The density of water means you get more resistance from every pull or kick than you would on land, and these drills really make that work for you. Swimming laps already does a lot to build your upper body and legs, and if you know what exercises to do, you can help tone the rest of your body to get a little more ripped, too.
To use the pool to build muscle mass and strength, you’ll want to do more than your regular swim sets. “You must do short, high-intensity work, which requires an entirely different approach than people usually take in lap swimming,” says Terry Heggy, a Level 3 USMS coach, NASM-certified personal trainer, and head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, CO. “It’s about choosing the right motion, the right resistance, and the right number of repetitions.” We asked Heggy, along with Beth Jones, a swim coach and personal trainer with PlayTri in Dallas, to explain how to get the biggest muscle-building benefits from each exercise in the pool.
1) Shred Your Legs: Tombstone Drill
Make kicking more challenging by turning the kickboard vertically in the water (so the flat part is facing the wall in front of you). Now, kick. Hard.
The board creates extra resistance so you have to engage your hip flexors, quads and hamstrings more than you would in a standard kick set, explains Jones. If you don’t feel it in these areas, you may be kicking from your knees. “Instead, think of kicking with a straight leg, but a soft knee,” she says.
For extra strength: Do the tombstone drill for one to two lengths of the pool. Then leave the kickboard on deck and do one to two more lengths of sprint kicking. “You’ll feel like you’re flying now that the resistance is off,” she says. And it asks your legs to perform under fatigue, which helps build strength and power.
2) Build Your Back and Shoulders: Kickboard Press and Pull
Stand in shallow water and hold the kickboard like you would for the tombstone drill—grab the top and bottom in each hand and have the flat part facing the wall. Start with it close to your chest, then push it away from you and pull it back as fast as you can, explains Heggy, “which will probably annoy everyone else in the lane with you.” (So maybe best to save this for non-lap-swimming pool hours.) Do this as fast as you can to fatigue, then repeat it about three times. “You have to approach it as an explosive motion if you want to entice your muscles to grow,” he says. “You don’t need to do it for a minute each time—you should be able to get yourself cranking within 10 to 15 seconds.” This works the pecs, shoulders, and upper back, and trains both the pushing and pulling motions in the same exercise. To make it harder, dunk the kickboard deeper underwater.
3) Work Your Core: The “Gutbuster”
You won’t get too far down the pool before recognizing why Heggy calls this core-training drill the Gutbuster. “It gets really hard really fast,” he says. To do it: Hold a kickboard in your “lap.” Keep your torso vertical and bring your legs parallel to the surface of the water, so your body is in an “L” shape. With your back to the other end of the pool, start doing a flutter kick and moving yourself down the pool.
If you’re like most people who try this, you’ll start leaning back partway down the pool to straighten your abs to make it easier. Resist the urge! When you get down the lane, take a little break. Swim a 50, grab your board and do it again. This exercise gets all your core muscles, from your rib cage to your hips, involved, and the inherent instability of flutter kicking in water helps all the stabilizer muscles “understand they need to participate,” says Heggy, similar to what working on a Bosu or other unstable surface does on land. (Check out the smart way to use a Bosu on land, too.)
4) Build Your Lats: Swim with Paddles
If your stroke is already pretty efficient, do a segment of your swim workout with swim paddles, says Jones. These add even more resistance so you build your lats. Paddles should be only a little larger than your hand, and should have enough holes in them to take away some of the stress on your shoulders. Start with a short set—even as little as 200 yards or meters—and gradually work up to using them for longer ones.
If you’re a beginning swimmer, wait a while before using paddles, since stroke errors—like the very common one of letting your elbow drop to the bottom of the pool—can put huge, unhelpful, injury-producing stress on your shoulders when you add paddles to the equation. That builds pain, not muscle.
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5) Work Everything Even Harder: The Parachute Pull
Everything gets tougher and more muscle-building when you try to swim against resistance. With regular swimming, you’re trying to take as much drag out of your stroke as possible. But to do the muscle-building job, you want to add some, and there are a number of ways to do it.
One is with a “parachute” that you clip around your waist (about $16 to $30) that does exactly what you’d expect—it holds you back in the water, explains Heggy. “You get enough resistance that you’re going to fail pretty quickly, and that’s what stimulates muscle growth,” he says. On deck, it looks tiny, but in the water, will feel like you have a whole BASE jumping rig behind you. You can also wear a swimming drag suit—these have little “pockets” in them that trap water flow and make swimming harder—or just wear a pair of baggy shorts in the water. But “the commercial gear provides a better range of added resistance while helping you keep good form during the exercise,” Heggy says.
6) Strengthen Your Arms: Dry Shoulder Treading Water
At the deep end of the pool, tread water. Instead of just keeping your head out, use your arms in to get your shoulders out, too. What to do: Facing a wall, start treading. Keep your hands at about armpit level and sweep your arms and hands outward (so palms are facing the sides of the pool), then sweep them back toward each other (palms facing each other). Move them out and in as quickly as possible. “If you do these really hard and fast, and you’re really strong, you can get your sternum out of the water,” Heggy says. This works the rear deltoids and forearms.
7) Train Biceps, Triceps, and Lats: Starting Block Pull-Ups/Curls
Use the bar on the starting blocks to your advantage. Use a palms-up grip, extend your arms and place your feet on the wall and do biceps curls, or go palms-down, let your feet hang, and do pull-ups. “These aren’t fancy, nor is there only one way to do them. You’re basically just using your body weight for resistance,” Heggy says. And the water’s buoyancy can be helpful if you’re an athlete who’s just starting to work on pull-ups. Vary the resistance based on where you put your feet on the wall. “Mixing up the hand grip, hand width, and elbow angle enables you to target different muscle groups.”
8) Tighten Your Core: Kicks with Rotation
This is pretty much nobody’s favorite drill the first time they do it, but it’s great for your core and for your swim technique. Basically, you’re going to kick down the pool with your hands at your sides. Leading with your head. No arms to help you out.
To do it: Push off the wall face down, hands at your sides. Turn your body to face the right side of the pool—your navel will be facing the right-hand wall of the pool. Keep a steady flutter kick going and use your hips to turn your navel to the left wall (no arms, no hands). Do a few kicks that way and turn back to the right, and so on until you’re at the other end. Switch to the other side when you lose stability on the one you’re working.
This is seriously not easy. But it’s worth it. Do it better by keeping your kicks nice and small, “as if your legs are in a circular garbage can and you can’t kick outside that circle,” Jones says. “I’m a big fan of using a swim snorkel,” she says, so you don’t have to worry about breathing and can just think about how to engage your core. If you don’t have one, you can sneak in a breath when you need it. Either way, this seemingly simple drill requires you to recruit your core, which makes you swim better (and look great on deck, too).
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