Power Up Your Swim: Strength Work for Triathletes

Many of us are joining the Team Atomica dryland sessions on Zoom, but for those who aren’t, here are Coach Darian’s suggestions for building swim-specific strength. No gym required!


Most athletes will swim faster if they develop more strength. However, most triathletes are already taxed with onerous training schedules and lead generally busy lives, so the chances of getting in an extra 2-3 hours in the gym per week is low. As such I recommend a general strength training program focused on developing overall body strength in the prime movers that takes no more than 30min to do and is done 1-2 times per week, depending on the time of the season. (That’s a topic for another day).

Here are the two most common weaknesses to focus on and strengthen:

1 – Scapular stabilization: 
Most people spend much of their times in a position where their shoulder blades are protracted (pushed forward)—modern life is bad for this, but triathlon isn’t any better. Swimming, running and biking all encourage, or at least don’t discourage this position. Unfortunately, it has performance consequences, especially in the swim. A protracted shoulder blade is a weak position for the shoulder and leads to increased injury risk as well as decreased force production capacity. A simple exercise like pulling your shoulder blades together and downwards along your spine can activate the muscles that are responsible for retraction and help you to develop more stable shoulders.  Here is an example. Many progressions can be built off of this movement, but just starting here can make a difference.

2 –Transverse abdominal strength: 
You may have heard this before, but core stability is really important for swimming (and running and biking too). You can’t transfer power through the core if the core cannot handle the force you are putting through it. The transverse abdominal muscles are the layer of abdominal muscles most responsible for stabilizing the core. The most common way to work these muscles is through a plank exercise. However, many people do not actually have the strength in their transverse abdominals to effectively complete a plank and end up relying on alternate muscles (like the erector spinae or quadratus lumborum) to hold the position. This is not what you want. I really like the Sahrmann exercises. They were initially developed for post-partum core rehabilitation, but they are perfect for training you to use your transverse abdominal muscles, and don’t worry the progressions get pretty hard pretty fast. In fact, I recommend that you stay one progression below what you can achieve because the goal with these is activation for the correct muscles. If you go to your limit, the temptation of the body is to use accessory muscles to complete the movement, which is the exact opposite of we want. Here is a video with an explanation of how to do the movements as well as a seven-stage progression.

Just addressing these two areas of weakness can have a big impact on your injury risk as well as performance potential.

(A version of this article first appeared in our August 2019 Newsletter).