When you watch an Olympic freestyle swimmer knocking out a sub-15-minute for 1500m, you can only admire how easy they make it look – as if they are swimming in slow motion.
Apart from the many hours spent in the pool, these guys and girls are spending a lot of time in the gym building their strength and power output. As a triathlete you don’t need to go to those extremes, although a strength workout once per week, or more during the winter, can certainly put you on a higher level come the start of the triathlon season in the summer.
Swimmers call it dry-land training and for triathletes, it’s a great way to cut down the hours you need to spend in the pool in order to improve. This is because a weak swimmer is a slow swimmer, no matter how many miles you log in the pool. A strong swimmer can spend less time in the pool but still swim faster.
You just need a spare 30 minutes and a few key exercise routines to get you on your way
Start with four sets of 20 to 25 sit-ups to get the blood flowing nicely. Keep the rest period between all routines and exercises to around 20 seconds.
1. Triceps and Biceps
Do one set of 20 tricep pushdowns using a weighted cable, followed immediately by one set of 20 bicep curls, using a cable or free weights. Repeat this four times.
The triceps are used during the final push phase of the freestyle stroke. The biceps are used during the catch.
2. Shoulder Press
This exercise involves pushing a weight from your shoulders towards the ceiling, using both arms together. Start with 10 shoulder presses, using a shoulder-press machine, or free weights – usually dumbbells, which you should push up above your head, straightening your arms and bringing the hands together – carrying the weight back down in front of your chest. Then do 10 more, carrying the weight behind your head. Repeat this four times, with 20-second rests between sets.
You need power in the shoulder area for an effective and arm pull, as well as during the recovery phase. Strong shoulders mean fewer swim injuries.
3. Straight-Arm Push-downs
These are a bit like the tricep pushes above and can be completed using a cable machine or rubber bands. This time, you’re not allowed to bend your elbows. Start with your arms straight up above your head. Pull a weight or resistance band downwards until your hands meet the front of your thighs. Do four sets of 25 reps with minimal rests in between. Keep your back straight, use your abs to keep your balance with your elbows locked from the top right through the push-down motion.
This brilliant exercise replicates much of the underwater phase of freestyle swimming, and builds your specific strength.
4. Bench Press
You can use a bench and a barbell (below), dumbbells, or a chest-press machine. Do four sets of 15 reps with 20 seconds rest between. To maximise this workout, do a set of abdominal crunches during the rest period, while you lie on the flat bench.
Your chest muscles are used to support the underwater arm motion, while your stomach muscles help stabilise your body and are used when you turn at the end of each length.
5. Latissimus Pull-Downs
You’ll either need a lat pull-down machine, all gyms have these, or rubber stretch cables for this one. The exercise involves pulling a weight or resistance cable downwards with both arms behind your neck, before slowly letting it back up. Do four sets of 20 reps.
This strengthens your lats, the big muscles at the sides of your torso. Swimmers with good body rotation can take advantage of these strong muscles to propel them through the water.