Top 5 Pilates Exercises For Swimmers

Pilates for swimmers

Core strength and swimming go hand in hand. A strong core is essential to maintain body alignment in the water and to support the strong arm and leg movement required for propulsion. Along with a strong core, swimmers require a mobile but strong and stable shoulder girdle. Check out my top 5 pilates based exercises for swimmers to help improve strength, stability and mobility.

Quadruped Thoracic rotation:

Why do it?

The Exercise:
On your hands and knees, knees under hips and hands under shoulders with spine long and neutral. Think length from the crown on your head to your tailbone.
Without changing the position or your spine, place one hand either on your forehead or the back of your head.

Inhale and rotate towards the ceiling. Pressing through the supporting hand while reaching the elbow towards the ceiling.

Exhale and rotate through center towards supporting arm.
Keep the hips as stable as possible not allowing them to shift side to side to focus movement to the upper back. Repeat 5-10 times.


  • To increase the challenge, extend the opposite leg. Start with the opposite leg long with the toes on the floor.
    Inhale: rotate towards the supporting arm.
    Exhale: rotate towards the ceiling as you lift the leg off the floor. This increases the recruitment of the posterior oblique chain: glutes/thoracolumbar fascia/latissumus dorsi muscle.
  • Extend the opposite leg and keep it long while performing the rotation movement
  • Always think length through the spine from the head to the tail like you are trying to make your spine longer with each repetition.

Swimmers 100
The hundred in pilates is a classic exercise designed to improve core endurance. Inhaling for a count of 5 through your nose and exhaling through your mouth for a count of 5. The swimmers 100 is inspired from this classic move.

Swimming in sidelye:

This version of swimming in sidelying is pulled from the side kicking drill in the pool. Developing core strength and balance in multiple planes of motion is essential as your core should function in all planes. Working only in a flexed position only targets one of the many ways the core helps to stabilize.

Why do it?
Develop core strength and balance in a side position to help with balance in the water. Keeping the long line as you rotate through the water. Develop shoulder girdle stability in a long arm position.

The Exercise:
Lay on your side with the bottom arm long, palm down and head resting on your arm. Top arm is long on your side and legs are long and stacked. Your entire body is in one line like you are between two panes of glass, neither flexed nor extended.
Inhale: prepare
Exhale: press through your bottom shoulder and engage your top obliques to lift your upper body and legs slightly off the mat. Your bottom hip and hand are on the floor.
Maintain that body position.
Inhale: move legs forward and back for a count of 5.
Exhale: turn head towards floor and continue to move your legs in the same pattern.
Inhale while you turn your head back to face forward and exhale rotate your head towards the floor, as if you are breathing out into the water.
5-10 sets of inhale/exhale on both sides.

Pointers/ modifications:

  • Omit the head movement to focus on the body position and movement pattern.
  • Add a loop band just above the knee joint to increase lower body resistance.
  • Increase or decrease tempo of leg movement.
  • Practice lifting and lowering to the start position. Exhale to sidebend up, inhale down to start position.

Breast stroke prep with arms in wide ‘V’

Think of this one as your power ‘v’ position before you take a strong pull. Being able to lift the arms off the mat with the upper back and shoulder girdle stabilizers develops strength needed to maintain the long horizontal body line in the water.

Why do it?
Increased upper back and shoulder girdle strength and stability to support a strong pull.

The Exercise
Lay on your stomach with legs about hip distance apart and arms in a wide ‘v’ overhead with elbows lengthened. Abdominals engaged to keep low back stable, abs engaged. Think of lifting your belly button off the mat below you without changing the position of your spine.
Inhale: maintain shoulder girdle stability
Exhale: Keep arms long and reaching as you lift your arms and upper back off the mat. (feel the upper back muscles lifting you up, not the low back)
Inhale: stay
Exhale: lower to start
5-10 reps


  • If your low back feels tense in the start position, place a firm pillow under your pelvis. This will help to release the low back and allow you to get into the upper back muscles more efficiently.
  • Keep your shoulder blades gliding down, don’t let your shoulders hike into your ears.
  • Think length through your spine as you lift
  • Increase the intensity – Add arms – ‘swimming arms’. Stay lifted in hover position. Move arms up and down for 5 counts on an inhale, 5 on an exhale. Repeat 5-10 times while maintaining height keeping shoulder girdle stable and core engaged.
  • Add leg movement – ‘swimming legs’– extend both legs off mat slightly keeping knees straight. Move legs up and down slightly while keeping legs straight (moving from your hip) inhaling for 5 counts, exhaling for 5 counts. This can be done with the arms in an alternating pattern or just legs keeping upper body down or up in a hover.

Swimming prep on hands and knees (quadruped):
This exercise continues to work your posterior oblique line while adding a spinal and shoulder girdle stability element. It also allows for increased range of motion of arm and leg movement due to start position.

Why do it?
Having a stable and strong core is essential for swimming to maintain your line and create rotation of the body as you glide through the water. This hands and knees exercise strengthens the hip and shoulder extensors. Due to the position and alternating arm/leg movement, the core has to stabilize against rotation creating a stable and strong core.

The Exercise:
On your hands and knees, knees under hips and hands under shoulders with spine long and neutral.
Exhale: engage core keeping spine long and reach one arm and the opposite leg long.
Inhale: return to start.
5-10 repetitions each. You can stay on one side to decrease the coordination or alternate the sides with each rep.


  • Think of reaching your arm and leg towards the opposite sides of the room verses up towards the ceiling.
  • Keep spine long and neutral throughout. Reaching the head away from the tail keeping the opposition through the spine to help maintain stability.
  • Lift arm and leg only as far as you can keep your spine stable without shifting your hips side to side.


Special thanks to Marie Eshelman for the photos!

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