It is long known that the common downfall for triathletes is their swim. Sometimes it's because we don't have a swimming background, and sometimes it's because it's challenging to get to the pool enough. Although it's difficult to simulate being in the water when on land, there are strengthening exercises that will help our balance in the water and strengthen the muscles specific for swimming.
I have a large array of swim-specific strength exercises that I progress my athletes to, but I wanted to give a few of the more basic exercises for those reading this to implement into your strengthening program. Here are five exercises that I recommend when you need to bring the pool out of water.
1. Quadruped Alternate Arm/Legs (On Ball or Floor): This is a common PT exercise and involves starting with both hands and knees on the floor with a flat back. In the basic exercise, you lift alternate arms and legs at the same time while maintaining a flat back and then switch. Progressions to this exercise would be to do this over top of an exercise ball. Once you have mastered this, you can begin increasing the tempo of the arm/leg movements and progress towards simulating the swim stroke during the movements.
2. Stretch Cord Pulls: I am not reinventing the wheel when advising the use of stretch cords (thera-tubing) for swim strengthening, but when done correctly, this can significantly help swim strength. This can be done by attaching the stretch cords to a door hinge adapter or around a pole and bending forward at the hips and a slight bend in the knees. Hands should be held with palms open on the handles and elbows slightly bent as if arms were "over a barrel." Pull both arms back at once and think about throwing them behind you. A controlled return to the starting position is critical. Progressions to this include increasing the tempo of the exercise and doing a single arm at once.
3. Flutter kicks on stomach and back: Performing flutter kicks while on your back and stomach are a great way to strengthen your low back and core. The key is to hover your legs about 6-inches off the ground and just do small movements. WWhen flutter kicks on your back, it is good to put your hands under your butt to protect your lower back. Progressions to this include flutter kicking while moving your legs side to side
4. Deck Ups /Modified Deck Ups: Deck ups, or put another way, "getting out of the pool" are a great way to strengthen the LATS and triceps in a beneficial way for swimming. These should be done with hands flat on the pool deck and wider than shoulder-width apart. Lean chest over top of arms and extend upward. Doing these in the deep end will decrease the temptation to push off the bottom. The modification for home, since I led off with these exercises being away from pool strengthening, would be to kneel next to a high bed or counter and put hands flat in the same manner and push up just like in the pool. Try to avoid using the legs for any assistance, but if needed, they can be used to assist.
5. Side Planks: Side planks are often left out when doing core strengthening for other types of planks but are very beneficial for swimming for two reasons. When swimming, you are constantly rotating and stabilizing your body on your side in order to leverage a strong pull. Side planks force you to engage the obliques on the side down, which is exactly what is required repeatedly in swimming. The other benefit of side planks is that you stabilize your weight on your shoulder, so you are gaining great shoulder stability. Side planks can be done on either feet or knees, and the elbow should be directly below your shoulder on the floor or mat.
I hope after reading this, you feel as though you have a few more tools to help improve your swim despite not being in the pool. In no way are these a replacement for swimming, but they can greatly help supplement your swim progress when done correctly. There are many more strength exercises that I recommend to my athletes, but these are some of the basic ones that everyone can do.
Aaron Scheidies is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and licensed Physical Therapist. A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Exercise Physiology, Aaron has coached World Champion Paratriathletes as well as Ironman World Championship qualifiers. Aaron is an 11 time World Paratriatlhon Champion and has set the World’s fastest time for anyone with a disability at both the Olympic (1:57:24) and Ironman 70.3 distances. (4:09:54).