Published on Enhanced Fitness and Performance (http://www.enhancedfp.com)

Resistance Training For Sprint Swimmers by Robert Newton

By DMorgan
Created 01/15/2008 - 11:22pm

In the early 80’s I was asked to put together a resistance training program for a squad of elite Australian swimmers. The coach at the time was fairly skeptical, but to his amazement, several of the athletes improved their in-pool performance after only a few months on the program. I would like to think that the resistance training was the cause of the improvement, but in hindsight I think that the key factor was that the swimmers’ in-pool training volume was slightly reduced to accommodate the sessions in the weight room. A number of factors may have been at play but I think the variation motivated the athletes and the rest from the pool rejuvenated them. The take-home message for me was that in general, swim athletes complete far too much in-pool training volume and quality is not as high as it could be. This is not to downplay the importance of resistance training for swimmers, because as I will discuss, there are many injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance mechanisms by which resistance training can provide very positive benefits.

The athlete must maintain a very fine balance between adequate volume and intensity of training interspersed with sufficient rest and recovery. Competitive swimmers complete an enormous volume of work in the pool ranging from 3kms (1.9 miles) to 14kms (8.7 miles) per day and up to 6 days per week. From a biomechanical, physiological and injury perspective it is difficult to justify these distances—particularly for the sprint swimmer whose events are only 50 and 100 meters. For the sprint swimmer, quality of training is paramount and in-pool training should consist mainly of interval training with the maximum work interval only marginally longer than the target event (i.e. 200 meters as an absolute maximum and as short as 12.5 meters). Rest intervals should then be manipulated to maximally stress high energy phosphate (shorter work and longer rest intervals) and/or lactic acid (longer work and shorter rest intervals) systems. This might be quite controversial, but it is my opinion that such training should only be completed every second day as a maximum frequency, with the intervening days used for strength, flexibility, and active recovery sessions.

There is no denying that much increases in swim performance is derived from improved technique. The active recovery sessions can include a component of stroke correction and low intensity drills designed to enhance the swimmer’s motor control rather than physiological capacity.

Overuse Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation

The incidence of shoulder overuse injury is far too prevalent in competitive swimmers. This is clearly a result of the excessive distances swum each week. The shoulder structures which must bear the loads do not have sufficient recovery and so chronic injuries develop. Also, muscle imbalances develop which are predominantly relative weakness of the shoulder external rotators and tight chest musculature. Apart from reducing the swimming volume, resistance training is particularly effective for addressing this problem. The goal is to stretch the chest and internal rotators and strengthen the upper back and external rotator muscles. Creating balance across the shoulder joint and increasing the strength of the muscles that cross the joint will provide some protection against overuse injury.

Performance Enhancement

There is little doubt that increased strength and power of the swimmer’s muscles will translate into improved swimming times. The shorter the target event then the greater the benefit because strength and power become more limiting factors to the performance.Biomechanical analysis indicates that regardless of stroke, swimming involves all the major muscle groups of the body and so the program must reflect this knowledge. Leg strength and power is important for the start, stroking and turning. Therefore squats and various modifications form a cornerstone of the program.

There is a considerable amount of trunk rotation in the reciprocal strokes of freestyle and backstroke, and so core strength is important. In addition, breast stroke and butterfly involve powerful trunk flexion and extension. Further, there must be efficient force transfer between the upper and lower body in all strokes. The take-home message is that any resistance training program for swimming must adequately train the strength of the core (abdomen and lower back).

The ratio of propulsion derived from the upper and lower body varies with stroke but as an example, in freestyle the upper body generates 70% of the propulsion. Therefore, strength and power development of the muscles which move the shoulder girdle, upper arm and forearm is crucial to swimming performance. For both performance and injury considerations both agonists and antagonists to the swimming actions must be trained with equal emphasis.

Power versus Strength

The resistance training program for swimming must include exercises which are effective for increasing muscle power rather than purely strength. These are exercises which can be performed in a more explosive manner, and involve rapid development of force and/or high power output. The weightlifting exercises such as the power clean are appropriate and there are a range of dumbbell exercises which can be performed with high power. To specifically train the upper body actions of the swimming strokes, use of medicine balls and weighted kettles, which can be thrown, can form the basis of power development.

Resistance training program may initially impede swim performance

It is important to make it clear to the athlete and coach that there may be a decrement in performance on initiating a resistance training program. This is because there will be some muscle soreness initially as well as residual fatigue from the resistance training sessions. Once the athlete has adapted to the effects of initiating resistance training there may be further detrimental effects on swim performance because they will be experiencing rapid increases in strength. As a result the swimmer may have to make adaptations in neuromuscular control to account for higher capacity of the muscles. In other words, the swimmer will have to practice in the pool to be able to effectively use the new “machinery” that they have developed in the weight room.

The Program

Warm Up

Light cycling, rowing ergometer, swim bench, or elliptical runner for 5 – 10 minutes.

Day 1: leg strength and upper body power

  Set 1 Set 2 Set 3
Shoulder external rotation 10 8 6
Overhead medicine ball toss (forward) 6 6 6
Overhead medicine ball toss (backward) 6 6 6
Medicine ball chest pass 6 6 6
Medicine ball side throw 6 6 6
Squat (back or front) 10 8 6
Dead lift 10 8 6
Gluteal/hamstring raise 10 8 6
Abdominals (See below)  :  :  :

Day 2: chest and arm strength

  Set 1 Set 2 Set 3
Dumbbell bench press 10 8 6
Incline bench press 10 8 6
Chest fly 10 8 6
Dumbbell pullover 10 8 6
Alternating bicep curl 10 8 6
Triceps push down 10 8 6
Wrist curl 10 8 6
Abdominals (See below)      

Day 3: back strength and leg power

  Set 1 Set 2 Set 3
Shoulder external rotation 10 8 6
Dumbbell front lunge 8 6 6
Clean - hang 6 6 6
Split squat jump 6 6 6
Unilateral pull-down 10 8 6
Cable row 10 8 6
Supine row on ball 10 8 6
Abdominals (See below)

Abdominal Exercises

100 reps from below

Bent knee crunch 20 reps
V-up 20 reps
Side crunch 20 reps
Twisting situp 20 reps
Leg Tuck 20 reps

The Exercises

Any exercise that involves raising weights over your head should be spotted.

Shoulder external rotation

Lying on one side, place a rolled-up towel under the upper arm (see Figure 1). This will assist with proper mechanics of the shoulder joint. Keep the elbow at 90 degrees during the movement. Externally rotate or turn the arm, moving the dumbbell away from the body. The top position is reached when a full contraction and range of motion is completed (see Figure 2). Lower the weight back to the starting position with a slow, controlled movement.

Overhead medicine ball toss (forward)

The toss is performed with a medicine ball and a partner. Face your partner from a distance of about 10 yards. Hold the ball overhead, behind your head (see Figure 3), then extend your arms, throwing the ball over your head toward your partner (see Figure 4). Allow the ball to bounce on the ground before your partner tries to catch it. Then repeat the toss to return the ball.

Overhead medicine ball toss (backward)

The toss is performed with a medicine ball and a partner. Provide a distance of about 10 yards between yourself and your partner, facing away from your partner. Squat down holding the ball between your legs (see Figure 5), then extend, throwing the ball backward over your head, toward your partner (see Figure 6). Allow the ball to bounce on the ground before trying to catch it. Then repeat the toss to return the ball.

Medicine ball chest pass

The chest pass is performed with a medicine ball and a partner. For a single response, take a step forward and using a chest pass, pass the ball to your partner. Your partner catches the ball, brings it into the chest (see Figure 7), steps forward, and passes it back (see Figure 8). For multiple response, shorten the distance between you and your partner. With a stable base, chest pass the ball to your partner. Your partner catches the pass, and chest passes back to you as quickly as possible. Keep the amortization phase, or the time that the ball is in contact with the hands, as short as possible.

Medicine ball side throw

The standing side throw is performed with a medicine ball and a partner. Both you and your partner should be standing facing the same direction about 5 yards apart. Rotate away from your partner (see Figure 9), then turn back toward your partner and toss the ball, keeping your arms extended during the whole movement (see Figure 10). Your partner catches the ball while turning away, reverses rotation and tosses the ball back. This exercise develops the rotational muscles of the torso.

Squat (back or front)

Back Squat

The back squat is performed in a standing position inside a squat rack. Using a closed, pronated grip, place the barbell on your back, on top of the scapula. Do not place the bar on the back of your neck. Your feet should be slightly more than shoulder width apart, with toes pointed forward, or slightly outward. Keep your abdominals tight to assist in stabilizing your spine. Be sure that your knees track with the toes and do not extend horizontally beyond the toes. Squat down to a parallel position, while maintaining an upright torso.

Do not bounce out of the bottom position—extend your knees and hips to raise your body back up to the starting position. Be sure that your hips and shoulders rise at the same speed. The major muscles used during this exercise are the gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings. This exercise is used for lower body development.

Back Squat Spot

A spotter should be used to help rack and un-rack the weights. When spotting the exercise, the spotter should stand behind the lifter, and follow them through the complete range of motion. To assist, the hands are in a ready position, and the spotter helps the lifter if needed.

Front Squat

The front squat starts in a standing position in a squat rack. The barbell is gripped in a closed, pronated grip. Your shoulder joint should be flexed so that your arms are parallel to the ground, with elbows up. Your feet should be slightly more than shoulder width apart, pointing forward, or slightly outward. Maintaining a neutral spine, keep your abdominals tight to stabilize your spine. Squat down, while maintaining an upright posture, until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Without bouncing, extend back up to the starting position. The major muscles used during this exercise are the gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings. This exercise is also used for lower body development.

Front Squat Spot

A spotter should be used to help rack and un-rack the weights. The spotter should stand behind the lifter, and follow them through the complete range of motion. The spotter’s hands are in a ready position, and help is provided if needed.

Dead lift

Place your feet between shoulder and hip width apart. Grasp the barbell with a supinated (overhand) or alternated (one hand palm up, one hand palm down) grip. While maintaining a flat back, extend the knees and the hips, raising the bar off the ground. Make sure that your hips and shoulders rise at the same rate. Continue to rise until your knees and hips have reached full extension. Return the bar to the ground by flexing your knees and hips.

Gluteal/Hamstring raise

Lie face down in the glut/ham raise machine. Make sure your knees are below the thigh pad. With your hips over the thigh pad, your torso should hang at a 90 degree angle. Place your hands behind your head or across your chest. Using the gluteal muscles, extend your hips, raising your torso. Once your torso has reached a parallel position to the ground, contract the hamstring muscles until your torso is 90 – 45 degrees from the ground. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

Dumbbell bench press

The dumbbell bench press is performed from a supine position on the bench. Start the exercise with the dumbbells on your thighs, in a seated position. While laying back into the supine position, bring the dumbbells up to chest level. Keep the dumbbells close to your chest all the way into the supine position. Once in the supine position, hold the dumbbells beside your chest in a pronated grip. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your back flat on the bench while you push the dumbbells up toward the ceiling. Bring the dumbbells together at the top of the movement. (Do not bang the weights together, this should be a controlled movement.) Lower the weights back to the starting position beside your chest before beginning the next repetition. When the exercise is completed, place the weights on your chest and sit up. The prime mover for this exercise is the pectoralis major, with assistance from the shoulders and triceps.

Incline bench press

The incline bench press is performed in a supine position on an incline bench. Grasp the barbell with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width. To begin the exercise, un-rack the weight and set it above your shoulders. While maintaining the normal curve of your back, lower the weight to your chest. Do not bounce the weight off your chest—push the weight strait back up while avoiding arching your back. The prime mover for this exercise is the pectoralis major. This exercise is used for chest development.

Chest fly

With two equal weight dumbbells, assume a supine (lying down) position on a bench, keeping the dumbbells over your chest. Your grip should be neutral (palms facing each other), with the elbows slightly bent (see Figure 11). Lower the dumbbells to the side in a large arc, by horizontally abducting your shoulders. Lower the weights until the dumbbells are at chest level (see Figure 12). Contract your pectoralis muscles to horizontally adduct your shoulders, raising the dumbbells back up to the starting position in a wide arc.

Dumbbell pullover

Grasp one dumbbell with your thumbs and index fingers around the handle and your palms against the plate. Assume a supine position with your upper back and shoulders on the bench. Your body should be at a right angle to the bench, with feet flat on the floor, and trunk tight and elevated above the floor. With the weight over your chest, flex your shoulders so that the weight moves in an arc to a position behind your head. Be sure to keep both feet in contact with the ground, and not to raise your hips (see Figure 13). Extend your shoulders, bringing the weight back over your chest.

Alternating bicep curl

The dumbbell bicep curl is performed in the standing position. Place your feet between shoulder and hip width apart. Hold the dumbbells in a neutral grip, with your palms facing inward. Your torso should remain upright throughout the exercise—do not produce momentum by swinging your torso. Initiate the movement by flexion at the elbow, rotating the palm up, and complete through a full range of motion (see Figure 14). The prime movers in this exercise are the biceps elbow flexor group.

Triceps push down

The triceps push down is performed from a standing position on a triceps extension or pull down machine. Grip the bar with a closed, pronated, shoulder width grip. Bring your elbows to your sides, with the bar around chest height, for the starting position. While maintaining an upright position, extend your elbow joint, pushing the bar down until you reach full extension (see Figure 15). Return the bar to the starting position by flexing your elbow, before beginning the next repetition. This exercise can also be performed with a tricep extension rope. The prime mover for this exercise is the triceps brachii.

Dumbbell front lunge

The front lunge is performed with the dumbbells held in a neutral grip on the outside of the thighs. Keep your abdominals tight throughout the exercise to assist in spine stabilization (see Figure 17). Take a larger than normal step forward and lower your body until the thigh of your front leg is parallel to the ground. Be sure your front knee does not extend in front of the toes, and that your back knee does not touch the ground (see Figure 18). Return to the starting position by pushing off with your front leg. Maintain an upright torso throughout the entire exercise. The prime movers for this exercise are the gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps. This exercise is useful in lower body development.

Split squat jump

The split squat jump is an effective exercise drill for unilateral power development in the lower body. With a barbell placed across the shoulders (or dumbbells gripped in the hands), squat down to a thighs parallel position and then as explosively as possible, jump vertically. (Beginners should first become proficient at doing this exercise without weights.) Alternate foot position and ensure the same number of repetitions is being performed on each leg. If the landing is a problem in terms of controlling the weight or loads on the legs and back, jump up onto a bench and then step down to prepare for the next repetition. The primary movers are the gluteals and quads with assistance from the hamstrings and extensors of the ankle.

Unilateral pull-down

Attach a single handle to the lat pull down machine. From a seated position with the legs under the thigh pad, grasp the handle with a pronated or palms down grip. Using the muscles of the back, pull the handle down to the front of the shoulder. During the pulling motion, rotate the hand so that it is in a supinated position (facing the body) (see Figure 16). Slowly return the pulley to the starting position and repeat.

Clean - hang

This is a complex exercise that should be taught by a certified instructor.

Cable row

Using a low pulley row, assume a seated position with the chest up, facing toward the machine (see Figure 19). Using your back muscles, pull the handles into your lower ribs. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position, keeping your chest up, then repeat.

Supine row on ball

Grasp a barbell secured on the squat rack safety pins with either a supinated (palms up) or pronated (palms down) grip (see Figure 22 [1]). Place both feet together on top of a stability ball. While maintaining a rigid torso, pull your body up toward the bar. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

Bent knee crunch

The abdominal routine is performed from a supine position on the floor. The crunch is performed with your feet flat on the floor, low back pressed into the floor and hands beside your head (see Figure 20). (If you place your hands behind your head, do not interlace your fingers, and do not pull on your head.) Contract your abdominal muscles, bringing your chest toward your thighs, and your scapula off the ground (see Figure 21), before returning back to the starting position. This exercise works the rectus abdominal muscles.


The V-up is performed from a prone (face up) laying position. Place your hands on the sides of your head, and lift your back and extended legs slightly off the ground. Contract your abdominals, and with knees slightly bent, bring your knees to your chest. Keep your head and neck in a stable position. Return to the starting position before performing the next repetition.

Side crunch

Same as bent knee crunch, except place your hands at your sides and laterally flex your trunk, touching the opposite ankle. Alternate with each repetition.

Twisting situp

In a supine (laying down) position, bend your knees, with your feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms in front of your chest, or place behind your head. Perform a basic crunch, but twist the body so that your shoulder goes toward the opposite knee. If the hands are placed behind the head, be sure not to pull on the head. Alternate sides.

Leg tuck

From a hanging position (by the hands or elbow slings), use your abdominal muscles and hip flexors to raise your legs, leading with your knees. Raise your legs until your knees are at about chest level. Do not perform the leg raises with your legs straight—bring your knees in to your chest (see Figure 23). Do not swing your legs, generate momentum, or use your upper body to help raise your legs. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.


Although many swim training programs involve excessive mileage, an appropriate resistance training program can reduce injury incidence and improve performance. The key goals of the resistance training program should be to ameliorate the strength and flexibility imbalances that swim training induces, enhance strength of stabilizers of the trunk and shoulders, and increase power and strength of the major muscle groups used in propulsion.

About the Author

Dr. Robert Newton is the Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at Ball State University and an Associate Professor of Physical Education. He gained his Ph.D. in the biomechanics of resistance training and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA. Dr. Newton has published over 250 scientific and coaching papers and has been a training consultant to Olympic, professional and amateur athletes in the United States, Australia, and Europe.


Figure Flexibility for Swimming [2]

Source URL: