With the swim being the weakness for the majority of triathletes and the lack of ability to swim in the pool due to continued lockdowns and restrictions, there is more reason for people to seek out strengthening and simulation activities.
Over my years of being a triathlete, I have developed some sport-specific strength training programs. The basis for carefully choosing the exercises comes from my exercise physiology degree, some from a paper I wrote on swimming in physical therapy school, and experiential knowledge in the sport.
There are a few critical components of the freestyle stroke that you can narrow in and focus on with specific exercises. These components include balance in the water, a strong catch and pull, and correct muscle activation in the recovery.
Balance: Primarily impacted by core strength and pelvic stability.
Strong Pull: Centered on strong LATS as well as the recruitment of the Serratus Anterior, which helps protract (extend the reach) of the shoulder.
Recovery phase: The key is to keep the elbow high and prevent impingement in the shoulder. Some of the key muscles in the recovery phase are the Rhomboids and the small muscles of the rotator cuff.
I know the above may have gone right over your head, but it really is crazy all of the intricacies in timing and muscle function that go into the freestyle stroke. The key is knowing the correct exercises and drills that force your body to do it right. Here are 5 exercises that will help your swim without even getting in the water.
1. Swim on the Ball: With a swiss ball at hips start with alternate arm and leg lifted in the air. Perform the pull motion with your arm as you simultaneously bring the opposite arm forward in front of you and switch feet touching the ground. Before trying this full exercise, try just alternate arm and leg lifted and switching without the swim stroke motion.
2. Stretch Cords Swim Pull: Take Therabubing with handles and anchor it at thigh height. Step out sufficient distance for moderate resistance. Slightly bend knees and flex at hips forward. Slightly bend at elbows and keep them above your wrist as you pull towards your body and behind you. A key is that your palms should be facing you, so your fingers are pointing straight down. You should feel your LATS under your armpits working.
3. Upright Rows & W's: Keeping the swim stretch cords in hands, stand upright, and keep shoulders back with elbows directly at sides. Pull straight back while squeezing shoulder blades together to work your rhomboid muscles. After completing this exercise, pull back to get resistance on the tubing just until elbows are alongside your body and then rotate hands out to the side simultaneously to create a "W" shape with your arms. Focus on keeping your shoulders squeezed back as you use rotator cuff muscles to rotate your arm out.
4. Deck Ups/Pull-Ups: Deck ups are simply the motion of getting out of the pool without the ladder. Put your hands flat on the pool deck greater than shoulder-width apart. Optimally, doing these in deeper water so you can't push off the bottom as well as having extra buoyancy of deeper water is best. Since most pools are closed, and these are supposed to be exercises without being in the water, a good alternative would be pull-ups with a slightly wide hand grip.
5. The SAW: With your feet on a foam roller or in loops of a TRX, get into a plank position on your elbows. Slowly roll back on the foam roller and dig your elbows into the mat. Engage your lower abdominal muscles to pull yourself back and forward as if you were a saw. Keep doing this until your abdominals are all "cut up." If you do not have a strong core or your first few times, you may notice your low back muscles engaging or getting tight. You can do fewer repetitions and more sets to avoid this compensation.
I hope you can put some of these into practice in your garage or makeshift gym as we all keep modifying our training and lifestyle. I have plenty more where this came from, but hopefully, this gives you a good starting point to become a better swimmer without getting in the water.