9 Exercises For Swimmers You Need to Quit Doing TODAY!

9 exercises for swimmers

By Dr. G. John Mullen, Swimming World Contributor.

You aren’t the typical gym-goer. You’re a swimmer, and that matters when you go to the gym. If you just want to do a little yoga, take a class with a friend, or try out a new machine, it’s not that easy. Your body has needs, and many popular exercises are bad for you and your performance.

It’s surprising just how many recommended exercises for swimmers are actually the worst for them. I scoured the Internet to find the worst exercises for swimmers.

Avoid Exercises That Do This

Swimmers need to take precautions to protect their shoulders, knees, and backs. If you’re a swimmer, you must not do exercises that:

  • stretch the shoulder beyond its normal range of motion
  • require excessive shoulder rotation
  • load too much weight on the back
  • activate the hip flexors, such as core workouts
  • put too much strain on the front of the shoulders
  • force the shoulder into a deep shoulder stretch
  • make you run, run, and run
  • restrict the shoulder

With all those in mind, can you imagine how many doozies there are online recommending exercises for swimmers that do just these?

The problem with many of the popular posts about exercises for swimmers is that they consider only one part of the body. “Oh, swimmers do a lot of arm exercises. Let’s stretch the shoulder backwards because of all the forward movement.” No, no. Stretching the arm in that way puts stress on the shoulders AND can impede performance.

Here’s a little advice when looking online for exercises for swimmers: make sure swimmers or swimming coaches wrote them.

9 Worst Exercises for Swimmers

You should have one goal in mind for everything you do at the gym and that is to enhance your performance. Here are the 10 worst exercises for swimmers I found online that don’t help you achieve your goal. I’ve also included exercise alternatives to improving performance.

1. Bench Press

Recently, I looked on a few forums that debated this exercise. It got quite heated. On one side, advocates of the bench press said that the resistance exercise strengthens the shoulder. On the other side, bench press deniers point out the stress on the shoulders. Which is true? I lean to the latter.

The problem with bench press is that you go into the exercise thinking it’s going to strengthen the upper body for better performance and strength in the pool. As an overhead athlete, however, you’re already at risk for injury.

Does the bench press strengthen the upper body? Yes. Is it best for swimmers? No. The bench press isolates the chest and the shoulders. If swimmers don’t stabilize their shoulder blades or have their shoulders flare outside, excessive stress will occur at the shoulder. In this scenario, the glenohumeral joint takes all the pressure of the bench, which could lead to a rotator cuff injury.

Try this instead: Floor Press

This exercise reduces the stress on the front of the shoulder while limiting range of motion.

2. Running

running exercises for swimmers

There is a good case for running. It’s a great way to improve cardiovascular health, lower body strength, bone density, maintain weight, and boost lung capacity. These are all benefits that could help swimmers with their performance. However, too much emphasis on running and not enough lower body strengthening exercises for swimmers may do more harm than good.

Too much running can cause wear and tear on the body, and exhaust the swimmer before practice even begins. Problems with gait can lead to training imbalances in the legs as well. This is problematic for swimmers, especially if the knees, quads, and ankles suffer.

Try this instead: Multi-planar Running (side steps, karaoke), Cycling, or Rowing

You’ll be surprised to know how many cardio exercises can prevent and reduce imbalances!

3. Bench Dips

When done improperly, bench dips are shoulder busters. It’s best to avoid bench dips altogether. To do a bench dip, swimmers need to bend at the elbows and engage the triceps to bring the body back to the starting position.

What happens as you go down and push back up is unnecessary stress on the front of the shoulders. Don’t improve tricep strength at the expense of the rotator cuff.

Try this instead: Shoulder Extension with Band

You need shoulder support and stability. The shoulder extension with band gives swimmers just that without killing the shoulder.

To perform this exercise, wrap the band to a post. It should be at the level of your thigh. Grab a handle in each hand, leaving a little tension in the band. Keep your elbows straight when you pull back on the band, and don’t lift your shoulders. You want to drive your shoulders back to engage the scapula. You’ll know you’re doing it correctly when you feel the movement in the middle of your back instead of in your shoulders.

4. Leg Lifts

Core strength is critical in swimmers. So, what do you do? You search online for “core exercises for swimmers.” It’s not that easy. One recommendation that will come up in 90% of the posts is leg lifts.

Before you get started, read this. Leg lifts are not the best core exercise for swimmers. There are many more out there that give swimmers results.

When doing leg lifts, the goal is to activate the core, right? Yes, but it rarely happens, especially if you’re doing leg lifts unassisted by a personal trainer.

When you lift, the psoas muscle takes over. It’s one of the large hip flexors that runs from the vertebra in the lower back to the inside of the hip. It’s possible –actually inevitable– to over activate this muscle. The higher the leg lift count, the more stress it puts on the body. Youth swimmers are especially susceptible to this.

Here’s what goes wrong when doing leg lifts: The lower back arches, the hips drive into the floor, and the neck strains to keep the upper body still. It’s a recipe for disaster. Now, not only do you have overactive psoas that can cause dysfunction in the pool, but instead of activating the core, you leave with joint and back pain, which is asking for an injury.

Try this instead: Anti-Rotation with Band

Anti-rotation exercises are great for any core workout, but they are especially beneficial for swimmers. Anti-rotations exercises don’t rely on outdated core training models. Workouts like the Russian twist and leg lifts are guilty of this. These outdated exercises put too much stress on the spine and many don’t active the core in the first place. Anti-rotation exercises do.

Try the single-arm plan with band, bilateral anti-rotation, and the anti-rotation with band and partner shoulder elevation.

5. Band Internal Rotations

Many things go wrong with internal band rotations. The mistakes I have seen are: assigning too many and performing just as many internal and external rotations.

Coaches have swimmers do internal band rotations for resistance and shoulder strength, but things can go real sour quickly, especially if you’re doing internal band rotations before practice or a meet. Why that is true is all in the demands swimming places on the shoulders. By the end of practice, the shoulder is fatigued. Over time, the constant demands of this cycle stress the shoulder.

posterior rotator cuff, exercises for swimmers

Combine the stress with the fatigue from internal band rotations. If a swimmer’s posterior rotator cuff is already stressed even before jumping in the pool, the muscles cannot stabilize the shoulder for the excessive stretch-recoil motions. As a result, shoulder injuries abound.

Remember, you need to active the rotator cuff, not exhaust it.

Try this instead: SMR for the Shoulder

Don’t stretch or overstress the posterior rotator cuff before practice. Activate it with SMR (self-myofascial release) techniques for the rotator cuff. Now, I’m not telling you to stretch the shoulder before practice; doing so elongates the muscles, which prevents them from stabilizing the shoulder. Activate them with a combination of SMR techniques for the shoulder.

6. Band Bent Over Row

Too many band bent-over rows with poor form and peak exhaustion spell trouble for the shoulders. The purpose of the band bent over row is to tone and strengthen the back, improve hip flexion, and improve shoulder and bicep strength.

Advocates for the band bent over row say it targets the lower back and the shoulders. That’s the problem with the band bent over row for swimmers. Targeting is as good as saying ‘stressing,’ when non-swimmers make workout recommendations.

Try this instead: Inverted Row

The inverted row requires you to flip over and pull up on the other side. Instead of putting unnecessary stress on the shoulders, the inverted row engages the shoulders to tow the body toward the bar. It also requires you to stabilize your body but also activating your core and your glutes. When you pull your body up to the bar, the back remains straight, the shoulders are square, and you don’t use your body to reach the bar.

7. V-Ups

The V-up exercise is another misguided exercise that is based on old a superficial understanding of the core. Is it possible to do V-ups properly? Yes. Are they always done the right way? No.

V-ups, especially when unsupervised, leave way too much room for error. Here’s why the V-up is so easy to mess up: form can slump and the back can do all the work. When you lost control of the V-up, it becomes habit. You begin to do them improperly and damage your back in the process.

You need a core exercise that does not cause so much stress on the back.

Try this instead: TRX Fallout

The TRX fallout –or suspended fallout– gives swimmers more stability, less stress on the back, and a killer core all at the same time.

Instead of forcing your lower back to take on the stress to stabilize the body, the core has no choice but to active to support the body weight. Start out by standing straight with the handles at your waist. Your starting position should mirror an incline push-up position. Grasp the handles and fall into the motion.

As you lean into the motion, keep your back straight and your core engaged. Only your joint should be moving. Peak contraction is just above your head. When you reach peak contraction, go back to the starting position.

8. Kipping Pull-Up

The kipping pull-up is one that you’ll see a great deal of debate about. Some coaches recommend the kipping pull-up for swimmers, while others unequivocally admonish it.

Where I stand on the kipping pull-up debate is somewhere in the middle. Yes, the kipping pull-up is good for swimmers, but it’s best to err on the side of caution. The kipping pull-up is an exercise from the CrossFit movement.

A popular benefit of the kipping pull-up is that it combines both speed and strength. The kipping pull-up can mimic undulations and short axis strokes. When done properly, the kipping pull-up forces the body to use momentum and undulating movements to transfer force from the feet, through the body, and up to the arms. Therein lies my reservations about the kipping pull-up as well. When done improperly, the kipping pull-up can cause significant damage to the shoulder.

Try this instead: Pull-Up Progression

Instead of jumping into pull-ups, master one first. Go through a pull-up progression series to master the pull-up. It is best to get a few technically sound pull-ups instead of 10 shoulder busters that you powered through to feel strong.

The pull-up is similar to the swimming pull. Not all coaches agree pull-ups should be part of a dryland training program, but those who do include them stress that they must be done properly. A pull-up progression guide can train you to get good ones. Pull-up progressions for swimmers must consider the importance of shoulder stability and scapular retraction.

9. Deep Shoulder Stretches

There is a big stretching movement. Entire classes and workout regimens are constructed around stretching, but if you’re a swimmer or any other athlete, stretching may not be the best. In fact, I always make a case against stretching before dryland.

Here is a problem with stretching: hypermobility. When muscles are loosed and strengthened, they aren’t stable. Sure, stretching can cause some sort of relief, but the relief is short lived. Swimmers need mobility, not flexibility. Stretching to relieve pain stimulates only the nerves; it doesn’t correct the underlying issue causing the pain in the first place.

Remember: nerves tell you that there is pain; they aren’t the source of the pain.

Try this instead: Doorframe Stretch

Doing doorframe stretches is safer and more beneficial for swimmers. Shoulder stretches in the doorframe or on a wall don’t require pulling and tugging the shoulders above the head. When doing shoulder stretches in the door frame, keep your elbow at a 90-degree angle and always step into the stretch.

When training on land for the pool, know your purpose. Dryland exercises for swimmers should prioritize developing skills that translate to success in the pool more than anything else.

Don’t do workouts that aren’t targeted, methodical, and designed specifically for swimmers. I also urge you to avoid intense exercises for swimmers and one-trick wonders that make big promises for the pool. Justify the purpose for each exercise and outcomes as well. Also, don’t be afraid to rest. Your body needs it. Get sleep, rest and recover, and keep it simple with effective dryland techniques.

For more tips, check out the COR Swimmer’s Shoulder System! For other tips on improving your swimming, check this out

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. All swimming and dryland training and instruction should be performed under the supervision of a qualified coach or instructor, and in circumstances that ensure the safety of participants.

16 comments

  1. Kristi Pottorff

    Doug Castleberry, what are your thoughts on this?