How Does Swimming Build Muscle?
As a former collegiate swimmer (aka Swammer) my experience building muscle alongside swimming is first-hand. Here is a quick overview of what will be covered:
- How swimming differs from other sports in terms of muscle growth
- The nutritional side of muscle building
- Type of workouts (swimming, weights)
- Recovery (is actually building muscle)
I hope you learn a lot from this page and, of course, feel free to ask any questions! As a highly experienced swimmer, I hope you utilize my extensive knowledge.
How Swimming Differs From Other Exercise
Swimming is a sport, hobby, and a lifestyle for people of all ages. It's a great way for your body to recover, grow, and become stronger. Why is swimming so synonymous with building muscle? To see how you can gain muscle from swimming, we'll have to look at some of the fundamental aspects of swimming.
- Swimming is a resistance exercise, similar to weight-lifting. But, unlike weight-lifting, swimming places almost no stress on your joints and bones. So not only does swimming work your muscles but it doesn't have some of the negative impacts that lifting weights has.
- There are many muscles that swimming can strengthen. However, swimming does work some muscles more than others. These muscles, in particular, are your: traps, shoulders, back, abs, lats, legs, and triceps.
- The constant pulling and pushing of and against water builds great muscle endurance and work capacity with these above-listed muscles. If you've ever heard the term "swimmer's body," then, you probably know what the typical competitive swimmer looks like: good.
So, how can you start to utilize swimming to maximize muscle growth as well as aerobic fitness? The first step is to start browsing some swimming workouts online, and check to see when your local pool is open.
The Nutritional Side of Swimming
A long time ago, when Michael Phelps was still the pinnacle of swimming, it was common knowledge that he would consume up to 400% more calories than a normal person. This is in part due to the fact that swimming is a very demanding exercise. As a college swimmer, I know how a 2-3 hour practice works up a massive appetite, but this extra consumption of calories may not be for you.
- As most people know, carbohydrates are a person's primary source of energy when working out.
- Protein serves to patch up all of the "tears" in your muscles caused by intense exercise such as swimming or lifting weights.
- Then, there are the fats. Oh, fats. While they are essential for bodily functions, only good fats are necessary and they come from fish, nuts, and other natural foods. It's best to stay away from the typical cafeteria style foods such as cheeseburgers, pizza, fried foods etc. The more natural and whole your food seems the better. This goes for health in general, not simply swimming.
- If you are swimming a considerable amount, you'll want to make sure that you're getting at least 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 25% from protein, and 10-15% from fats.
Swimming Alone Isn't Enough
Although I'm advocating swimming as one of the best activities for muscle growth, it's not enough. You still have to lift weights, or else you'll never put on the muscle you want. By combining swimming and weightlifting, you'll see gains like never before. What other cardiovascular activity works as many muscles at once than swimming? Running, cycling, cart-wheels? None of the above.
Lifting weights must be done according to your goals:
- If you're looking to look good, then focus on several compound exercises with plenty of isolated exercises too.
- If you're looking to get faster at swimming or get stronger for your sport, then look more towards compound (multi-muscle) exercises and less towards isolated (one muscle only) ones.
Whatever you decide to do as far as weight-lifting goes, it will complement nicely with swimming. Try to work those muscles involved with swimming if you can. Luckily for you, swimming involves many muscles, as mentioned above. Note, however, that you should try and stay away from working your biceps and chest too much.
Recovery Actually Means Gaining Muscle
The only time you actually gain muscle is through recovery. When you work out, you are actually tearing your muscles down. So, if you can improve your recovery process or increase how much your body has to recover then that's when you'll start building more muscle. Obviously to increase how much your body must recover you must work out harder and longer, but how do you boost recovery efficiency with swimming?
- One of the most beautiful aspects of swimming is that you are horizontal as you exercise. So? This is actually a great thing for recovery. Cooling down can greatly decrease the time it takes for you to recover. Cooling down works because it enables your heart rate to be higher than normal for a period of time after intense exercise which means increased blood flow.
- With an increased blood flow after intense exercise, your body can carry out waste products produced from exercising from the muscles.
- Take this scenario, for example: Two swimmers raced 200 yards as fast as they could go. One swimmer sat on the edge for 5 minutes before the next 200 yard race. The other swimmer took those 5 minutes to lightly swim. When it was time to race again, both swimmers started out at the same speed, but the swimmer who lightly swam before the race was able to maintain the speed better and won.
So, try and cool down as often as you can, especially after lifting weights or after intense exercise. It will enable you to recover faster and do more exercise in a given week.
Swimming and Muscle Building: Conclusion
Swimming is a great muscle building resistance exercise with properties to increase recovery efficiency. If you want to decrease the risk of injury and strain on your body in general, you should definitely consider swimming. Let's also not forget that lung capacity is most easily increased through swimming which will enhance your work capacity in any activity.
Note, however, that while more infrequent than with other sports, you should still watch out for injuries. A common one to watch out for is in your shoulders -- though, that's usually only caused from years and years of intense swimming.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Fit29 on November 07, 2018:
Biceps play a big role especially in front crowl when you push the water with one arm to move. I m freestyle pro swimmer and lifter and my biceps are burning after 100 m sprint
Harris Dickenson on April 26, 2018:
It's a shame I can't do the weight lifting side...is there no way to increase muscle through just swimming?
Mano on September 15, 2017:
Hi I came to this page because a friend told me that I will lose muscles if I continue to swim, I love swimming and I always do it before and after Gym... According to this article is one of the few exersises which train nearly all muscle groups. So Im confused...
Ergid Subashi on June 26, 2017:
Can i get broad shoulders and get taller. Im almos 18
Dear CalorieBee! on May 30, 2017:
Could you send me a typical workout routine including swimming and weight lifting?
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 15, 2015:
Great hub, Benjamin. Very informative. My neurologist told me it's my back's best friend and helpful to keep the back pain away, as long as I stay active. I go to swim to my local swim whenever I can and the lanes aren't busy. Voted up!
Diesel on February 14, 2015:
Loved the article just looking to know a few tips on how to help me perfect my form, i always feel like im out of shape when swimming any tips?
James Packard from Columbia, Missouri on February 06, 2015:
I was a swimmer for several years and loved it. But I quite too soon. Had I kept with it, I'm sure I'd be in top-notch shape. Thanks for sharing. Tips for easing back into it?
Ben Roberts on January 12, 2015:
Thanks a lot for all the insight! I have a question about my own personal routine. I just received a membership for the local rec center and I was wondering what would be the most efficient routine I could take. As of right now, I usually lift weights with a little bit of cardio warm-up(5 minutes max). My workout consists of chest, triceps, back, biceps, shoulders, traps, hamstrings, quads, abs, and calves throughout the week. I then Usually take supplements, go swimming, relax in the sauna and then end it with a cold shower. Is there anything I should change, such as when I should supplement, swim, or sauna use. Any information would be greatly appreciated, thanks.
Mike on January 02, 2015:
I have a four day split for lifting. I do upper body on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and I do leg day on Friday. Would it be a good idea to swim on Friday and Saturday or would that be over training the muscles?
Benjamin (author) on June 17, 2014:
The nutrition plan and gym program really depend on your physique, ability, etc. It`s a little difficult to know what´s best for you without understanding your needs in detail. As far as getting the right foods though for the right price, I would focus on buying natural foods that contain plenty of carbs to power your workouts as well as protein. Some fat is okay but of course you want to limit that. Things I like to buy = greek yogurt, pastas, eggs, milk, healthy cereals, oatmeal, beans (pinto, black, etc), vegetables, peanut butter, and things like this.
You can find all of this stuff to be rather cheap once you figure out what type of meal combinations to cook up.
As far as your swimming, I would try an join a club or team for some extra guidance. If you don't think that`s an option I would seek out advice online from a professional trainer and see if you can get help. I know a lot about swimming and getting better, but a coach who can personalize your workouts and stuff will be a good asset to have.
Okay, hopefully what I´ve said makes sense to you - I`m writing it rather spur of the moment here. Feel free to ask any more questions.
Jandre on June 16, 2014:
I'm an amateur swimmer and I train 5-6 pw for 2 hours at each session. I know of a gym I can use that is near me. However my current financial situation makes dieting hard for me. What kind of diet (preferably not very costly) and gym program would you recommend. I would really appreciate any help as I have been struggling to qualify for Nationals for a while now. Oh yeah I'm 16 and I have a dream of swimming in the Olympics.
GasheadJack from Bristol, United Kingdom on April 16, 2014:
I'm a keen swimmer and go around 3-4 times a week, and probably only do quite light sessions ( around 15-20 minutes.)
What exercises can I do to tone up more and build a bit more bulk? I'm open to suggestions for stuff I can do both in and out of the pool, but preferably would want to stay away from weights. This would be mainly for looks and to help me with my swimming.
Thanks and really enjoyed your article.
Benjamin (author) on April 12, 2014:
Biceps overall don't play a big factor in determining swim speed. You tend not to use biceps for much since most movements involve tricpes, shoulders, etc.
You shouldn't eliminate chest training by any means from your workout, but doing just regular bench press can translate poorly into swim speed. Think about freestyle and how you pull the water - doing incline bench press or cross overs is much better for your stroke strength. A BIG thing too is to not tweak your shoulders doing chest exercises.
123456 on April 10, 2014:
"Try and work muscles involved with swimming if you can. Lucky for you swimming involves many muscles, but try and stay away from working biceps too much as well as chest too much."
Why should I keep away from biceps and chest training? Could you please explain? :)
Benjamin (author) on February 28, 2014:
Chest and biceps have limited use in swimming and can inhibit performance if focused on too much.
faaip on February 28, 2014:
Hi, what do you mean with "but try and stay away from working biceps too much as well as chest too much." So should I not train too much chest and biceps if I swim 3 times pw? My weightlifting includes chest and biceps.
Avinesh Prahladi from Chandigarh on December 11, 2013:
Swimming surely has various benefits and help in building muscle. But, not everybody feels comfortable while swimming, some people suffer from hydrophobia.
georgescifo from India on July 22, 2013:
Swimming is one of the best exercise that I have come across. It is quite interesting and at the same time beneficial for a majority of your body organs. Thanks for sharing this useful hub.
Dinesh Sharma from New Delhi, India on July 04, 2013:
Really Good Article, It has motivated me to go for swimming rither than going to a gym.