A Fish Out of Water: Dryland Strength Training for Swimmers


Therapeutic Associates

Swimmers just want to swim; they’re not very fond of doing anything out of the water. In fact any exercise done out of the water has a specific name: dryland. If you ask the typical swimmer how they prefer to exercise, you will get a clear and resounding answer — swimming. However, dryland workouts, despite their general lack of appeal for swimmers, are an important component in training.

Benefits of strength training for swimmers

Optimized performance + maximized speed

Swimming is a great full-body workout capturing movement from all four limbs – arms and legs. It requires speed, consistency, endurance, strength and power. The downside of only training in water is that water is low resistance, essentially decreasing the effect of gravity with buoyancy. You can increase resistance in the water only so far with use of resistance paddles and by isolating upper-body or kicking drills. It is difficult to make significant gains in strength and power when exclusively training in the water.

Performing dryland exercises elevates your training for strength (amount of weight able to move), power (how fast you move the weight), and coordination (how efficiently you move weight) in ways water-based training simply cannot achieve. Doing a squat in water just won’t cut it for building the muscles in the hips and knees. Pushups on the bottom of the pool or at the wall simply won’t build strength in the chest and shoulders. To achieve strength and power, bodyweight exercises and exercises using resistance in the form of bands, weights, or varied angles and body positions need to be utilized.

Improving strength, power, and coordination in your upper body – shoulders, arms and back – can improve speed and power for all phases of arm movement used for each and every stroke.

Addressing strength and power in your legs can help with your start off the blocks and every time you push off of the walls. It can help with the power of your kick, and it can help with coordination of your core for all of your strokes, but especially for butterfly.

Strength and power aren’t just for your arms and legs. A big part of swimming is the core. Increasing core strength with water-based training alone has its limits too. Dryland exercises help with increasing core strength which improves the ability to remain stable in the water, establishing less water resistance and increasing overall speed. Improved core strength also helps with the speed and efficiency of flip turns and the rotation of the body to optimize the turn.

Injury prevention

You must be stronger than the forces you put upon yourself. If you’re not, this can lead to injuries; the most common for swimmers are typically overuse injuries (about 43% of all swimming-related injuries). Shoulders are the most common body part cited for injuries in swimmers (about 27%). Along with swimmers, divers have a relatively high rate of core injuries (23%) and can reduce risk of injury with dryland programs too, especially those with core muscle training included.

Dryland strength training helps to develop muscles throughout the whole body including the arms, legs, and core, achieving a more balanced athletic structure. This can help not only prevent injuries for the most common areas swimmers (and divers!) get injured – the shoulder and core – but can also improve overall strength, making the entire body more resilient in general and reducing injury risk and rate.

For swimmers training at the highest level, blood-lactate levels can be measured to monitor for overtraining. In general, recognition of changes in training volume and attention to the total training volume for prolonged periods, can indicate if an athlete is at risk for overtraining. High volumes of training for the young athlete range from about 15-25 hours per week while an adult high volume ranges from 22-30 hours per week. Swimming 3-5 hours per day can be risky, especially for the young athlete. These higher volumes are correlated with overuse injuries, most commonly shoulder pain. Supplementing a swimming program with dryland training has been shown to reduce injury rates and improve performance allowing swimmers to maintain high volumes of training and also reduce the risk of injury!

a medical professional works on a patient's shoulder and back

What to include in a dryland training program for swimmers

Dynamic Warmup

The best way to start a dryland workout is with a dynamic warmup. A dynamic warmup, unlike static stretching that was once the common practice prior to activity, prepares your body for the demands of physical exertion. Static stretching, where each stretch is held for a longer period of time, is best done at the end of a workout.

A good dynamic warmup heats up your body and muscles, increases heart rate, blood flow and oxygen levels and maximizes range of motion, flexibility and mobility. A dynamic warmup can be designed specifically for the sport or activity being performed and typically includes a series of exercises that incorporates slow, controlled movements through a safe range of motion as well as fast, upbeat movements that engage the entire body. Additionally, adding a dynamic warmup to your routine can help ensure you’re mentally engaged and sets the tone for the rest of the dryland workout.

Dynamic Warmup

12 Effective Exercise Options for Your Dynamic Warmup

Pick 4-5 of these activities to warm up with each time you begin a dryland workout and make sure to mix it up between sessions. Perform each move for 1 minute before moving to the next one.

With endless possibilities for combinations of exercises to include, Dynamic Warmups — including Dynamic Stretching — are easy elements to add to your dryland workout and will ultimately support improvement in the water during your next swim training or competition.

push-up exercises

Plyometrics and Active Strengthening

A dryland program uses dynamic movements outside of the pool to supplement the strengthening and conditioning achieved while swimming. In addition to a dynamic warmup, the list of exercises you can include in your dryland program is vast and should include a balance between cardio and strength training specific to muscle groups utilized by the swimmer, especially those used for pulling and kicking.

Plyometrics are any movements that are quick, fast, and explosive. They are especially effective in training to improve speed, coordination, and quickness, all of which boost overall swimming performance. Plyometrics are difficult to perform in the water, so it’s ideal to include these types of moves in your dryland program.

7 Simple Plyometric Moves for Your Dryland Program

Perform each exercise for 30 seconds to 1 minute at a time. Keep active during the entire set. Alternate between activities in circuit training fashion with 5-6 activities for each session. Repeat for at least 3 sets.

Post-workout Cool-down Stretching

By incorporating a cool-down in your dryland workout, you are allowing your body a chance to recover, ensuring you get the most out of the work you put into each exercise. A cool down is an opportunity to lengthen muscles while they are warm while gradually reducing your temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. A cool-down can also help decrease post-workout muscle and joint pain and stiffness, as well as helping to prevent injury.
couple stretching outdoors

8 Easy Cool-Down Stretches for After Your Workout

Perform each activity for 1-2 minutes depending on time and intensity. Visit our blog on incorporating yoga and physical therapy to learn more about the benefits.

Once you’ve cooled down, grab your favorite foam roller and roll out wherever is feeling tight. Foam rolling is an ideal way to provide self soft-tissue work, which offers a wide range of benefits.

Use of a massage gun for recovery in addition to other strategies can be very helpful. Using a massage gun on your tight or sore muscles can help them get back to feeling good really quickly. Talk to your physical therapist about the benefits and how to use a massage gun properly and effectively.

Swimming can be especially demanding on the upper body, particularly the shoulders. If your shoulders are feeling sore or tight, you should incorporate additional stretches designed to help prevent swimmer’s shoulder.

a fit man foam rolling his outside leg

Recognizing Signs of Injury in Swimmers

While incorporating dryland exercise into a swimmer’s training program greatly reduces injury risk, injuries can still happen. When they do, it’s important not to ignore them.

Knowing the basic signs of overtraining is important. As a parent or coach of a young swimmer, listen to your athlete and pay attention to their body form and performance. If you notice they’re altering their dryland workout or the way they swim because of an ache or pain that’s irritating or nagging them, this is a clear sign that they need to be evaluated for a potential injury.

Addressing an injury early often leads to a faster and better recovery, helping limit the time an athlete is sidelined. As experts in musculoskeletal health, our physical therapists can help with sports injuries and prevention, utilizing a thorough examination and development of a customized recovery program that includes education and exercises aimed at preventing re-injury.

A Doctor of Physical Therapy is trained to ask the right questions, explore all possible causes, offer a clinical diagnosis, and let you know if a customized physical therapy treatment plan is the right option, or if additional insight from a specialist is warranted. Direct access empowers you to seek PT first, choosing a physical therapist who best fits your needs without the requirement of a doctor’s referral or prescription. Contact your local Therapeutic Associates clinic for assistance determining if your insurance covers direct access or for help with securing a referral if required.


  • Boltz AJ, Robison HJ, Morris SN, D’Alonzo BA, Collins CL, Chandran A. Epidemiology of Injuries in National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Swimming and Diving: 2014-2015 Through 2018-2019. J Athl Train. 2021 Jul 1;56(7):719-726. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-703-20. PMID: 34280272; PMCID: PMC8293881.
  • Feijen S, Tate A, Kuppens K, Claes A, Struyf F. Swim-Training Volume and Shoulder Pain Across the Life Span of the Competitive Swimmer: A Systematic Review. J Athl Train. 2020 Jan;55(1):32-41. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-439-18. PMID: 31935141; PMCID: PMC6961642.

We're can help you reach your goals!

Whether you’re a competitive swimmer or someone who dives into the pool for exercise and fun, optimal fitness can improve your swimming performance and help you avoid swim-related injury. Our physical therapists are passionate about helping patients of all ages and abilities live a healthy and active life and we look forward to helping you reach your goals.

an athlete swimming

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