Training Swimmers with Connected Exercises

Swimming Specific Exercises

Every athlete wants to use exercises and training methods that are going to give them the most bang for their buck. For a sport as unique as swimming, this seems even more important.
It seems like common-sense that sport specific exercises are needed. However, even in elite level swimmers, the key is to find the proper blend of general and specific exercises.

Athletic Foundations

An elite competitive swimmer is like any other athlete. They need a good foundation of general strength and coordination throughout the entire body. This base of athleticism is relevant in coordinating general motion and basic physical health.
Working with elite swimmers in the US and internationally, we see this fact reinforced time and again. It impacts the training for a young developing swimmer. General strength and athleticism are the foundation. They build overall capacity and resiliency to injury.

Swimming Is Unique

However, unlike most other athletes, the swimmer operates in a non-ground based environment. The main force they battle is not gravity. This is unique.
The swimmer’s movement challenge is maximizing propulsion in water and minimizing drag. Because of this there are some unique challenges for training the swimmer.
One of the largest factors is that as a human who is foreign to the water environment, they need maximum exposure to the water to optimize their “feel”. Feel for the water is a hard to define quality. It’s the ability to generate the largest propulsion with the body extremities against the resistance of water.


A ground-based athlete produces a ground reaction force directed from the feet and legs through the center of mass. The swimmer is opposite with the force being applied through the hands and through the center of mass.
That force is not applied against a solid mass like the ground, but the viscous substance of water. A swimmer must generate forces against the water that must will propel them. In most strokes, the majority (85-90%) of propulsion is generated by the upper limbs.
Ground-based athletes focus on developing summation of forces and triple extension from the ground up. Swimmers must develop this same coordinated, multi-segment flexion from the upper body down through the hips.
The dryland training of swimmers needs to emphasize the coordinated application of strength from the finger tips through the core and to the toes. This is the “tip to toes” connected concept.
A key feature of “connected” exercises for swimmers is that the core and hips are controlled for stability, at the same time while the upper extremity generates power in pulling and pushing moments.
Connected is as much an intention in the exercises as an outcome. To train this quality of coordination, athletes need to actively bring it into each exercise. For an exercise to develop “connectedness” the following qualities need to be developed;
  • Exhibit pelvis and spinal control
  • Demonstrate scapular control
  • Develops pulling tension across multi-segmental, muscle/fascial lines

Sample Connected swimming exercises:

  • Gymnastic Ring and Bar exercises – front levers, L-hangs, pullup variations
  • Cable based pulling/chops/lifts with whole body engagement
  • Gymanstic Parallettes exercises
  • Kettlebell Swings, GetUps and Windmills
  • Various medball throws, slams
  • Isometric whole body holds – prone, supine, sidelying.


The “core” of the body can be defined in many ways. For the purposes of the swimmer, we are defining it 360 degrees from the pelvis through the scapula.
Athletes need to be able to control their spine and pelvic position. Whether it’s disturbed by internal muscle forces or external. This is core stability.
A swimmers actions in the upper and lower body connect back to the core. If they don’t have adequate core stability, the spine and pelvis can be pulled out of place.
Many athletes have to develop core stability in isolation before they can produce it during multi-segmental movement. This is one reason why core stability is both a foundation and ongoing focus for swimmers.
Swimming athletes should strive to maintain an elongated spine and streamline position. This is paramount in the pool when they apply force. It should be a goal in many of their dryland and strength exercises. In upper body exercises they should display advanced lumbo-pelvic control as well.

Sample Core strength & stability exercises:

  • Fundamental breathing patterns & resets
  • Ground based animal patterns
  • Active mobility & joint resiliency – scapula, spine, pelvis, hips
  • Anti-Rotation core exercises
  • Pilates
  • Scapula stability

Training the Swimmer

Swimmers of all levels need dryland training. They need a balance of both general and specific exercises. When it’s time to use swimming specific exercises, it takes much more than exercises that just look like swimming.
For exercise to produce swimming specific improvements, they need to address the core functions and be connected. Strength and power developed in this manner can help transfer to improvements in the pool.