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7 Best Arm Exercises for Swimmers to Develop a Faster Stroke

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One sure way to strike fear into the hearts of your competitors is by walking out on the pool deck with big and strong arms. That said, this is probably not the main reason you want to incorporate arm exercises into your swimming dryland routine, but definitely is a nice bonus!

Arm exercises are a great way to improve your stroke and swim faster in the pool with the upper body playing a large role in creating propulsion and speed in the water. Not just that, but these exercises will also increase your muscular strength and stability which will ensure a lower risk of injury in the water.

The arms consist of 3 main muscle groups, namely the biceps, triceps, and shoulders. Your main focus should be on developing your tricep and shoulder muscles though since these are the largest and play the most important role in swimming.

In this article, I’ll provide you with a list of exercises to target and develop all of these arm muscle groups, I’ll also specify which muscle groups each exercise works, and why you should consider including it in your training routine. Keep in mind, it isn’t necessary to use all of these exercises, choose 2 or 3, and work on getting stronger in them for maximal results in the pool.

7 Best Arm Exercises for Swimmers

Here are some of the best arm exercises for swimmers-

  • Chin Ups
  • Overhead Press
  • Plank Row
  • Medicine Ball Push-Ups
  • Tricep Push Downs
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Skullcrushers

1. Chin Ups

Chin-ups are one of the best exercises for swimmers to develop overall upper body strength as well as really targeting the bicep muscles in the arms. What’s great about the chin-up is that it works multiple muscle groups at once, giving you a good bang for your buck. As mentioned, the chin-up works the bicep in the arms, but it also targets your lats and scapula in the back which play a big role in developing a powerful stroke.

The Chin-up is very similar to the popular pull-up exercise but is a good alternative for swimmers who want to place a higher emphasis on developing the bicep muscles in the arms while also reaping the benefits of building a stronger back. The main difference between the pull-up and chin-up is the hand placement. The pull-up has an overhand grip while the chin-up has an underhand grip.

As you become stronger, you can increase the reps and sets you do. I recommend aiming to do 4 sets of 12 reps with about 2-3 minutes rest in between. Once you can do that you can consider adding some weight to make the exercise harder.

How to perform the chin up-

  • Grab the bar with hands shoulder-width or just outside shoulder-width apart.
  • Retract your scapula and brace your core.
  • Pull your body up with your elbows facing down to the ground.
  • Your head should pass the top of the bar.
  • Then slowly lower yourself back down and repeat.
  • Your shoulders should completely lockout at the bottom.
  • Avoid using momentum.

2. Overhead Press

Next is another compound exercise, namely the overhead press. This is one of the most popular dryland exercises among swimmers in the weight room and there are a few variations to choose from, namely the barbell overhead press, dumbbell overhead press, as well as a few other seated variations or even one arm variations if you are up for it.

The overhead press works all 3 of the arm muscles, namely the biceps, shoulders, and triceps. It also works the upper chest- and upper back muscles. 

However, unlike chin-ups, the overhead press is going to require you to have a bit more equipment available to you. Ideally, you should have a barbell and some weights or at least a nice pair of dumbbells if you want to perform this exercise, kettlebells can work too.

The overhead press is also a bit more of a technical exercise, and it’s highly recommended to learn proper form first before adding any weight at all. Once you’ve got the form down you can slowly add weight, increasing it as you become stronger and stronger.

For this exercise, I recommend doing 3 sets of 5-6 reps with a minimum of 3 minutes rest between sets.

How to perform the barbell overhead press-

  • Start by standing feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab the bar and unrack it.
  • Brace your core and upper back.
  • Then push the bar up so that it passes right in front of your nose.
  • Continue pushing the bar up until your shoulders lockout at the top.
  • Then slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position following the same movement line you used for pushing it up.
  • Repeat the movement.

3. Plank Row

The plank row is a great arm exercise that is also going to develop some good core strength and stability, which is highly important in swimming. Like the other exercises on our list, this is also a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups, namely the core, upper back, biceps, triceps, and shoulders.

The plank row can be performed either with dumbbells or kettlebells and even with a resistance band if you don’t have those options available to you.

How to perform the plank row-

  • Start by going into a plank position but balancing your body on the handles of the dumbbells or kettlebells you are using.
  • Brace your core.
  • Retract your scapula before pulling the weight up.
  • Then pull the weight up so that you feel a squeeze in your upper back.
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

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4. Medicine Ball Push-Ups

Similar to the plank row, the medicine ball push-up will also engage your core muscles while also placing a lot of emphasis on your triceps, shoulders, and chest muscles. This exercise will also help to develop some explosive power that translates well into faster swimming.

There are many variations of this exercise, such as alternating rolling medicine ball push-ups, alternating jumping medicine ball push-ups, as well as medicine ball push-ups with both hands on the ball. 

For speed and explosiveness, I recommend one of the alternating variations, while the variation with both your hands on the ball is better for developing stability.

How to perform alternating rolling medicine ball push-ups-

  • Go into a push-up position placing your one hand on the medicine ball so that one side of your body is lifted higher.
  • Brace your core and stabilize your scapula.
  • Perform a push-up.
  • As you come up to complete the rep, roll the ball over to your other hand.
  • Then repeat.
  • Do this until you’ve done 8-12 reps on each side.

5. Tricep Push Downs

Most of the exercises on our list so far have been compound exercises. However, as mentioned, the triceps are a very important muscle group in the arms (in fact, it is two times as large as the bicep muscle and plays a more important role in your arm stroke). Therefore, I decided that it would be a good idea to include a tricep isolation exercise on our list to really nail down and strengthen this muscle group.

The tricep pushdown has many variations to choose from. If you have a cable machine available to you, I recommend doing the machine tricep pushdown, but if you don’t have that option, you can also use a resistance band or dumbbells to do the exercise.

How to perform the machine tricep pushdown-

  • Grab the cable handle.
  • Stand back and bend your knees to angle your body slightly forward.
  • Brace your core and set your shoulders.
  • Pull the handle back towards your body to activate the tricep muscles.
  • After that, slowly allow the resistance of the machine to carry the band back to the starting position.
  • Repeat until your set is complete.
  • Remember to keep your shoulders in a stable and set position and not to use momentum.

6. Kettlebell Swings

The kettlebell swing is a really great exercise and one that is popular among coaches for conditioning swimmers and athletes. The kettlebell works a wide variety of muscle groups throughout the entire body making it good for swimmers. That said, it also engages the biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles and will help to get your heart rate up for a nice workout.

How to perform kettlebell swings-

  • Stand with your feet slightly out of shoulder-width apart.
  • Pick up your kettlebell.
  • Set your shoulders and brace your core.
  • Then swing the kettlebell back through your legs to build up some momentum.
  • As it reaches the back, swing it forward until it reaches chest high or even higher.
  • Allow the kettlebell to fall back as you prepare to repeat the movement.
  • Remember to engage your muscles on all stages and not to solely rely on momentum to perform your reps.

7. Skull Crushers

Similar to the tricep pushdown, the skull crusher is also one of the best exercises for developing some serious tricep strength and size. This exercise, however, will also place some emphasis on working your shoulders and developing stability in those muscles as well, although it isn’t its main purpose.

This exercise has a few variations, the most popular variation includes using an E-Z-curl bar to perform the exercise. You can, however, also use dumbbells or a standard barbell to perform this exercise.

How to perform skull crushers-

  • Grab the bar and lay down on the bench.
  • Allow your neck to hang slightly from the bench.
  • Bring the bar above your body and then lower it so that it sits just above your forehead.
  • Brace your core and stabilize your shoulders.
  • Lower the bar down bending at your elbows until your triceps are fully contracted.
  • Then extend it back up to the starting position and repeat.

Swim Faster with These Arm Exercises for Swimmers

Whether you are swimming, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, or freestyle, the arms will always play an important role in generating speed and propulsion in the water helping you to swim as fast and efficiently as possible. 

By adding a few arm exercises into your dryland training routine you are not only developing stronger arms, but you are also improving your arm stroke and overall upper body strength as well as reducing your risk for injuries in the water.

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I am Benjamin, a competitive swimmer with over a decande of experience in the sport of swimming. I also hold certifications in Exercise Science and Nutrition. I am very passionate about competitive swimming and love sharing everything I have learned about the sport. I specialize in swimming butterfly and my favorite event is the 100m butterfly with the 50m and 200m fly closely following.

A Cheat Sheet for Creating the Perfect Swimming Workout and Routine

Download this FREE cheat sheet to create the perfect swimming workout and routine. Learn how to structure your swim workout and enjoy 9 example workouts, ranging from beginner to advanced.

Swim Workout Cheat Sheet
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