Upper body drills
Swimming isn’t only a good cardio workout. With the right drills and equipment you can sculpt those unmistakable swimmer’s shoulders. If your aim is to hone and tone your upper body, tackle your technique first then add in a resistance training set to your swimming schedule to maximise muscle.
“Using swim equipment in the pool is really beneficial. You can use it to help improve your technique but also to target different areas,” says Speedo coach Dan Bullock. “To tone up your arms you need to put the emphasis on working your upper body. Use a pull buoy to keep your legs from moving and try wearing paddles or Speedo Aqua Gloves to add resistance and make the workout tougher.”
Before diving into with the equipment, make sure you have a goal. It could be technique, strength or speed. Finger paddles are slightly smaller in size than hand paddles and will help you hone your technique. They go over the edge of your hand and can be used for improving distance per stroke and developing a feel for the water. Hand paddles or power paddles create even more resistance in the water, giving a strength-training workout.
Fist swim: If you don’t have paddles, try the fist swim drill to help develop the feel for the stroke in your forearms. Instead of swimming with an open hand, form a fist to reduce the surface area in contact with the water as you pull through the stroke. To make the drill harder, hold a tennis ball in each hand.
Five-count extension: The count extension drill helps you increase speed and use less energy by getting your arm to full extension in the water. Pull through the water with your left arm, leaving your right arm extended. At the end of the pull, leave your left arm resting at your side with your right arm extended. Hold for 5 seconds then repeat with the right arm.
The chicken wing: The chicken wing challenge is to swim without using your hands and with a short arm length – so your arms look like chicken wings. The drill helps to keep your elbows high to set up a good positioning for the catch. Just hook your thumbs at right angles under your armpits and (try to) swim. Clucking not advised.
Fingertip drag drill: Otherwise indistinguishable from normal freestyle, except you drag your fingertips along the surface of the water on the recovery. Focus on keeping a high elbow in the recovery. Alternatively, drag the entire hand, wrist-deep, through the water to build strength and speed.
Butterfly tummy kick scull with finger paddles: Start the drill with your arms extended. As you begin to kick, scull outwards then inwards positioning your hands slightly downwards for a more efficient sculling movement.
Underwater reach drill with finger paddles: This drill focuses on the first part of freestyle, the catch. As you enter the catch phase, gently press down and make sure you feel your forearm working along with your hand during the movement. Use fins to help your body positioning in the water.
Once you have the technique nailed, power paddles can help you bulk up. Larger in size, power paddles create even more resistance in the water, making your muscles work harder in the pull phase. It’s important to have a good technical stroke before you use paddles for strength training to avoid injury. You won’t use power paddles every day but as part of a session in an overall swimming schedule. An example set using power paddles could look like this:
6 × 100m with fins
6 × 50m without fins
6 × 100m with pull buoy and paddles
6 × 50 without pull buoy and paddles
Cool-down: 200m easy swimming
Add one land-based upper body workout into your weekly swimming programme to strengthen your muscles and beat injury. Try these upper body moves into your next gym session.
Rotator cuff: Swimming is notorious for rotator cuff injuries. ‘Swimmer’s shoulder’ refers to an overuse injury in the muscles that stabilise the shoulder joint. But by adding in some internal and external rotation exercises and scaption with dumbbells into a weekly gym session, you’ll strengthen the most stressed muscles and avoid injury.
Back: A swimmer’s sculpted shoulders are built by beefing up your back muscles. The fact they’ll help power you through your stroke is an added bonus. Wide grip lat pull downs, narrow grip seated row and standing pull downs will help strengthen your lats and traps.
Chest: You’ll feel the burn in your upper chest and shoulders particularly in the freestyle stroke. Prepare your pecs with incline chest presses.
Arms & shoulders: Tricep dips and bicep curls will help boost your arm strength to maximise your swimming stroke. The bench press will work both your arms and shoulders, targeting the muscles that give you power in the pool.