Swimming Workouts That Build Strength

Swimming is commonly thought of as a cardiovascular workout—it challenges your heart and lungs as you repeatedly travel the length of the pool, racking up those laps. But viewing swimming workouts as only cardiovascular sells the activity short. When you travel through water, every single movement you make works against the natural resistance of the water itself—every push, every pull, every kick and stroke, requires you to displace the water around your body, pushing it out of the way.

That, by itself, offers an opportunity to enhance muscular endurance. It also means you can plan workout routines to maximize the resistance training effect of swimming, using tools and a combination of laps and pool-based bodyweight exercises to further develop strength.

"To gain strength, you can do a variety of things," says Kim Evans, a Fitness Specialst and certified group fitness instructor who specializes in all forms of aquatic fitness at Spring Lake Community Fitness and Aquatic Center. "If you're simply swimming laps, you'll gain more upper or lower body strength by dividing your workout, doing some pulling-only upper body training and kicking-only lower body training. You can also gain strength by 'going vertical,' to move your body through the water in a vertical position. For instance, you could perform a jogging or cross-country ski movement in shallow or deep water, which is far less streamlined or efficient than swimming, adding a great deal of resistance."

In either case, Evans points out that common swimming accessories, such as kickboards, swim fins, swim paddles, and even pool noodles, can increase your resistance training effort. Think about it—the more efficiently you move through the water, the easier your workout becomes.

Likewise, the less efficiently you move through the water, the harder your workout becomes. Tools like kickboards and swim fins make your stroke or movements less efficient by increasing the surface area of your body, forcing you to work harder to cut through the water. The result is a tougher, strength-building workout.

There are lots of ways to incorporate strength work into your swimming routine. Consider the following suggestions, then get creative as you develop your own swimming workouts.

Lap Swimming Workout to Build Strength

swimming for strength
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To gain strength through a workout that uses only lap swimming, it's important to focus on three things: workout intensity, resistance, and program design. Rob Jackson, a personal trainer, nutrition coach, and Ironman Athlete suggests using swimming paddles, such as Speedo's Power Paddles, to create more resistance with each stroke.

"More resistance requires more strength to pull your way through the water," Jackson says, adding that your form really matters. "You need to make sure the large lat muscles of your back are doing most of the work. If you feel your shoulders aching before your back, you're swimming with poor form." Make sure you're pulling through the water with your back, rather than pushing with your shoulders.

To develop strength, particularly upper body strength, Jackson offers the following workout:

  • 100 meters freestyle swimming, focusing on form
  • 30 seconds rest
  • 50 meters kicking only, with or without a kickboard for assistance
  • 50 meters breaststroke, focusing on form
  • 30 seconds rest
  • 100 meters arm strokes using paddles, focus only on the upper body; you can place a pull buoy between your legs to help keep your hips up
  • 50 meters freestyle swimming, focusing on form
  • 30 seconds rest
  • 100 meters freestyle using paddles, focus on performing big pulls with each arm
  • 50 meters breaststroke, focusing on form
  • 30 seconds rest
  • 100 meters freestyle using paddles, focus on efficiently pushing water backward
  • 50 meters backstroke
  • 60 seconds rest
  • 100 meters freestyle using paddles, focus on an all-out effort
  • 50 meters easy freestyle to cool down

According to Jackson, the length of this workout will vary, depending on how fast you are. The total distance covered is 850 meters, so if you're an average swimmer who takes roughly two and a half minutes to cover 100 meters, you can expect to wrap up this routine in 30 minutes or less.

Bodyweight and Cardio Pool Workout to Build Strength

"A good format for swimming workouts for strength training is to mix in cardio with bodyweight exercises," says Kyra Young, a private personal trainer and the owner of Red Pear Life, who provides swimming workouts to clients who have their own pools. According to Young, this type of format helps keep workouts interesting, breaking up the monotony of continuous lap swimming.

Young also points to the Speedo Push Plate as her preferred underwater resistance training tool. "The Push Plate can be used to add resistance to most exercises that you would normally perform with a kettlebell or dumbbell when doing them on land, such as chest presses."

If you don't have access to a Push Plate, you can perform the same exercises using a kickboard, although the Push Plate makes these exercises a little more manageable with well-placed handles and a less-buoyant design. Kickboards, by contrast, are harder to hold on to and harder to keep submerged.

Young typically has clients do one or two laps of a specific stroke, followed by a set of bodyweight exercises performed in the water. However, for less-proficient swimmers, she subs other water exercises, like the ones detailed below, in place of some of the laps. Here's one of her routines:

  • Backstroke, 1 lap. If you're a weak swimmer, hug a kickboard to your chest for added buoyancy, focusing on your kick rather than the entire stroke.
  • Jump squats, 20 repetitions. Stand in waist-deep water, your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping your weight on your heels, press your hips back and squat down until your shoulders are submerged. Press forcefully through your feet and jump up into the air as high as you can. When you land, continue the exercise.
  • Seal jacks, 20 repetitions. Stand in shoulder-deep water with your feet together, your arms extended directly in front of your chest at shoulder-height, your palms facing in. Jump both feet out laterally as you simultaneously open your arms wide out to the sides, landing in a star-like position. Immediately reverse the movement, jumping your feet back to center as you draw your arms back together in front of your chest. Continue the jumping motion as fast as you can.
  • Wall pushups, 20 repetitions. Stand in waist- to shoulder-deep water, facing the side of the pool. Place your hands on the wall or the pool edge, so your palms are aligned with your shoulders, your elbows extended. Keeping your body straight, bend your elbows and lower your chest toward the wall. When your elbows are bent at 90-degrees, reverse the movement and extend your elbows.
  • "Fake ropes," 20 jumps. Stand in waist- to shoulder-deep water with your feet hip-distance apart, your elbows bent and your hands out to the sides, as if you were holding a jump rope. Mimic a jump rope movement for 20 jumps, hopping up and down as you rotate your forearms and wrists.
  • Front raises using the Push Plate, 10 to 20 reps. Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart in shoulder-deep water holding the handles of the Push Plate in both hands. Extend your arms directly in front of your chest so the Push Plate platform is parallel to the ground. Engage your core, and keeping your torso straight, press your arms straight down through the water until your arms are at your sides and the Push Plate is in front of your thighs. Reverse the movement and pull the Push-Plate back through the water to the starting position.
  • Butt kicks, 20 reps per leg. Stand in hip- to shoulder-deep water and jog in place, drawing your heel up to your butt with each jog.
  • Rows using the Push Plate, 20 reps (10 reps per arm). Stand with your feet staggered, your left foot in front of your right, in chest-deep water. Hold the Push Plate in your right hand, gripping one of the center handles so the platform is parallel to the ground. Bend forward at the hips, placing your left palm on your left thigh for support, your right arm hanging straight down from your shoulder, perpendicular to the ground. Engage the muscles of your back and pull the Push Plate toward your torso as you draw your elbow straight back. When the Push Plate meets your body, reverse the movement and push the tool back to the starting position. Complete all reps on one side before switching sides.
  • Water jogging, 1 lap. Jog back and forth across the pool. If your pool has shallow and deep water, and you don't feel comfortable jogging in deep water, swim or doggy paddle across the deep end.
  • Jump lunges, 20 reps (10 reps per leg). Stand in hip-deep water, your feet staggered with your right foot a large step in front of your left foot. Keeping your torso upright, bend both knees and lower your back knee toward the ground. When the water meets chest- or shoulder-height, spring straight up into the air, switching the placement of your feet so you land with your left foot in front of your right. Immediately lower yourself into another lunge to continue the exercise.
  • Standing oblique twists using the Push Plate, 30 seconds. Stand in chest- to shoulder-deep water with your feet hip-distance apart. Hold the Push Plate handles in both hands in front of your navel, so the plate is positioned perpendicular to the ground and to your body. Tighten your core, and keeping your lower body stationary, twist your torso as far as you can to the right, dragging the Push Plate through the water's resistance. Reverse the movement and twist your torso as far as you can to the left. Continue for the full 30 seconds.
  • Flutter kicks on pool edge, 100 reps. Hold onto the edge of the pool, your arms straight and elbows locked. Lift your legs behind you and flutter kick them as fast and hard as you can for 100 repetitions.

"Perform three to five sets of the entire circuit, depending on your fitness level," Young suggests. "By alternating exercises, you can keep moving, intensifying the workout while burning more calories and building strength." Performed this way, the entire routine should take about 45 to 60 minutes.

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