Pilates for Swimmers

Author: Markella Kefallonitou

The summer season is coming to an end, filled with lovely memories of the fun times we had with family and friends, and all the activities we enjoyed. Water sports are a fun way to exercise in the summer and swimming is a favourite we can keep enjoying all year long. Either in a swimming pool or the sea, it is a brilliant way to exercise and it is frequently recommended from musculoskeletal professionals as a form of exercise with multiple benefits.

Some of them are:

  • Improved cardiovascular endurance – it strengthens your heart and lung capacity
  • Improved muscular strength and stamina – swimming is a full body exercise: it works the core, legs, arms and back
  • Protects the joints – exercising in water provides support for the body and it is a low impact exercise, appropriate for injuries and other pathologies

There are 5 styles of swimming: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and sidestroke. All require a specific technique to achieve the best stroke and to move efficiently in the water. Some are more physically demanding than others, but all require shoulder, core, back and leg strength. Taking swimming lessons is a great way to learn the technique of the style you prefer. Pilates can be an additional way to strength the appropriate muscles and to check your movement patterns outside of the water. Lacking strength or mobility, having a dominant side, or having a misalignment can affect your swimming technique.

How can Pilates help my swimming?

Pilates strengthens the whole body, improves awareness and corrects movement patterns. Pairing swimming with Pilates can have positive results to swimming technique and performance.

Core and spinal strength

Swimming requires a strong core to coordinate the body as it floats and moves in the water. The spine needs to have efficient mobility and strength to stay straight, to rotate and extend – depending on the style.

Pilates primarily focuses on strengthening the core muscles to provide support of the trunk and support the limbs as the move separately. In BASI Pilates we train the spine to stabilise strongly in a neutral (straight) position, as well as in flexion, extension and rotation. Coordination and correct timing of a movement pattern is key for full body sports such as swimming, as well as being aware when and how to move before any movement occurs.

Exercises for core and back strength:

  1. Swimming on the mat: a prone exercise that emphasises in back and hip strength, plus coordination and stability when the limbs move in a fast pace.
  2. Breast stoke on the Reformer: an excellent exercise for back strength with resistance. On the BASI Systems Reformer we can adjust the height of the pulleys to challenge the height of the back extension and line of resistance.

enhanced pulley system eps

Shoulder mobility and strength

The shoulder joint is the primary joint to use during the strokes and to propel the body in the water. Good mechanics of the shoulder blade and the arm are essential to protect the joint from wear and tear, and improve movement efficiency. Swimmers also need good range of motion in the shoulder to execute a full arm circle (circumduction).

Using Pilates, we can train the stabilising muscles of the shoulders (rotator cuff muscles) and address mobility and stability using the apparatus to improve range of motion. If the range of motion of the shoulder joint is limited, it can restrict the arm movement and create compensations and potential injury. Additionally we can strengthen the major muscles of the shoulders (pecs, lats, deltoids) to improve stamina for the continuous motion of the arms required in swimming.

Exercises for shoulder mobility and strength:

  1. Shoulder stretches: on the BASI Systems Ladder Barrel and the Cadillac the shoulder stretches are very effective to improve mobility with control.

Ladder Barrel

  1. Arm series: on the BASI Systems Reformer or F2 Arm chair there are multiple series of exercises to target the entire shoulder in a balanced way, strengthening the primary muscles and simultaneously challenging stability of the deeper muscles. It is important to maintain control of the shoulder joint and cross-train the opposing muscles to keep the shoulder healthy.

BASI pilates reformer


Hip strength and stamina

In swimming the legs play a very important role to keep the body floating in a horizontal line and to propel the body forward. Gluteal and hamstring strength is essential for all prone positions (facing down in to the water), and hip flexor and quadriceps strength for the supine positions (facing up away from the water) like backstroke. The adductors (inner thighs) are also used in butterfly and breaststroke when the legs need to close strongly together.

In Pilates the hip joint is strengthened in multiple ways. Hip flexors, hamstrings and gluteals are strengthened with exercises on the mat or the apparatus using resistance and weights that can be adjusted to the swimmer’s needs. The springs on the BASI Systems Cadillac can simulate the resistance conditions of the water as well as give freedom in the legs to move in a similar pattern to swimming. The legs can also be trained independently to identify any imbalances between the two sides. If one leg is working more of less than the other, it can affect the straight line that a swimmer needs to maintain. Once the imbalance is found, we can train the weaker side to restore balance and improve performance.

BASI Cadillac

Exercises for hip strength:

  1. Hip series on the F2 Arm Chair: the strong springs of the F2 System provide a challenging resistance to strengthen the inner thighs and the back of the legs. The ability to work in any range of motion can help the swimmer to adapt the movement to the needs of his swimming style.
  2. Swimming on the F2 Arm Chair: this prone exercise is an excellent option to strengthen the hamstrings and gluteals and to challenge balance in a horizontal position.

Specificity training with Pilates

The horizontal line on the body in the water is very important to maintain in most swimming styles. Training this position outside of the water is very beneficial as the muscles will work harder without the support of the water.

Pilates is a method that allows for creative and innovative ways to adapt the original exercises according to the client’s needs. The swimmer can set up short-term and long-term goals with the Pilates Instructor to plan a progressive and effective workout plan.

Exercises for specificity training:

The BASI Systems F2 Arm Chair and Spine Corrector have a wonderful arc-shaped surface where this horizontal position can be trained. Training balance in a prone position can challenge the posterior line of the body (back and legs) and will support the horizontal line that needs to be maintained in water. Also, the F2 System is an advance spring system that can be adapted to any position and equipment required. This is an ideal addition to the equipment to train the arms and legs in the same movement pattern as in swimming.

Armchair Barrel F2 Set


Spine Corrector F2

Whether swimming is your preferable way to exercise, you are thinking to try out a new stroke style, or you want to start with the basics, Pilates can help you gain the strength and mobility you need to enjoy your favourite sport. Just keep swimming!

Markella Kefallonitou is a qualified BASI Pilates instructor and works at the Pilates Clinic in Wimbledon where she teaches alongside the BASI Pilates UK team. She is a BASI Pilates Faculty member teaching the BASI Global Comprehensive Program and her workshops “The Foot – our base of support” and “When and how to stretch”. She is a dance specialist holding a BA degree in Dance Education, an MSc in Dance Science and a Certificate of Accomplishment in Cunningham Technique. She teaches dancers at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond and specialises in training Pilates instructors to work with dancers with her BASI Certificate Course “Dance Conditioning with Pilates”.

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