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by Laura Thornton

March 1, 2019

Pilates can help swimmers develop a stronger, more efficient stroke

Have you ever found yourself swimming diagonally, on a collision course with the lane line? If so, you’re not alone.

This wayward swimming might just mean the balance of your stroke is a little off. Practicing Pilates can get you back on course, says Lisa Reynolds, director of Mind Body Programs at East Bank Club in Chicago and a certified Pilates instructor.

“When someone veers off to the side of the lane, it’s often because they don’t realize they’re rotating more on one side than the other,” she says.

When swimmers ask Jessica Platt, a certified Pilates instructor and owner of Platt Pilates in The Woodlands, Texas, what Pilates can do for them, she lists many benefits: Pilates helps build core strength that leads to a long, powerful stroke; help improve their streamlined position; and help them perform fast, tight turns.

“Pilates focuses on strengthening the core, increasing flexibility and mobility, lengthening the spine, and working on postural alignment,” says Platt, a member of Woodlands Masters Swim Team. “As a Masters swimmer myself, I have found my posture in the water has a direct impact on my body position in the water, which then affects my stroke and speed.”

Teaching Movement

When Reynolds begins working with a new client, she assesses hip flexion, leg extension, core strength, alignment, and shoulder mobility.

“I have an arsenal of about 10 exercises that will show me what’s going on in the body—where movement is restricted and where the body isn’t balanced,” she says. “I start people moving, because their standing posture doesn’t indicate their movement. I’m not teaching people how to stand, but how to move. If I see something that could be improved, I’ll give a certain exercise to help with that.”

Most swimmers can benefit from shoulder-opening exercises, says Reynolds, who works with both swimmers and nonswimmers at the East Bank Club. “That’s because of the amount of drive that happens through the shoulders while swimming,” she says.

For swimmers, Reynolds is typically looking to help mobilize the shoulders, rather than simply strengthen them. “But it’s different from body to body,” she adds.

There are three main ways to do Pilates under the watchful eye of certified teachers such as Platt and Reynolds: take a mat class, which doesn’t involve any equipment other than a mat (like a yoga mat); take a small group class, which can involve equipment like the Pilates reformer machine; or take a one-on-one session with an instructor. All are beneficial, but the smaller the group, the more the session can be tailored to an individual’s specific needs and goals, Reynolds says.

“If you are looking to sweat, start with a mat Pilates class—all you need is a mat,” Platt says. “Be ready to find—and feel—your abs! There are a plethora of Pilates exercises not only beneficial but essential for a long, strong, balanced, pain-free stroke. Using only a mat, the hundreds exercise will strengthen your abs, the plank is great for stabilization and connecting your body from your head to your heels, and the swimmer exercise lengthens and strengthens your spine.”

Reynolds is also a proponent of the Pilates swimmer exercise. To give it a try, lie face-down on a mat with your arms at your sides and, depending on your core strength and the flexibility of your spine, lift your head, neck, and shoulders. Keep your spine long, with a slight extension in the upper body, and your shoulders stabilized.

Then, gently swing your arms in front of your head, float your arms and legs off the floor, and—with your abdominal muscles engaged—flutter kick your arms and legs. Have your right arm and left leg up while your left arm and right leg are down, then switch, and repeat back and forth, in flutter-kick fashion. Try not to wobble, but keep your torso steady, Reynolds says.

Pilates or Yoga?

Those who practice a more vigorous form of yoga may feel right at home in a Pilates class. But “if stillness isn’t comfortable, Pilates is the place to go,” Reynolds says.

Yet there is a certain calmness to Pilates.

“In order to do Pilates correctly, you must be actively doing what you’re doing the whole time. The minute you don’t think [about] a part of what you’re doing, something in the exercise falls apart,” Reynolds says.

“And the breath is a huge component of Pilates. Coordinating movement with inhaling and exhaling is intrinsic to Pilates, yoga, and swimming,” she adds. “A lot of swimmers really like that aspect of Pilates, thinking about the breath with every movement. If someone isn’t into the meditative aspect of yoga, Pilates is the place to go because you’re always occupied.”


  • Technique and Training


  • Yoga
  • Core
  • Cross Training