This is your ultimate guide to the best swimming exercises.
In this guide you will learn:
- A swimming exercise that you can do anywhere that will set your abs on fire
- How to develop brute strength and power in the pool
- Swimming exercises for cardio and conditioning
Full instructions, sample sets, ways to make the exercises more challenging, and much more.
Swimming Exercises for Building Muscle and Getting Fit
Swimming is an often-overlooked way to get into hilariously good shape. But if you’ve ever turned on the Olympics and seen the chiseled abs, broad shoulders, and next-level athletic ability, you know that swimmers can do work.
The good news is that you don’t need to stack up ten years of swimming around the black line to take advantage of the same muscle-building benefits of swimming exercises.
Below is a collection of the best swimming exercises for abs, for developing aerobic capacity (cardio), and building muscle.
Let’s do this.
Swimming Exercises for Strength, Power, and Speed
Here is a collection of my favorite swimming exercises for developing strength, explosiveness, and fitness in the water.
1. Max Upper Body Power: Engage Your Lats, Shoulders, and Forearms with Paddles + Parachute.
One of the defining characteristics of the swimmer’s body is the broad shoulders. You could hang a full set of jackets and coats off the moose antlers that most competitive swimmers have across their sternum and upper back. The bowling ball shoulders and v-shaped back come from endless miles of swimming and pulling.
Fortunately, you can short-cut this by focusing on shorter reps of pulling with increased resistance. Adding hand paddles and a swim parachute to your training doubles-down on the power coming from your shoulders and lats.
A pair of studies found [1, 2] that swimming with paddles and a swim parachute increases strength in the water and can even help promote a more fluid and balanced swim stroke. How many wins was that? All of them, if I counted correctly!
The key is doing this type of power and strength training with plenty of rest. This form of swimming is high intensity and high stress. Just like lifting weights in the gym, the goal is to be able to swim with proper technique and lots of power.
The moment you begin to get sluggish and your stroke falls through the floor (or sinks into the pool gutter), crank up the rest. Don’t feel like you need to rush between reps.
Take :30-:90 rest between repetitions so that you can pull with max effort and crank up the back and arm power.
- 8×25 freestyle (front crawl) with paddles and swim parachute – take :90 rest from when you touch the wall
2. Max Full-Body Speed: Develop sprint speed with fins + paddles.
Ask any swimmer what their favorite swim gear is, and they will always land on the pairing of paddles and fins. The combination of these two speed-enhancers gives you the sense of quite literally surfing across the surface of the water, swimming at speeds you can only dream of.
To top it off, the increased surface area of swim paddles and fins recruits a heap of short twitch muscle fibers. The key with this kind of high-stimulus, overspeed work is doing short reps with lots of rest. Like, so much rest that you think it’s too much.
Swimming to fatigue is not the goal when sprinting with fins and paddles. It is stimulating the nervous system, and then backing off to allow for full recovery between repetitions.
- 2 rounds [6 x 15m (swim the last 10m easy to the wall) all-out with fins and paddles – take 1:00 rest between reps + do 100m easy on 5:00 between rounds]
3. Leg Max Power and Speed Recruitment: DragSox Kicking.
DragSox are basically exactly what they sound like—little mesh bags that you wear on your feet that dramatically increase the amount of drag and resistance on your legs.
Make no mistake, DragSox are not easy to use. They will humble you the first time out. They will probably humble you the second and third time out, too. But after a few sessions with them on, you will feel your kick dramatically improve.
One of the bad-ass things about DragSox is that when you take them off, the next time you push off you will feel as though you are being fired out of a tomahawk missile launcher.
The below set alternates power development with DragSox with all-out kicking.
- 16×25 kick with a kickboard – 4 rounds [2 x 25 with DragSox @1:00 rest between reps + 2×25 kick all-out (no Sox) @1:00]
4. Max Lower Body and Abs: Vertical Dolphin Kicking with Fins
Looking for the best swimming exercise for your abs?
Vertical kicking is your ticket to the six-ab gun show.
Instead of swimming—or rather in this case, kick—horizontal across the surface of the water, we are going to go vertical. Swim teams have long used this develop kick power (Michael Phelps built his legendary underwater dolphin kick on the back of this drill, too).
This kind of kicking helps you really engage your core (think about pulling your belly-button into your spine to keep your core engaged), you target the hamstrings and lower back with a an over-exaggerated “up” kick, and quite frankly, it’s a great way to mix up your swimming exercises.
Bonus benefit: you don’t need a ton of pool space to do this swimming exercise. Find a quiet corner of the pool (preferably in the deep end if you are on the taller side), strap on your favorite pair of swim fins, and bang out some intervals of vertical dolphin kicking.
Engage your core throughout, kick through your toes like Indiana Jones snapping a whip, and as you get better at this exercise, try lifting your hands, wrists, and then arms out of the water to provide more vertical resistance.
Pro tip: Count the number of dolphin kicks you do each round and try to maintain that number as the set progresses.
- 16x :30 [vertical dolphin kicking with fins + :30 rest on the wall]
Swimming Exercises for Cardio
Looking for swimming exercises that are more tailored for general fitness and weight loss?
Here are my two favorite swimming exercises for cardio.
5. Swim-kick interval training
When it comes to swimming exercises, there is nothing simpler or endless challenging than literally swimming for exercise. But where to start? What strokes should you do? How long should you swim for?
The good news here is that you really don’t need to overthink this. Get your heart rate up, keep your shoulders healthy, and you are golden.
My favorite meat-and-potatoes swim set for cardio and conditioning is the basic swim-kick combo.
Because doing kick gets your legs firing—the biggest muscles in your body—you get red-faced and sweaty fast. Pair up kicking with regular swimming for maximum lung capacity gains and fat torching.
It’s simple, it’s basic, but it works like a mothertrucker. Even after decades in the pool, I still do variations of the kick-swim set several times a week.
Here are a couple of sample sets:
- 12×100-meters – with :30 between reps, as 50-meters kick, 50-meters swim (build the swim so that you are going 90% of your max speed by the end of the 100)
- 16×50 alternating 25 kick/25 swim, 25 swim/25 kick – take :20 rest between reps
6. Water jogging
Even though water jogging looks like a piece of cake, the aerobic benefits aren’t to be discounted.
Because it is more demanding on the upper body compared to cycling or running, Dower et al (1999) found that water jogging can actually be a better cardiovascular activity at lower levels compared to running or cycling.
Combine that with the low impact nature of this activity and the endless cross-training options available in the water, this kind of swimming exercise is a no-brainer.