Swimming: Improving Your Stroke

Matt outlines the benefits of using the gym to boost your swim speed. He explains the different exercises to do to boost arm pull down and the exercises to do to boost kick speed (based on front crawl stroke).

Although it is time spent in the pool that will be the key to improving your swim stroke, the addition of some strength based training in the gym can also help you to make noticeable gains in your speed and performance.

It is important that the movements that you undertake in a gym environment replicate the actions that you perform in the water as exercises which use the correct muscles in a related mechanical movement will provide you with the optimum training benefits.

The predominant action produced through the front crawl swim stroke is arm pulldown, propelling the swimmer forward. However, core, lower body strength and flexibility are all important parts of your training regime.

To be able to mimic the resistance you would experience in the pool is difficult, however, you need to consider that the exercises you undertake need to produce a smooth and constant force with the weights that you select relevant to the speed at which you would perform the swimming action. You would be looking to perform 5-10 repetitions for improvements in strength or around 12-15 repetitions to improve endurance.


This exercise is designed to work the shoulder and internal rotator cuff muscles. Set the cable machine up so that the pulley is high and a single handle is attached. Come into a single leg kneeling position slightly off centre of the cable and reach up to the handle on the side that is nearest the equipment. Ensure your back is straight, shoulders are set down and back and your head is in neutral alignment to prevent pulling on the neck. Pull the cable handle down, lowering your arm across the body to the opposite hip in a rotational movement and return to the start position. Focus on keeping the body in a solid position and getting the shoulder muscles to provide the power of the movement.


To create a balance of strength in the shoulder joint and help prevent potential injury rear pulls should also feature in your programme. This movement is the reverse of the front pull. Set the cable and handle at a low position and stand to the side of the machine, your starting point this time will be with your hand on the inside of the hip with a slight bend fixed in the elbow. The movement should see you pulling the handle away from your body by rotating the arm up and out, the cable handle should be out to the side with your palm facing forwards at the top point of this movement. Return to the start position by taking the handle back across the body to the opposite hip. You may find it difficult to keep the body position solid during this movement as the core muscles tend to try and help with the rotation movement. Focus on pulling in from the navel to ensure as solid a body position as possible.


To focus on upper back strength a cable row with a neutral grip (where the pull back movement allows the elbows to stay close and tight to the body) will be of benefit. In a standing position, facing the cable machine set the handle to the mid height of your torso. Pull away from the machine so there is tension in the cable and come into a small squat position, with chest lifted and shoulders retracted. This should give you a strong base of support from which to work. From this point, pull the handle in towards your mid torso, ensuring that elbows remain close to the sides of the body and squeezing the shoulder blades together at the point where you can retract no further. From here extend the handles back out to the starting point in a controlled movement.


Focusing on the larger muscles that provide the movement for the front crawl swim stroke, overhead throws focus on the latissimus dorsi and the pectoral muscles. This exercise looks to develop the rate of force which can be produced by the shoulder as you attempt to accelerate your arm as fast as possible through the movement, consequently improving the power of your pull. A 2-4kg ball is recommended for this exercise as it is light enough to throw with one hand but enough weight to slow down the movement replicating the speed at which your shoulder would move through the water.

Lying on the floor on your back, bend the knees to protect your lower back and grasp the ball in one hand above your head. Focus on producing all the power from the body by keeping the head and torso in contact with the floor throughout. From this position move the arm up and down across the body throwing the ball over the opposite knee to a partner who can catch and return the ball.


Whilst all of the above exercises encourage your body to use the strength within the torso to retain good form throughout the exercise it is also beneficial to include core specific exercises such as plank holds or other variations of this exercise to further encourage strength in this specific area of the body.


Progression in swim stroke technique means that now it is predominantly the upper body that provides the power whilst the legs tend to act as a rudder to drive and guide the swimmer. However, this does not mean that the legs do not play a vital part in the movement and so should not be neglected as part of your weight based training sessions. Single leg based movements are of more advantage as they allow each leg to work individually replicating the movement they would during swimming. Standing on one leg with a slight bend in the knee and the torso upright, tip forward from the hips, keeping the back straight and the head in line with the body. At the point where your body is in line with the hips (where possible), drive back up through the supporting leg to a standing start position.


When swimming overuse of muscles, especially in the upper body can cause tightness and subsequently lack of flexibility. Therefore, it is important that you perform foam rolling and mobility drills at the start of your weight based sessions to encourage greater range of movement.

Although the exercises above are predominately focused on the front crawl movement just bear in mind that when designing any strength programme for sport you must always consider the relevance of each exercise in terms of its relation and the benefits to the actual sport you are training for.