Strength training for open-water swimming

Notwithstanding this post’s title, my strength training routine only partly tailored for open water swimming. It’s a balanced, total-body routine designed for strength, simplicity, and sustainability.

Strength means not designed for maximum muscle mass (the former helps swimming, the latter does not).

Simplicity means using only a few basic gym equipment, and that I can remember the routine easily without writing it down.

Sustainability means giving myself the best chance of consistently doing the routine over the long term. It’s integrated seamlessly into my everyday life, and it’s brief (no more than 30 minutes per session).

Some other principles, related to the above, include:

  • Doing exercises that use natural, compound movements - i.e., movements that use multiple muscles simultaneously.
    • A corollary of this principle is that free weights (which require stabilizing the weight yourself) are preferable to Nautilus-type machines.
  • Doing exercises that use my own body weight - e.g., push-ups, pull-ups, bar dips, bridges.
    • Body-weight exercises also tend to be natural and compound.
  • Doing higher repetitions (usually 3 sets of 8-12 reps), and thus lower weight. This trains my body for “endurance” strength rather than “power” strength, and also minimizes the chance of injury.

Here’s the routine:

Gym Session A (chest + lower body)

  • push-ups
  • squats
  • deadlift
  • bench press

Gym Session B (back + shoulders)

  • pull-ups / chin-ups
  • overhead press
  • inverted row
  • bar dips

Core + Resistance Band Session

  • Core:
    • wheel roll-out
    • plank
    • bicycle
    • reverse crunch
    • Russian twist
  • Resistance Bands - 1 of the following:
    • “butterfly” pull
    • tricep extension
    • internal & external shoulder rotation


  • Monday, Wednesday, Friday: Core + Resistance Band Session
  • Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday: alternate between Gym Session A & B
    • follow immediately with long, smooth swim workout (helps reduce soreness)
  • Sunday: off

Each session takes no more than 30 minutes, and involves two pieces of equipment. Session A requires a power rack and a bench. Session B requires a power rack and a dip station. The Core session requires a medicine ball and an ab wheel.

The gym sessions target a maximum number of muscles with a minimum number of exercises. The core+bands session targets “swim strength” - the core, lats, and triceps - and also incorporates an injury-preventive exercise for “swimmer’s shoulder” (i.e., rotator cuff inflammation).

After 6 weeks, I can report substantial gains in strength. My performance in swim workouts has suffered, which can be frustrating - but you just have to trust that your eventual taper will have that much more upside.