A PT-Approved Swimming Warm-Up for All Levels


With summer right around the corner and temperatures heating up, you may be thinking about getting back into the pool and hitting some laps. Not only does swimming offer a reprieve from the heat, but it’s also a very viable cross-training method if you’ve been pounding the pavement and trails all spring or putting in cycling mileage on the road or mountain biking paths.

Additionally, swimming is an excellent fitness activity that builds aerobic capacity (the amount of oxygen your body is able to consume during exercise), boosts brain health, and is considered a longevity practice by neurobiologists. To make matters even more appealing, swimming is a non-impact activity because you’re traversing through water rather than hitting the ground, which sends significant ground reaction forces through your body—this isn’t a bad thing by the way, just different demands on your muscles and joints.

Although swimming doesn’t involve that same level of impact and force as other forms of cardio, Kristina Kam, DPT, says you still need to very mindful of the demands swimming places on your body and that includes doing a proper swimming warm-up. “You may not think of swimming as something you have to ‘prepare for’ because you’re in water and it seems easier than, say, running or cycling,” she says. “But swimming does result in significant muscle activation across your shoulders, chest, back, and core areas. Additionally, the shoulder joint—aka the glenohumeral joint, which has the highest range of motion in the body—is constantly tasked with adapting to your arms moving up, down and through the water.”

In other words, swimming puts its own specific stress on your body that you need to be ready for. That stress is also very repetitive as swimming is a cyclical sport that involves the same movement, repeatedly, which can lead to overuse due to repetitive strain. Accordingly, a swimming warm-up that targets those high-use areas will be very helpful for keeping you in the pool with less aches and pains, as well as making you swim faster.

Swim coach Adam Nelson, who emphasizes the importance of a proper swimming warm-up to each of his athletes, says it’s incredibly important because it’s getting you ready for the actual swim. “We’ve found that ‘priming of the system’ has given our athletes better times in the pool, and has kept them healthier too, he says. “The best part is an effective warm-up can be all of five to seven minutes once you have it down.”

Coach Nelson puts an emphasis on an effective warmup. So what does that entail? Because swimming is a very well researched sport that involves repetitive movements, it’s easier to determine what muscles and joints are being taxed the most. Studies looking at muscle activity and joint mobility have found key commonalities across the major swimming strokes. For example, it requires higher muscular demands on the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), lats (side back muscles), and biceps, along with mobility demands on the shoulder blades (scapula) and aforementioned shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint).

With those requirements in mind, I’ve created this five-part swimming warm-up that will prepare you for the pool

Some key notes before we get into the details. The only equipment you’ll need for this is a stand-alone resistance band. Choose a resistance where the final reps of the exercise are moderately challenging (remember this is just a warm-up, we’re not trying to burn out!).

Part 1: Band series

Complete 10 reps of each of the following exercises.

Part 2: Raise series

Complete 10 reps of each of the following exercises.

Part 3: Finger and forearm activation

Complete 10 reps of the following exercises.

Part 4: Shoulder blade (scapular) mobility

Complete five rounds of the following sequence.

Part 5: Shoulder (glenohumeral) mobility

Complete five rounds of the following sequence (one side at a time).

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