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Prepare for Underwater Swims without Water!

Often I get great ideas from readers who are training to become Special Operators. Many times it is difficult to find a place to swim or with someone competent enough to watch you while you do underwater swims. My rule has always been – NEVER SWIM ALONE – PERIOD. And do not try to push 50m underwater or drown-proofing without trained personnel observing for safety. However, I received a great idea the other day from Jason – check it out.

Stew - Reading about underwater swims and how the Naval Special Warfare Command discourages the practice without proper supervision has caused me to look into a safe alternative for those without a proper swim buddy/lifeguard or no pool in general. I have been looking into means that I can better prepare for underwater swims without endangering myself to the inherent dangers of subsurface swims. I have found that using the waterless drills used by free divers has helped me fight off my reflexes to get oxygen in a safe, controlled manner. The progression I am using for example is the pyramid progression. My pyramid has six sets of breath holds from 50seconds, 55 seconds, 60 seconds, 60 seconds, 55 seconds and 50 seconds. These are all performed with a 3min break in between while being static (I lie on my stomach to simulate the form of underwater gliding). This drill has also allowed me the time to play with my mind and see how I could calm myself down despite the mammalian reflexive urge to gasp for air.

The higher progressions are these same drills but performed while walking on a flat ground or up a stairway. This form also allows you to gauge your progress through distance rather than time. I remembered in your video that you compared an underwater swim to holding your breath while only exerting the amount of energy you would use while walking. What are your thoughts on this form of preparation and would you suggest it to those who want to practice underwater swims but lack a pool and/or swim buddy/lifeguard?

First, good job using your head and not trying the underwater swim on your own. It is true - many people die each year swimming underwater. I liked this idea so much, I tried it myself. I swam a 50m underwater swim to remember how I felt and went to my pull-up bar to try this idea. A 50m swim underwater when done efficiently should only take you 50-60 seconds. So no need to play with breath holds longer than 1 minute. It took 4-5 strokes to get across a 25m pool so a total of 8-10 arm pull-ups and kicks per 50m swim. If your swim strokes are more than that you should focus on technique as well and learn to exert less energy during this swim. See video for ideas.

So here is the drill: Get about 10yds away from a pull-up bar. To start off, do a forward roll and get up and walk to the pull-up bar – do one pull-up and one squat. Walk back ten yards, do a squat and walk back to the pull-up bar. Do a pull-up and a squat. Repeat this cycle of 10yd walk, 1 pull-up, 1 squat for up to a minute or 5-6 sets while holding your breath. After doing just 5 sets of this, I was ready to breathe, but had to suck it up for 10-15 more seconds which is very similar to those last 10-15yds of a 50m or 50yd swim.

TIPS: A trick I use is to exhale a little carbon dioxide when you are starting to feel the need to breathe. Another trick is to swallow. Swallow spit – swallow water and it will relax that mammalian reflex to breathe. The biggest thing is to relax and remember “slow is fast” when holding your breath. Try not to rush your strokes in other words and focus on your glide.

Glide / arm pull

Jason, good thinking on a safer way to practice getting better at moving and breath holds.

See related articles on Underwater Swimming and Passing Military Swim Tests


Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the
Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at

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