause you to "fail" completely.
  • Although the upper body -- the arms and shoulders -- is where the action is expressed in swimming, the "posterior chain" of the hips, gluteals (butt) and upper legs and the abdominals is of equal importance in the execution of the forward movement. The squats and deadlifts build strength and power in this region.
  • Don't work to failure for the upper body exercises such as the dumbbell press, woodchops and lat pulldown, and do hold good form. Keep the forearms in a vertical plane with the upper arms not extending excessively below parallel at the bottom of the movement. It's important to protect the vulnerable shoulder joint when training for sports where the shoulder gets a lot of specific "out of gym" work -- in this case in the pool.
  • If you are unable to recover from a session with only one rest day in between, re-schedule this program to two sessions each week rather than three. Strength training can be physically and mentally demanding.
  • You may be sore after these sessions. Muscle soreness or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is normal; joint pain is not. Be sure to monitor your arm and shoulder reactions. Back off when any joint pain or discomfort is felt.

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