Stroke technique is essential, but so is power.
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Dryland training, or training out of the pool to the nonswimmer, improves speed and power while helping to prevent injury. Women swimmers need a solid core, flexible ankles, powerful legs and a strong back to excel. You'll achieve these through a combination of weight training and flexibility work.
Strength and Power
Women, even women athletes, shy away from weights for fear of becoming bulky. Most women won't become huge with weight training, however -- they just get stronger. A strong back enables you to pull more efficiently with each stroke. Train your latissimus dorsi, the large, broad muscle along the back of your ribs, with the lat pulldown machine. Reverse flyes help train the backs of your shoulders, which are also important in the pull portion of the stroke. Pushups build strength in your chest and shoulders while also challenging your core. Squats give you the power to push off the wall with every flip turn. When doing these moves, use weights that feel heavy after 10 to 12 repetitions.
Swimmers with a strong core can last longer in the pool. The best core workouts emphasize stability, which get at the deep internal ab muscles, and rotation, to target the sides of the abdomen. Mat or reformer Pilates are options that Olympic greats such as Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres used to strengthen the core. A workout combining plank holds with Russian twists is also among the best for strengthening your middle region, according to certified strength and conditioning coach Mike Mejia of USA Swimming.
The best flexibility workouts involve static stretching after a workout. You hold a stretch for 30 to 40 seconds for the major muscles that are activated in a swim workout. Mejia notes that, although you may benefit from stretching all the major muscles, swimmers are best off attending to those at the front side of the body. Your static stretching section should include a move for the chest, shoulders, abs, hip flexors, quadriceps and the feet and ankle region. The latissimus dorsi should also be stretched, an exception to the front-of-the-body rule. You can stretch your chest and shoulders by standing with your feet about hip-distance apart and clasping your hands together behind your back. Puff out your chest as you drive your hands down and away from your body. Stretch the hip flexors and lats by getting into an all-fours position and stepping your right foot forward into a low lunge. Place your right hand on your thigh and reach your left arm up toward the ceiling. Lean over to the right side, dropping your right hand toward the floor and arching your left arm over your head, until you feel a gentle stretch through your left hip and side waist and back. Repeat on the other side. To improve flexibility in your ankles and feet, do 10 ankle circles in each direction and point and flex your toes 10 times.
Putting It Together
Aim to do a dryland strength-training routine for your total-body -- including your core -- two or three times per week. A circuit is an effective way to fit in all the exercises in a short amount of time, says Mejia. Try doing a series of exercises, choosing at least one for each major muscle group and two or more for your core. For example, you could do a 30- to 60-minute plank hold, followed by lat pull-downs, squats, Russian twists, pushups and shoulder presses. Rest for a minute or two and then repeat the circuit again one or two more times for a complete workout. Flexibility work may be done daily.