Why Competitive and Lap Swimmers Should Lift Weights

When you think of swimming and swimmers, you typically only think about the work put in at the pool. Rarely do people think that swimmers lift weights in addition to their water workouts. But weightlifting can help swimmers reduce their risk of injury in the pool among other benefits.

But it’s not always as easy as walking into the weight room and starting to lift weights. 

Competitive swimmers follow carefully designed strength programs. And lap swimmers shouldn’t start lifting weights if they haven’t had prior experience or training.

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Here’s what you should know about lifting weights as a swimmer. And why both competitive and lap swimmers should lift weights.

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Do Swimmers Lift Weights?

The short answer is we do! The longer answer is that it somewhat depends on which swimmer you’re asking or talking about.

Kids in summer league teams and younger children in competitive club swimming may do strength training or dryland (the swimmer’s word for weights). But it’s limited to more body weight, core work, and flexibility. Most coaches won’t have younger kids picking up weights or benching.

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Older competitive swimmers, such as those in high school and up through college, lift weights during dryland. Even those that swim with Masters teams lift weights. Again, the intensity will vary by program.

And it should go without saying that Olympic swimmers lift weights and follow intense dryland workouts in addition to water workouts. 🙂

However, most individuals who swim casually for exercise don’t include weight lifting in their workout. But they should! 

Here’s why swimmers of any kind should start doing dryland aka weights in addition to their swimming.

Why Should Swimmers Lift Weights? 

Swimming is a great full-body workout. And while it works every part of your body and you can build muscle while you swim, your muscles can only get so strong in the water. 

This is where supplementing with weights can help develop your muscles so they can grow stronger. Stronger muscles can allow you to pull more water when you’re swimming. 

This can also help avoid injury in some ways because your muscles are more developed and stronger to pull you through the water. This is especially true if you’re focusing on specific swimming-related dryland workouts such as core, shoulder, and band work.

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Lifting weights is also a way to help mix up your swim workouts. Especially if you’re swimming just for exercise. Because let’s be honest. Swimming can be boring and when you start to get bored, it’s harder to make yourself work out.

By adding some weight lifting to your workout, you add variety. Along with a new level of difficulty which can further motivate you.

What Age Should Swimmers Start Strength Training?

This is a bit of a tricky question, as there are several variables you should consider. The most important aspect to consider is at what age is it safe for swimmers to start lifting weights?

High school or college swimmers who have never had proper lifting techniques shown to them before may be at more risk than a younger swimmer who knows how to lift correctly. This is especially true as swimmers get older and are more prone to showing off in the weight room.

Because of this, we believe that swimmers can start lifting weights when they’re mentally ready and can lift safely from a technical perspective.

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That said, we’re not trainers, health care providers, or your child’s coach. And you should check with at least your child’s health care provider and coach if you believe they’re ready to start lifting weights.

If you feel that your child’s coach is pushing for weights too soon, please be sure to consult with a medical provider. And always voice your concerns with the coach. They should be able to explain their reasoning for lifting by a certain age and have alternative weight ideas.

Should Lap Swimmers Lift Weights?

Most lap swimmers focus strictly on completing their laps in the pool and going home. But adding some weight or strength training to your workout can help reduce the risk of a shoulder injury. 

It’s also a way to help fight boredom and burnout from swimming hours on end throughout the week. 

And let’s admit it, swimming is by no means a way to replace strength training. In your daily life, you’ll lift, carry, or push items around frequently. Swimming can help you develop and tone muscles, but strength training can help you build the strength for these things.

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That’s not to say that lap swimmers need to lift heavy weights all the time. Nor do they need to go to the gym to do so. Lap swimmers can complete strength training at home with some light weight or use body weight.

Workouts such as push-ups, planks, squats, or lunges are a great way to add strength training to lap swimming. These workouts will help you build strength but keep you from ‘bulking up’ or throwing weights around.

If you plan to add weights (free, machine, or body weight), be sure to speak with your health care provider before adding them to your next workout.

When Should Swimmers Lift Weights?

Is it better to lift weights before or after your swim workout? 

Honestly, we don’t have a good answer for you because some of it comes down to personal preference and what works for you. 

In college, I would lift after my swimming workouts. For my year-round club team, I lift before I swim. And I’ve found that there are pros and cons to each. 

Lift Weights Before Swimming

Lifting weights before you swim is a great way to focus on improving your strength while in the weight room. Some of this comes from having more energy if you’re coming directly from school or work. Compared to lifting directly after swimming for hours in the pool.

Because you have more recovery time, your muscles can focus on building strength and power. Additionally, because you’re lifting when you’re less tired, you can lower your risk of injury.

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That said, one downside of lifting weights before swimming is that your body may not be warmed up or limber. If you plan to lift before swimming (especially first thing in the morning) take the time to stretch well. 

Focus on dynamic stretches and warm-ups to get your muscles loose. You don’t want to start lifting when your muscles are ‘cold.’

Lastly, one other negative is that working out and lifting weights before you swim will make your muscles fatigued for your water workout. Your swimming workout will feel more difficult, especially if you lifted heavily.

This may also roll over into the next day or your following workout as your muscles need time to recover. 

While these aren’t negative factors, they are something to consider when you start planning out your swimming and strength training for the week.

Lifting Weights After a Swim Workout

When you lift weights directly after your swim workout, you’re focusing more on developing speed. It’s also a good way to train your muscles to work through fatigue, as they’re already exerted from your swim workout.

Because you’re swimming first and lifting following a water workout, your practice in the pool will be stronger as your muscles aren’t as fatigued from lifting. This can lead to greater focus in the water by lifting weights following your swim.

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It also allows for your muscles to warm up and stretch more, helping reduce injury and strains. You should still do some stretching before lifting though. 

One negative of lifting weights after a swim workout can be the lack of motivation. It’s hard to focus in the weight room and your lifting technique after a long workout in the pool. Additionally, your skin may feel dry and itchy having just left the pool.

How Often Should Competitive Swimmers Lift Weights?

Most competitive swimmers will lift weights 2-3 times a week in addition to their swim workouts. This can vary by age and swim level, though. We recommend that you speak with your coach (if you have one) before deciding to start lifting weights.

If you should lift before or after your workout will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish in the weight room as well as in the pool. You should also consider how you feel after your swim workouts and if you’ll even feel like going to the weight room right after a pool workout, Or even later in the day.

Another thing to note is that competitive swimmers shouldn’t limit themselves to just lifting weights. Body weight workouts can and do have a place in the weight room for competitive swimmers. 

Especially those just starting!

Competitive swimmers should also mix in several core exercises and other non-weighted activities. Such as box jumps and jump rope. While not weighted, they do work your cardio and train/build your muscles for faster, stronger starts 🙂

How Frequently Should Lap Swimmers Lift Weights?

There’s no one good answer to this question as it mostly depends on what your goals are. If you’re swimming to tone and build muscle, you’ll want to consider lifting weights a few times a week.

Swimming alone can help tone your muscles. But it won’t do much in terms of building muscle and strengthening them. 

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However, if you’re looking to swim more to work on your general health and focus on improving your cardiovascular system, weight lifting may not be a big priority. That said, we do recommend doing some bodyweight workouts at least once or twice a week.

Adding some light or bodyweight workouts to your swimming can help your overall general health if done correctly.

What are the Benefits of Weight Lifting for Swimmers?

1. Increased Power

Swimming is a great all-around and full-body workout. But one thing it lacks is the ability to build power and strength in your muscles. 

While you can tone your muscles by swimming, you’ll be hard pressed to build increased strength and power at the same time. Instead, this is one of the benefits of weightlifting for swimmers.

Weight lifting helps strengthen the muscles that you can’t otherwise do in the water. And as your strength increases in the weight room, swimmers will find that they can pull more water, push off the walls faster and go further while doing so. 

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Certain weights, such as benching, squats (especially squat jumps), and lat pulls (or pull-ups) target prime swimming muscles. 

Even using body weight can help you see an increase in your swimming workout. Try push-ups instead of benching or pull-ups. And add some wall sits in addition to your squats to work your legs.

2. Works on Flexibility

Weight lifting isn’t just about building muscle and strength for swimmers. Swimmers can also work on their flexibility and range of motion. 

Weights can be a great aid in increasing flexibility. Some swimmers use them to help loosen their hamstrings when trying to touch their toes. While others use band work to stretch and work against resistance.

In swimming, it’s important that swimmers maintain flexibility for the best performance. Lifting too heavy and too frequently can make the muscles too bulky so that you lose your range of motion. 

3. Breaks up the Monotony 

Let’s admit it, when swimming, you don’t get a lot of chances to talk. One of the few chances swimmers can talk and catch up is in the weight room. If that is, you’re allowed to talk and lift at the same time. Some teams don’t allow excessive talking 🙁

But weight lifting also helps break up the constant grind of swimming laps for hours on end each day. It mixes things up and keeps a swimmer’s mind and body from feeling bored.

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So while dryland or strength training days are far fewer than water workouts, they do offer a much-needed reprieve for some swimmers. And a chance to catch up with teammates and friends!

4. Swimming Fatigued

It may seem counterproductive to make your muscles sore and tired before swimming. But learning how to swim and work through muscle fatigue can improve swim results for some swimmers.

This happens mainly with competitive swimmers throughout the year. But especially during winter or overload training. The idea is that if you can train through the fatigue, you’ll swim better and faster when your muscles are rested.

Swimmers who do this though are often at a high or elite level. And they have time during the day to recover before the next practice. 

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While it is a benefit for some, it’s not a benefit for others. Talk with your coach or trainer before trying this. Start slow and light with your weights before starting to build up. As you build up, you can either increase the weight or increase the number of sets in your workout.

Again, the key is to build into this slowly and carefully so as not to hurt yourself. Or overwhelm your body so that you’re so sore you can’t move the next few days.

And if you start to feel off or in pain, then it’s best to stop this training method and try a different approach.

5. Reduce Injury

It seems funny to say that someone should lift weights to reduce injury. But building muscle isn’t just about gaining strength. Through the gained strength, you can lift objects safer because you have the strength to do so.

The same is true with swimming. Strong muscles can pull the body forward and through the water much easier than muscles that aren’t as developed. Not only that, they can pull more water faster.

A swimmer may be more prone to injury if they’re trying to swim harder and faster but don’t have the muscle strength to do so. 

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Shoulder injuries are the most common injury for swimmers. By working on strengthening and developing the muscles in and around the shoulder, the body becomes stronger so it’s less prone to injury.

Can a swimmer still be injured? Or course! Accidents happen and moving just the right way can pull a muscle. Lifting weights doesn’t prevent injury. But it can help lessen the risk.

Bodyweight vs Weights

When it comes to bodyweight vs weights, which is better for swimmers?

Much like a lot of things in this article, it depends 🙂 


For those new to lifting and swimming, we highly recommend bodyweight workouts to start. This will help add strength training and resistance to your muscles without potentially hurting yourself.

Body weight also offers a less stressful option for those who feel daunted by weights or even the gym. To get the most out of your workouts, increase your repetitions and decrease your rest time when appropriate. 

Below is a quick list of bodyweight exercises that you can do at home or almost anywhere!

  • Push Ups
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Reverse Lunges
  • Wall sits
  • Squat jumps
  • Burpees (for max cardio and strength training!)

You can also add core work into your bodyweight training. Crunches, planks, sit-ups, and various other core work are great forms of bodyweight exercises.

If you want to add just a bit of resistance without resorting to free weights or machines, consider stretch or resistance bands. Add these to squats and arm curls to increase the intensity without the need for weights.

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If you’re looking to build larger muscle and strength, adding weights is the best way to do this. Again, we recommend only using weights if you have proper lifting techniques and are safe to lift weights.

In weight rooms, swimmers use a mix of free weights and machine weights during their lifting sessions. The bench, lat pulldown, pull-up bar, and leg press machine are some of the best for working the main muscles used in swimming.

Free weights though can help target the smaller muscles also used in swimming but often overlooked. Box jumps and step-ups are some of the exercises you can do that will help improve your swimming that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

In Closing

Strength training and lifting weights aren’t just about gaining muscle mass. It’s about helping swimmers build strength and help avoid injury in the pool. While the age and frequency of weight lifting vary by the swimmer, it’s a great tool to add to any swimmer’s workout!

As always, happy swimming!


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Image of a swimmer diving into the water

Chevron is a current competitive swimmer with almost 20 years of experience in the pool. And although she fell into the sport by accident in her high school years, she still trains daily and competes throughout the year. She’s committed to providing guidance to all levels of swimmers and believes that everyone should know how to swim.