Swimming is a sport where we are definitely very much out of our natural element; we’ve essentially taught ourselves to be bad at drowning. Surrounded by chlorine fumes and the splashing limbs of your lane mates, the pool can be a difficult environment to navigate and a hard place to work on improving form or building strength. So what can you do if you’re struggling to swim longer distances or feel like the water is fighting you with every stroke? Fortunately, there are several exercises you can do on land that mimic the movements you make in the water, enabling you to work on perfecting your swimming posture while strengthening the muscle groups swimmers most frequently need to engage.
Dryland cross training helps swimmers improve their performance in multiple ways, but it’s especially effective when used to combat two of the most common challenges swimmers have to contend with, regardless of their skill level. The first: keeping the core engaged with both the arms and the legs. It’s not about keeping your legs in sync with your arms; you need your core to span the gap between your limbs, connect the muscle groups, and hold it all together, or you’re just spinning your wheels. While it is possible to swim this way, and some people can make it work for them, it opens your body up to potential injuries and deprives you of the full benefits of your swim. “Breaking” in the middle of your body makes swimming longer distances (and even just getting across the pool) much harder as your arms and legs fight to keep your neglected torso afloat and moving forward.
Once you learn to engage your core, everything changes. Your body movements compound into a seamless rotation from one arm stroke to the next. Your body turns as you pull through the water, streamlining your body so that your kick can easily propel you forward. As a result, your speed and efficiency will start to increase.
The second common challenge is maintaining shoulder strength on both sides to prevent the dreaded swimmer’s shoulder, where repeated stress on the tendons and ligaments in the shoulder result in strain injuries like rotator cuff tendonitis. This is easily avoidable by making sure that you are strengthening your shoulders outside of the water. Exercises that work not only the major muscles in and around your shoulder (such as your lats, rhomboids, deltoids, and pectorals) but also the smaller muscles around your shoulder sockets are key to supporting shoulder health and keeping full range of motion.
Add this five-exercise series to your regular workout routine three to four times a week, doing 15-20 reps of each exercise (30-45 seconds for the planks):
The Swimmer’s 5
- Russian Twist. Ideally, your torso and core should be rotating slightly every time you take a stroke. Russian twists are an excellent exercise to strengthen and stretch your abdominals (especially your obliques), familiarizing your muscles with the concept of cross-body rotation and, later, improving it.
- Dead Bugs. This exercise alternates extending your arms and legs (similar to your kick and pull as you swim), helping to encourage cross-lateral engagement from your fingers down through your toes.
- 4-Way Shoulder Exercises. When it comes to combating and preventing shoulder injuries, I swear by this tried-and-true shoulder exercise series. These four movements work the tiny muscles in your shoulder to strengthen and stabilize your shoulder joints, which translates into a more effective stroke in the water.
- Bicycle Crunches. One of my favorite core-blasting movements, bicycle crunches challenge your abs, torso, and legs to work together to rotate and move your body throughout the exercise.
- Planks. The standard for building core strength and full-body stability, planks are a must for any swimmer. Make sure to try side planks and Bridge pose in addition to your standard front plank to work all sides of your shoulders and abs.
Here’s a photo series of your Swimmer’s 5:
4-way shoulder exercises
Main Image: Flickr user Simply Swim UK