Strength training (also known as weight training, weight lifting, or resistance training) is generally undertaken to build your muscles, by lifting weights. But, the benefits of strength training go beyond just building muscle. Weight training is a useful tool for controlling your weight: by increasing muscle mass you will increase your resting metabolic rate, which means you burn more calories throughout the day. It improves your fitness and endurance. Strength training also increases your bone density by putting stress on the bones, which encourages them to become stronger. You may also find it improves the quality of your sleep, and improves how you look and feel.
Although strength training is often considered as stand-alone sport, for example in bodybuilding and weightlifting, it is also a useful tool for people training for many other activities: and this is where swimming comes in. As a swimmer, you’ll know that specific muscles take more a strain or are more useful than others, and strength training can help to build these specific muscles to improve your technique and speed. So where to start? Here’s our guide to strength training, and how it can be used in conjunction with swimming training.
How does it help with swimming?
Swimming is a fantastic full body workout, utilising several large muscle groups simultaneously. Each stroke involves a different level of exertion, with breaststroke generally regarded as the least strenuous stroke, and butterfly the most. Of course, the level of exertion entirely depends on what you put into it and, done properly, all strokes will challenge your body to a certain extent.
The precise combination of muscles that you use depends on the individual stroke, but all strokes will use the same basic set of muscles:
Core abdominal and lower back muscles keep your body steady, and stop you from rolling in the water.
Deltoid and shoulder muscles are engaged as you move your arms through the stroke.
Your forearm muscles work as you pull your arms through the water to propel yourself along.
Your upper back muscles stabilise your shoulders.
Both your glutes, and hamstrings, work when you kick, and keep your body stable in the water.
Front crawl and backstroke engage your core to a large extent to rotate the torso with each stroke. You’ll also be using your hip flexors as you kick. You may be surprised to learn that backstroke uses the legs just as much as the upper body.
Breaststroke utilises the pectoral muscles, and latissimus dorsi, as you bring your arms back towards you. The breaststroke kick engages your glutes and quads.
Butterfly puts an extra strain on your core, and lower back muscles, as you lift your body out of the water to breathe — one of the most demanding parts of the stroke — and will engage your glutes as you perform the dolphin kick.
How can I build those muscles?
Most serious swimmers don’t confine their training to the pool — although this is where most of the work takes place. The gains won by successful swimmers are partly down to time spent in the gym. The training you do will depend on your event and stroke: sprinters will generally do heavier weights and shorter reps, whilst endurance swimmers will be aiming for less muscle bulk.
For front crawl, head for the incline chest press. Lat pull-downs and seated row will strengthen your back, and don’t forget your triceps and biceps — free weights are perfect for these. If backstroke is your stroke, go for squats, leg extensions, and leg curls, and when it comes to your upper body, work on dips, curls, bench presses, lat pull-downs, and pull-ups. For both strokes, don’t neglect your core workout: incorporate crunches on the Swiss ball, planks, and leg raises. In addition, make sure you complete hip flexor stretches after each workout, especially if your day-to-day job involves a lot of time sitting at a desk, which can make your hip flexors stiff.
If you swim breaststroke, it’s good to focus on the legs, as about 70% of the power comes from there. Works on squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups, and concentrate on heavier weights with fewer reps, progressing to lighter weights, lifted more quickly, nearer a key race, for explosive power. To strengthen your core, try doing crunches on a Swiss ball.
As for butterfly, for the powerful upper body strength, and strong dolphin kick, combine a weighted pull-down with leg raises. Plyometric squats will help build strength in your quads and hamstrings, and for your upper body, include lat pull-downs.
How much is too much?
You may be worried that by focusing on strength training you could end up too bulky, which might compromise your swimming performance. This needn’t be a concern. Provided you are not doing huge amounts of reps with heavy weights, it is unlikely that you will end up too big for excellent swimming performance — though if you are focusing on endurance events, you will probably want to make sure that weight training is a smaller element of your complete regime. Overall, increasing the strength of these key muscles will enhance your performance through increased strength in the areas you need it most.
What about diet?
It is important not to neglect your diet if you’re adding strength training to your regime, as it puts extra demands on your body. Make sure you’re eating a varied, balanced diet, with a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fruit and vegetables. But if you are looking to further support your swimming training the following supplements can also aid your body to reach optimum condition:
Sour cherry extract – this assists muscle recovery and promotes good sleep
Vitamin C and zinc – these support your immunity, especially if your training involves early mornings
Caffeine – popular amongst swimmers for mental alertness, especially for sprints
Magnesium – this has been shown, in research, to support muscle oxygenation in triathletes
Patricia Carswell is a health and fitness writer. She has written for all of the major newspapers and a wide variety of fitness publications, and is writer of the award-winning blog, Girl on the River.