6 Strength Exercises For Swimmers

The most demanding event during my IRONMAN was swimming. Heavy muscular people are seemingly not designed to be buoyant! It took a great deal of persistent and intelligent training to adequately condition my body for the swimming leg of a full IRONMAN event. The biggest issue with being heavy in the water is posture. My legs and glutes always wanted to sink which meant I was less hydro-dynamic. To overcome this I had to develop strength in certain areas, below are six exercises I used to help do this.

Straight Arm Pulldowns

Straight arm pulldowns are great for developing power for swimming because of the range of motion this exercise uses. Pulling downwards towards my waist against resistance with the arms in a fixed position replicates a front stroke motion. Over time this exercise helps build power from the shoulder, using the back and arm muscles as well. One byproduct of doing this exercise is the core engagement it creates.

Internal and External Rotation

The shoulders get through a lot of work during endurance swim events. It’s important that the rotator cuffs and other connective tissues are strong enough to cope. Given the fact that I also follow a rigorous bodybuilding schedule increasing the strength of my shoulder joint is even more important. Using both internal and external rotation exercises helps develop integrity within the shoulder. It also makes the shoulders more resilient to fatigue, an integral part of remaining hydrodynamic.

Unilateral Tricep Extensions

The triceps help push forward through the water. Doing unilateral extensions helps me isolate the triceps with more specificity, engaging the “long head” of the muscle group. This particular part of the triceps is where a lot of power is generated from. Increased tricep strength actually also helps stabilize the shoulder joint.


The core has to engage for the entire duration of a swim race. With that said developing muscular endurance throughout the abdominal and oblique muscles is fundamental. Planks are one of the best ways to make the core muscles work and it’s a very easy exercise to progress too. Adding weight on my back I’m able to force the core to failure, then rely solely on my body weight. The position of the plank also resembles the posture my back, glutes and legs must maintain in the water. This helps train my neurological connection between brain and muscles.

Partial Leg Extensions 

Using partial leg extensions through the second half of the rep helps develop power and endurance within the quadriceps for kicking in the water. Once the legs fatigue they can quickly sink in the water, drastically affecting hydro-dynamism. Completing the swim becomes infinitely harder in this state which is why I put so much effort into conditioning my quadriceps for the full event with this exercise.

Unilateral Glute Exercises

The glute muscles are the strongest group in the human body. They help stabilize the posterior chain and retain strong posture. It’s so difficult for heavy athletes like myself to keep the backside and legs “on top of the water.” Using unilateral glute exercises to develop the endurance and strength within this muscle helps greatly while the propulsion, which should come from the glutes and flexors, assists with the speed and buoyancy within the water.


Conditioning a heavy muscled body for long distance swimming is about assessing where the weaknesses are and developing them accordingly. If there is one weakness in the chain everything else suffers which is why each exercise is so important.

Kris Gethin

Written by Kris Gethin