Weight Training for Swimmers: 5 Things Swimmers Need to Remember When Hitting the Gym

Swimmers spend a whole heap of time swimming up and down that tiled black line.

From those shiver-inducing 4:45am workouts, to the long holiday training camps, to a season that a never quite seems to end competitive swimmers invest a lot into the sport. This commitment extends itself to weight training for swimmers, and to the “dryland” side of their workouts.

Although a swimmer can master their technique and conditioning in the water, this expertise doesn’t necessarily translate to proficiency in the weight room.

In fact, according to some research done on NCAA Division I swimmers nearly half their injuries incurred over their collegiate swimming careers happened in the weight room.

Here is what swimmers need to know about maximizing their time in the gym so that they can get more from their training in the pool.

1. Technique, technique, technique. We hear it all the time as swimmers—technique is everything. It’s no different in the weight room, and perhaps even more critical when you consider the load that we sometimes place ourselves under in the weight room. When we add weight to movements, whether it’s a basic jump squat, a bench press, or a deadlift, we magnify the inefficiencies and dysfunctions in our posture and technique. If you aren’t lifting properly you are opening yourself to likelihood of injury and missed training.

2. Use it for better posture. Despite our broad shoulders that is so typical of a swimmer’s body, many chlorinated athletes have brutal posture. This comes from miles and miles of swimming on our front, with our chest muscles tightening and pulling our shoulders forward, resulting in the familiar-looking rounded and slouched shoulders. Your dryland training should place a strong emphasis on developing strong posture. After all, when posture rocks you are not only going to get injured less but you will be stronger in the water.

3. Remember that it doesn’t replace training in the pool. Almost daily I get an email from a young swimmer who wants to know what kind of dryland is best for becoming a better athlete in the pool. They want a shortcut to a stronger flutter kick, or a more powerful butterfly stroke, and they want in the weight room. But, in reality, if you want to become a faster swimmer, you will have to do more fast swimming in the pool. Weight training and a comprehensive dryland program should come after you have already developed swim-specific conditioning and a decent level of technical proficiency. Otherwise you are crushing your muscles and CNS in the weight room, leaving you winded and not performing your best when it comes to your swim workouts.

4. Use dryland for pre-hab. Swimmers, being the highly invested athletes that they are, are not immune to injury. From swimmer’s shoulder to breaststroker’s knee swimmers suffer from a variety of injuries that leave them missing training and competition. Your dryland protocol should be heavy on pre-hab and mobility work so that you can avoid injury in the first place. Things like maintain hip and chest flexibility and strengthening the rotator cuff should take precedence over lifting massive amounts of weight in the gym.

5. Warm-up properly. I get the excitement that swimmers feel when they get to hit the gym—it’s a welcome change of pace from having their head buried in a chlorinated pool for two hours. That being said, don’t let the eagerness to put up heavy things and put them down keep you from warming up properly. Multiple studies (here’s just one of ‘em), including several of competitive swimmers, have shown that short warm-ups lead to higher rates of injury. Sure, getting warmed up properly might be a bit of a hassle, especially when you are fired up on pre-workout, coffee and two Red Bulls and are ready to slay some dumbbells, but as mentioned previously (at least twice!), your strength training should be tactical and not as a means to get injured quicker than you normally would. 

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