Jen Rulon

Swimmers swim. Cyclists cycle. Runners run. Triathletes swim, bike and run. That’s it, right? What do all of these athletes have in common? They should also lift! As you know, I am a huge advocate of strength training for endurance athletes.

In this blog,  I will chat about swimmers and strength training. Swimmers, if you are NOT in a weight room, I do believe this is a mistake. EVERYONE needs to be in the weight room (Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, etc.) BTW. So, I present to you:

“Top 5 Strength Exercises for Swimmers.”

1.  Pull-Ups/Weighted Pull-Ups/Negative Pull-Ups

Either you LOVE pull-ups or you HATE pull-ups. I love strict pull-ups being used as part of the strength portion of your workout. Why? I ask you this: “What muscles do swimmers use for the front crawl swim stroke?”

The exact same muscles are being used:

  • Trapezius
  • Deltoid
  • Pectoralis Major
  • Triceps
  • Latissimus Dorsi

Pull-ups are hard for a lot of athletes, so here is my suggestion:

  • If you can do a strict pull-up: I would like for you to do at least 10 strict pull-ups. Too easy? Challenge yourself and start adding some weight to your pull-ups. Place a dumbbell between your feet or your knees. Start off small: 5 – 10 lbs of weight, and knock out 5 pull-ups. If you can knock out 5 pull-ups, then increase to 6, 7, etc. Up to 10 pull-ups with the weight that you started off with.
  • If you CANNOT do a strict pull-up: Negative Pull-Ups. Make sure your grip is pronated, jump up to the bar, and make sure your chin is over the bar. Then slowly lower yourself: 10-20 seconds of lowering.
  • Check out this great article from Breaking Muscle. I used to do a lot of banded pull-ups with both my clients and me, but I have changed my ways.

2. Dumbbell Rows

  • I LOVE this exercise! I have seen so many people be able to do pull-ups, chin-ups and toe 2 bars, just by doing this exercise. Not only will it help you in the gym, but it will also help you in the pool! (Thanks to Dan from King William District CrossFit, who showed me the light!)
  • What muscles are being used in the dumbbell rows? Just to name a few: Trapezius, rhomboids, Latissimus dorsi, deltoid (Posterior) and brachialis.
  • Make sure you activate the scapula versus using your whole body. Your torso should be horizontal to the floor.

3. Back Extension (Weighted or Non-Weighted)

  • When a triathlete is in their wetsuit for a long period of time, what gets fatigued? Their lower back. Being in the wetsuit can be a very “unnatural” for a long period of time.
  • This exercise will target the erector spinae, along with the glutes, hamstrings, and adductor.
  • You can do the back extension on the GHD machine (CrossFit gym), or the Roman Chair in a global gym.
  • Here is a decent video for you to see how to do it properly. If you don’t have this machine, check out how to do it at home.

4. Squats

  • What’s not to love about the squat? You can do air squats, Back squats, dumbbell squats, Overhead Squats, Front Squats, and Goblet Squats. There are endless kinds of squats.
  • It is a full lower body exercise working the hip and knee joints, along with the numerous muscles on the anterior (front) and posterior (back) part of the leg and the butt.
  • We want to increase the strength of the knee extensors, since this will improve both force and endurance when you are kicking, whether it is the butterfly stroke or the front crawl.
  • Some swimmers will do a flat start in a competition; what muscles would you be using? Very much the same as in a squat.

5. Barbell Windshield Wipers (Core Work)

  • We hear this all the time from our swim coaches: Use your core; turn more by using your core. How do we get that strong? So many great core exercises, but I really like this one. (Hollow Rocks, V-Ups, Strict Toes to Bar to name a few others)
  • Obviously, we are using our abs for this type of work, but we are also tapping into our hip flexors.
  • Check out this video on how to do floor wipers. (

Here is a FANTASTIC photo for what muscles are being used for in ALL the strokes!

Muscles used for Swimmers


I remember Michael Phelps talked about before Rio, getting into the gym three times a week, doing pull-ups and push-ups, along with squats. But here is the thing; Phelps isn’t lifting a TON, right? We have can’t have major mass on him, especially during his heavy training season and heading into the Olympics. Coaches want him lean, strong and fast. Don’t believe me? Check out this Men’s Fitness Video with Phelps:

Building strength for athletes, whether you are a swimmer, cyclist, runner, or a triathlete, is an ABSOLUTE must. Start looking around at who is lifting more. They may be the ones passing you in the pool.


AUTHOR: Jen Rulon

I have been coaching triathletes, runners, and cyclists for over 21+ years; I received my Master's Degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Science. And as you may have learned, there is more to life than swimming, biking, and running. It is a lifestyle, and I am here to help you cross that finish line with a smile, whether it is an Ironman Triathlon or the Ironman of Life. You can find my knowledge shared in Triathlete Magazine, Runners World, on the TEDx Stage, the Health and Wellness Expo in San Antonio, TX, Southwest Research Institute Human Performance Summit, Training Peaks Workshops, "Self Motivation Strategies for Women" on Amazon, Men's Journal Online, and the New York Times. I also practice what I preach—she's a 15x Ironman Triathlete who participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on October 14, 2017.

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