Simple land exercises to improve your swim pull  

To pull better through the water you need to learn how to use your back muscles. And the great news is that land-based exercises are the most effective way to do this. Andrew Sheaff explains…

Chelsea Sodaro warming up with swim cords before the 2022 PTO Collins Cup at the X Bionic Sphere, Samorin, Slovakia

An effective pull is often described as one that uses the muscles of the back, the latissimus muscles, to do the heavy work. This is in contrast to many pulling strategies that primarily use the shoulders and arms.


This is great advice as the lats are stronger, more powerful, and more resistant to fatigue. The challenge is that many triathletes don’t really understand how to do just that, and simply thinking about it while swimming doesn’t have much of an effect.

To rectify the situation, incorporate simple land exercises that can be performed by anyone can be tremendously effective. Here are three of my favourites.

Cord exercise

If you can’t feel your lats, this is a great place to start. While this isn’t exactly how you want to pull in the water, it’s great for getting the lats working, as no other muscles can get the job done in this position.

If you’re really struggling to feel your lats, perform one arm at a time, and place the non-working arm on the lats of your working arm to confirm that they’re working, or to encourage them to get in on the action if they’re not.

It’s helpful to perform a few repetitions then hop in and swim a bit, then go back and forth between using the cord and swimming. You’ll start to get a feel for the muscles of your back contributing to the pull.

Ball squeeze

When you’re actually taking your pull, it’s almost like trying to pop a balloon in your armpit. You pull back and the armpit closes to move you forward. That’s the sensation we’re trying to help you feel with this exercise.

Any sort of ball or object will get the job done. If you’re in a pool, you can even throw your arm over the laneline and squeeze that! It can be done at any time, and can be a helpful reminder in between repetitions.

This exercise builds upon the previous one by helping you feel the lats work, but it does so in a manner that’s more specific to swimming.

Wall pull

This is an exercise that should be done any time you get in the water. It’s terrific at helping you learn to pull straight back, one of the key elements of an effective pull. It also helps you feel the muscles of your back and chest initiating the pull.

After you’ve done some work with the previously two exercises, it should be much easier to feel these muscles working. Even better, it forces you into the ‘high elbow’/‘early vertical forearm’ position.

The best part about this exercise is that you can do it right before you swim, each and every time you push off the wall. Whenever you need a reminder about how to pull back, you can instantly create that reminder for yourself.

Secondly, it’s nearly impossible to do it wrong! Just throw your arms on the deck and create some pressure. You can even do it during everyday life as any table and countertop will do!


Top image credit: Marcel Hilger