Fitness Makeover: Weight-train to build speed, not bulk

This months Makeover Man is 32-year-old Mark Urban of Palos Heights, Ill. A middle-distance backstroker and IMer with a desire to venture into long-distance freestyle, Mark recently competed in the Illinois State Championships.

He wrote to inquire about how to improve his swimming strength via the weight room.

While weight training for swimmers has been covered in this column before, Marks letter sparked an opportunity for me to design a fast and easy six-week plan. Mark is willing to commit three days a week to weights in addition to three to five long-course workouts this summer.

I have already started in the weight room, Mark writes, lifting lightly on the bench and incline, but more serious with the barbells, lats, tris, situps, stretch cordz. For legs, the sitting squat press and leg curls. I started very light in some cases just the bar ... but I never got sore.

His goal is to gain strength without bulking up or losing flexibility. He would like to lift until next springs Short Course Championships, but I will suggest a starter plan he can begin for a month and a half.

After this, Mark can decide if he wants to stick with the same plan throughout the year, or to tailor it more specifically to his swimming needs and weaknesses.

Many swimmers struggle to find their balance in the weight room. Traditional weight training teaches us that more is better, no pain no gain, etc. If the goal is to add muscle and become increasingly defined, then there is indeed some validity to this approach.

However, swimmers are not weightlifters, and they do not need to be traditionally defined in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense to swim fast. Most swimming muscles are developed doing the sport, not in the weight room (the proverbial swimmers build refers to the lean, whippet-like appearance of most elite swimmers, obtained from continuous swimming and if anything, a relatively moderate weight-training regimen).

Weights are to be used as a complementary strength-building tool in order for the swimmer to retain ideal flexibility and range of motion, while gaining applicable strength.

Applicable is the key word here: certain weights, like power cleans or bench pressing, provide less applicable swimming-related benefits than simple exercises like dumbbells and lateral-pull-downs.

Below is a brief weight workout that involves dumbbells and a few simple dryland exercises which, if done three times a week for six weeks, will result in obvious strength gains in the pool. They may not be visible gains, but remember that the idea is to gain swimming strength, not cosmetic bulk.

By the end of this mini-boot camp, Mark should be pleased to find his flexibility intact, and his swimming speed and endurance improved.


Pick a pair of dumbbells, somewhere between 5 lbs. and 20 lbs. depending on your current strength level. Remember that the first day of weights is always a breeze, but the second day will be a killer if you overdo it the first time. Sit down at a bench with your arms at your sides and alternate lifting the weights, curling at your elbows until your arm is bent at 90 degrees. These are bicep curls.

  • 11 reps, bicep curls

    Go directly into overhead extensions, where you lift the weights simultaneously from on top of your shoulders to straight above your head, arms extended.

  • 11 reps, overhead extensions

    Put one of the dumbbells down and use the other one to do one-arm curls with your elbow resting against your inner thigh. Make sure you keep your resting arm relaxed and do not rely on it during the opposite arms attempt to bring the weight up (some people use their idle arm to grip the bench, tug at the straining arms elbow, or even help pull the weight up!). Then switch arms and repeat.

  • 11 one-arm curls, each arm

    Take a lighter dumbbell now (if you started with 10 lbs., find a 5 or 7 lb. weight), and bending at the waist, practice tricep extensions. This is where you take the weight with your elbow bent, and push it back from your hip to behind you, with your elbow now fully extended. This exercise mimics the last bit of your freestyle stroke before your arm exits the water to begin its recovery. It is the last part of the underwater pull and usually the first part of the stroke to fall apart due to fatigue. This is a very valuable exercise, and it develops your triceps (traditionally a neglected muscle group even for regular-Joe gym-goers), which are essential in maintaining good stroke-finishing form.

  • 11 tricep extensions, each arm

    Take a break from the dumbbells and do a set of 15 push-ups, taking care to keep your body rigid (like a plank) so as not to simply bob your chest and head toward the ground in quick, jerky movements. Execute the push-ups slowly and deliberately, lifting your body away from the ground as slowly as you bring it down.

  • 15 push-ups

    Find a lateral-pull-down machine, and after familiarizing yourself with the proper technique (ask a trainer for help, or make sure you fully understand the diagram that should be featured on the equipment), do 11 pulldowns. Allow the weight back up gently, as controlled in movement as when you pull the bar toward you.

    Repeat all of the above, two more times.

    (Approx. training time: 30 minutes)

    The above weight workout is a mild toning and strength-building routine that is designed to achieve results quickly with minimal chance of injury. As with any type of weight training, there are inherent risks one takes that can result in muscle strains. But the lightness of the recommended weights and the gentle nature of the routine makes this a great workout for swimmers who have never lifted before, or those who want to try it and see how it might help in a relatively short amount of time.

    Swimming after a weight routine like the one above should not be agony; your body should feel tighter and perhaps a bit sore at first, but overall a heightened sense of muscle-awareness should strike you with each stroke.

    The weights break down your muscles, but in the water you will be able to feel where they are fatigued and hence, what muscles you are using during different parts of your stroke.

    Incidentally, notice the absence of dips, extreme overhead exercises, and shoulder-rotating drills. These types of weight-room exercises can inflame the swimming-sensitive rotator-cuff area and also result in less flexibility.

    Remember that shoulder rotation (and consequent body roll) is a key factor in efficient swimming and the more bulky your shoulders get, the less flexible they will become. This routine purposely stays away from those exercises.

    The nice thing about swimmers who lift weights is that they usually are less than 24 hours away from a swim after their last weight workout (if they train consistently). Mark will be doing something each day, and if he were to alternate a day in the pool with a day in the weight room, his swimming would allow him to maintain flexibility while his weight training would result in increased strength.

    By gaining valuable strength without attaining bulk, Mark will find his times in the water improving, even if his outward appearance remains unchanged.

    After he is accustomed to the above program and begins to feel its benefits, Mark can opt to flesh out his dry-land workout with additional weight exercises or slightly heavier weights.

    He should consult his masters swim coach for advice on which machines can best help him develop swimming-related strengths without risking injury or gaining unwanted muscle mass that can hinder performance.

    If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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