Written By: Joao Mescolote
Swimmers can focus on a few types of exercises that are designed especially for improving efficiency and getting stronger. This prevents time waste and only increases the chances of getting stronger much faster in the areas that really count. One of the most popular and beneficial exercises of all time, the pull-up, helps improve strength through easily applied and trackable exercise that can be performed with only one’s bodyweight.
The pull-up is by far one of the best and most fundamental exercises that a swimmer can do, and in my personal opinion, the most important one. It is a great way to strengthen the lats and traps, as well as the shoulders, biceps and core. Doing pull-ups properly enforces rapid strength gain in these areas and helps swimmers improve their pull when swimming, allowing them to glide through the water with much more force and speed. A proper swim stroke generates full extension through the lats, back, shoulders, and wrist. A pull-up, if executed properly, is the closest dryland exercise that mimics such movement.
Overall, pull-ups are often prescribed because they are swim specific but also because they are highly versatile, easy to teach, and progress or regress can be easily tracked based on how well the athlete can perform them.
If you have your swimmers perform pull-ups over a solid period of time, where you can keep track of their improvements, for instance 6 months, you will significantly strengthen these important swimming muscle groups and be able to see the results in the water as well.
Types of Pull-Ups
There are 3 types of pull ups that differ based on the grip on the bar: pronated, neutral, or supinated grip. The execution is the same, only the grip is different, and each one involves different muscles of the arms. The triceps are working harder in case of a pronated grip, the biceps in the supinated grip, and a good balance of both for the neutral.
Shoulder & back injuries are often common amongst swimmers. By incorporating a consistent pull-up routine in your dryland program, your swimmers will also be strengthening their smaller stabilizer muscles in the shoulder which are at risk of injury when not worked on, since swimming has a tendency to overuse these muscles creating a condition known as swimmer’s shoulder.
A study published by the journal of Strength And Conditioning Research found viable correlations between pull-up strength and swimming performance. The main finding was the strong correlation between swimming performance and different mechanical variables of the ascending phase during one single pull-up (velocity and power). It also showed that the analysis of the mechanics (i.e., velocity and power) during one single maximal pull-up could actually be used to predict performance in competitive swimmers, which confirms the important role of the upper
limb strength in this sport. How?
Step 1. Have your swimmers grab onto the pull up bar with hands shoulder-width apart or just outside of shoulder-width apart.
Step 2. Have them retract their scapula and brace their core.
Step 3. Instruct them on pulling themselves up with their back and biceps until their head is over the bar.
Step 4. Remind them to avoid using momentum or swinging their legs, making sure the movement is always controlled.
Step 5. Lastly, have them lower themselves back down and repeat.
(Beginners will often have a harder time with proper technique since it requires some initial strength. If you have them starting out with resistance band pull ups, jumping pull-ups, or if you have them partnered up, they can do assisted pull-ups where the partner holds the legs and gives the person performing the pull-ups a bit of a boost.)
Luckily pull-up progressing isn’t very hard, but it usually requires some time and periodization during our swim seasons. Swimmers can become stronger by slightly increasing the number of reps they perform. A typical 4-week beginner progression would look like this:
Swimmers can also increase strength by adding weight to their pull-ups. I remember when I was in college, we used to perform a pull-up routine at least 3x/week right after our swim workouts, holding medicine balls in between our legs as extra weight (I don’t recommend doing this unless the swimmer can perform multiple sets with proper technique).
Bottom line is: Pull-Ups are a great way to strengthen a swimmer’s necessary muscles and predict performance! I highly recommend coaches to incorporate pull-ups to their training programs. Swimmers of all levels would be highly benefiting from it. I personally try to do a few sets of pull ups every day and I am not even a swimmer anymore! It’s that great of an exercise!
Joao Mescolote is in his first season as a Graduate Assistant Coach with the Concordia University Irvine Swimming program and serves as the Head Coach for the Irvine North Park Riptide senior group. He has a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Communications from the
Louisiana State University (’18), and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Coaching and Athletic Administration from CUI. A native from Presidente Prudente, Brazil, Mescolote was a three-time qualifier for the Brazilian Olympic Trials meet (2012, 2016, 2021) as well as multiple time national medalist and record holder in different age group categories and events. Mescolote’s passion for coaching started while he was lecturing at different performance swim camps in Brazil while also coaching himself as a professional athlete in preparation for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Trials.