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The best swimming workouts, according to a former USA triathlon coach

This crash course will get you started in swimming

Image from the 2019 USA Triathlon Foundation Fantasy Camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Kenny Withrow

Scott Bay was a good collegiate swimmer, but not great. “I was going to round out the relay when someone got sick,” he told The Manual from his home in Daytona Beach, Florida. But when he left the competitive side of the sport behind in the mid-’80s, he found another in which he could dominate: triathlons.

Even in his less-than-Olympic shape, he found himself first out of the open water swims, and thanks to a cat-3 cycling certification, he more than held his own on the bike. “I run like a pregnant elephant,” he said, joking that by race’s end, old ladies were passing him. But once he crossed that finishing tape and began talking with his fellow competitors, they’d begin grilling him: How do I get better at swimming? “Well, it’s funny you say that,” he said. “I’d be happy to help.”

Bay coached triathletes since the late ’80s, and it’s no wonder, despite his certifications through USA Cycling, USA Track and Field, USA Triathlon, and USA Swimming, that he emphasized the swim leg to all of his athletes. It’s for good reason he honed in on swimming workouts: “So much of what we focus on is core,” he said. But before you roll your eyes, Bay’s definition of core is, well, more expansive than your average gym rat doing crunches.

He explained that it starts just below the chin and runs down to the mid-thigh. “What we do is strengthen that whole area,” he continued, with special emphasis on the upper thighs, lower abs, lower back, and glutes. “That translates into more power in the pedals, and, late in the race, you’re strong enough [running] to maintain good posture.”

Granted, you may not have any aspirations in triathlons. But everyone can use a stronger core, whether just in day-to-day life or in one of myriad other sports. Bay adapted a 21-day crash course into six workouts for The Manual. He suggested a pool, the equivalent of a track for runners, where difficulties are minimized and you can just focus on the task at hand.

USA T9
Kenny Withrow

Aerobic ladder

When you first start swimming, the temptation is to hold your breath as you swim, which might prevent you from sucking in pool water. Don’t. You need to be exhaling while your face is in the water. For this first interval workout, practice your intervals while ensuring you’re developing proper breathing techniques.

Warm-up: 300 to 400 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Cool-down: 100 to 200 yards freestyle

Sets: 3

Execution: After each interval, stop for a minute or two to catch your breath. Repeat the series three times, and don’t worry about the speed.

  1. 50 meters freestyle
  2. 100 meters freestyle
  3. 150 meters freestyle
  4. 200 meters freestyle
USA T8
Kenny Withrow

Fast and faster

Once your breathing is practiced, it’s time to kick in the afterburners. This one will get you going fast and then faster as you proceed through the workout.

Warm-up: 400 to 500 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Cool-down: 100 to 200 yards freestyle

Sets: 1

Execution: Keep some in the tank and focus on completing the entire workout.

  1. 100 meters freestyle
  2. Rest, 20 t0 30 seconds
  3. Repeat for eight total intervals

Then:

  1. 50 meters freestyle
  2. Rest, 20 t0 30 seconds
  3. Repeat for four total intervals, getting faster with each rep
2017 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships – Olympic”
Archi Trujillo

The need for speed

Does Tom Cruise have a strong core? Let us ask another question: When was he in a movie and not running?

Warm-up: 500 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Cool-down: 100 yards

Sets: 1

Execution: Your first set is a cut-down, each successive interval getting faster. Take your easy lap, and then go fast, the caveat being that you have to hold that first lap’s time in each successive lap. Repeat the fast set again.

  1. 100 meters
  2. Rest as needed
  3. Repeat five times, cutting time with each interval

Take 100 meters easy, then:

  1. 100 meters fast
  2. Rest as needed
  3. Repeat five times, holding the same time as your first interval

Take another 100 meters easy, then:

  1. 100 meters fast
  2. Rest as needed
  3. Repeat five times, holding the same time as your first interval
2019 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships - Olympic Distance
Archi Trujillo

Cutdown ladder

This workout is not only designed to develop power but to show you how to apply it. In swimming, the biggest flex is with speed.

Warm-up: 500 to 600 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Cool-down: 100 to 200 yards

Sets: 3

Execution: The goal is to get successively faster as you move through this series. The shorter intervals should be sprints, while the longer intervals should remain controlled and smooth. Repeat three times.

  1. 200 meters
  2. Rest
  3. 150 meters
  4. Rest
  5. 100 meters
  6. Rest
  7. Repeat
Camilla Pedersen
Red Bull

Kickbacks

Good swimmers are good kickers, and this series will help you build powerful legs.

Warm-up: 500 to 600 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Cool-down: 100 to 200 yards

Sets: 1

Execution: Kick from the hip!

  1. 50 meters (25 meters underwater kicks, 25 meters easy freestyle)
  2. Rest 20 seconds
  3. Repeat the series eight times

Then:

  1. 50 meters fast
  2. Rest 20 seconds
  3. Repeat three more times, getting faster with each interval
  4. Repeat this series four times

Then:

  1. 50 meters only kicking (on your back)
  2. Rest 20 seconds
  3. Repeat eight times
David Ple?e
Red Bull

Stroke work

Just as we isolated and strengthened the kick, with this workout, we’re focusing on your stroke.

Warm-up: 600 yards freestyle mix of swimming and kicking

Sets: 3

Execution: Rest as needed between the intervals, focusing on something different each time.

  1. 100 meters, focusing on keeping your hips flat
  2. 100 meters, focusing on breathing on least comfortable side
  3. 100 meters, focusing on breathing every third stroke
  4. 100 meters, focusing on building
  5. 100 meters, focusing on going faster

Take 100 meters easy, then:

  1. 50 meters, focusing on sweeping arms flat across the water
  2. 50 meters, focusing on flat hips with shoulders out of the water
  3. 50 meters, focusing on rotating hips slightly and elbows vertical
  4. 50 meters, focusing on rotating hips and shoulders about 45 degrees
  5. 50 meters, focusing on rotating hips and shoulders 90 degrees
  6. Repeat this series again

Take it easy for another 100 meters, then:

  1. 100 meters, focusing on what combination of the previous set feels best
  2. Rest, 30 seconds
  3. Repeat 10 times

Take a final 100 meters easy, then swim 100 meters with your best technique.

Man swimming butterfly stroke.
GorodenKoff / Shutterstock

Which muscles do you work out while swimming?

As this post shows, swimming is a fantastic full-body workout, allowing you to work all the major muscle groups. Here, we’ll break down these muscle groups and explain how swimming is a workout for the whole body.

  • Core: Your core muscles, including your abs, obliques, and lower back, are constantly engaged while swimming. The core helps maintain a stable and streamlined body position, and it assists you in moving efficiently through the water.
  • Chest: You use the pectoralis major muscles in your chest to pull your arms through the water during all your swimming strokes, whether you’re doing freestyle, breaststroke, or others.
  • Back: While swimming, you use the latissimus dorsi muscles in your back to pull and stabilize your body.
  • Shoulders: The deltoid and rotator cuff muscles in your shoulders help you reach, pull, and stabilize your arms during swimming.
  • Arms: The biceps and triceps in your arms pull and push your arms through the water during all swimming strokes.
  • Hips and glutes: Your hip and gluteal muscles are used for kicking and propelling yourself through the water.
  • Legs: The quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves in your legs kick and provide stability while swimming.

As you can see, swimming is one of the best exercises you can do to get a full-body workout, strengthening and toning your entire body. It is also a good way to improve your cardiovascular health and flexibility.

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Jon Gugala
Features Writer
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nashville, Tenn. A former gear editor for Outside Magazine, his…
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