Ask the Coach – Swim Speed – Part 2 – Strength

Ask the Coach – Swim Speed – Part 2 – Strength

Earlier we looked at Mary’s question about swim speed and I provided some tips on increasing flexibility in muscles used in swimming. In addition to improving flexibility and range of motion to swim faster, it is also important to strengthen the muscles that are actively engaged in swimming. We often rely too much on the primary movers (pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi) and create imbalances in the stabilizing muscles. In swimming, these key muscles are the scapular stabilizers – the pectoralis minor, rhomboid, levator scapula, middle and lower trapezius, and the serratus anterior. Also critical to swimming (and all disciplines in triathlon), but not addressed in this post, is core strength.

Before these exercises, make sure to engage your core (pull your belly button back to your spine) and set your shoulder blades by squeezing them together and relaxing the shoulders down. You can think about placing your shoulder blades in your back pockets.

The Exercises: 
I,Y,Ts – There are several variations of this, but the main goal is to strengthen the mid and lower trapezius. After engaging your core and setting your shoulders, bend at the waist to about 45 degrees. Place your arms straight overhead (I), or at 45 degrees (Y) or out to your side (T). With your thumbs pointing behind you, move your arms from the shoulder a few inches back, keeping the arms straight. You should feel this in your upper back. If your neck starts to engage, stop and do fewer reps. Start with no weight, and over time you can use 1-2lb dumbells. Don’t use high weight for this or you won’t recruit the right muscles. These can also be done with your chest supported on an exercise ball.

Push-ups with a Push: Variation 1: Do a regular push-up, but the continue the motion up by rounding your back. Variation 2: Skip the push-up part and just do the second part of the motion where you round your back up.

Stretch Cord Rows: With elastic tubing/stretch cord anchored about waist high, start with your arms extended in front of you, thumbs are up, and pull your arms back, keeping your elbows next to your body. Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the end of the motion. Return to the starting position. You can also modify these by adding a twist at the end so that your palms end facing up.

Internal and External Rotators w/Stretch Cord: With a stretch cord anchored at waist-level, stand so the cord comes across your body. With the cord in your right hand, your arm bent at 90 degrees, and your elbow anchored about an inch from your ribs, rotate your forearm outward, keeping your elbow anchored and your arm bent at 90 degrees. To work the internal rotators, keep the cord in the right arm, but turn 180 degrees. Your elbow and your forearm are in the same position, except now you are pulling the cord across your body as you rotate your arm. Make sure to do both arms!

Stretch Cord Half-Pulls: This strengthens, but also works on your stroke technique as well. With elastic tubing/stretch cord anchored about waist high, start with your arms extended in front of you and bend at the waist to about 90 degrees. Keep your elbows pointing outwards, pull your forearms back until your fingertips are pointing down or slightly behind you. Make sure to keep your elbows in the same location as much as possible. (They bend, but shouldn’t change position in space much.) Get comfortable with this motion before progressing to the full pull.

Strech Cord Pulls: Do the same motion as the Stretch Cord Half Pulls above, but then continue the motion with a pull to your hips, just as you would finish a pull in the water. Your arms should end straight and aligned with your body, palms are pointing behind you.

These are just some exercises that can help with swim-specific strength. There are many others! Some book references for you are:
Strength Training for Triathletes
Swimming Anatomy

Happy Training!

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach, a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole with your questions for the Ask the Coach column on facebooktwitter or via email at

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Nicole Odell


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