Swimming is an excellent, low-impact exercise for burning calories and getting fit. It’s ideal for those with injuries, joint problems or other issues that make cardio and weight lifting exercises difficult. Swimming is generally considered a way to build lean muscle, but if you’re looking for mass and can’t handle a more strenuous workout regimen, is it possible to gain that mass through swimming?
Yes, it is. Just look at Olympic swimmers who spend hours in a pool. They don’t have the same mass as a bodybuilder, but it’s not all lean muscle either. Swimming can build muscle, but you won’t see the fruits of your labors as quickly as you would with free weights.
Building Muscle Through Resistance
Your muscles grow when they stretch, tear and recover from resistance exercises. Like weightlifting, swimming is a resistance exercise, but unlike weight lifting, it places inconsequential amounts of stress on your bones and joints. This can decrease the amount of muscle you build in a short amount of time, but it also decreases the impact on your body, which is a huge benefit for staying physically active your whole life.
Swimming will build muscle much faster and more effectively than traditional cardio exercises like running or biking. The constant pushing and pulling against the water, which has a much higher resistance level than air, builds muscle capacity and endurance. Before you know it, you’ll have a fully toned swimmer’s body—maybe even with a six-pack!
Best Practices for Building Muscle While Swimming
Swimming with various strokes is a great way to build muscle, but if you want to speed up the process and target certain muscles, there are a few things you can do.
Swimmers seeking muscle mass won’t get there if they only swim once or twice per week. Consistency is key in building muscle groups and maintaining the toned look of a swimmer’s body.
It’s best if you have a swimming pool in your backyard where you can swim laps anytime you like. If the cost of installing such a pool is impossible, joining a gym with a swimming pool will work too, as long as you’re dedicated to going 3-5 times per week.
As you may know from other forms of exercise, you’ll have a hard time getting toned if you aren’t eating the right foods. Increase your intake of lean proteins and decrease refined sugars and processed foods. Healthy foods are ideal for recovery, which is key to building muscle quickly and safely. And just because you’re swimming doesn’t entitle you to follow a 10,000-calorie-a-day diet a la Michael Phelps.
Focus on Arms and Legs Separately
When lifting weights, you probably focus on your arms one day and your legs another. The same principle applies with swimming, but you’ll have to get a little more creative with how you do it in the water.
To focus on your legs, swim with a kickboard. Your arms will do nothing but hold you up, and your legs will do all the work of propelling you across the pool. This is also great for engaging your core and building those central muscles that are essential for being a great swimmer.
To work your arms, use a pull buoy, which isolates your arm muscles and will help intensify your workout. It’s hard to take your leg muscles entirely out of the equation when swimming, but this style of exercise will allow you to build the muscles in your arms more quickly.
Vary and Intensify Your Routine
Just as in the weight room, doing the same routine in the pool consistently for weeks on end will do little for muscle growth. You’ve got to mix things up. You might do the breast stroke for a week and switch to the back stroke the next. Each routine will work different muscles, ensuring you don’t neglect certain muscle groups while you train.
It’s hard to find ways to intensify your routine with swimming since you can’t add more weight. But you can vary the way you perform each exercise. You might increase the length and decrease your speed one day, or you might speed it up and practice sprints with different strokes. Varying and intensifying your routine will keep your muscles guessing and engaged so they can grow and adapt.
Maintain Traditional Strength Training
Swimming is a great way to stay toned, but it shouldn’t completely replace traditional strength training. At least twice a week, incorporate some form of weightlifting into your workouts.
If you like, you can reduce the impact on your body and bring strength training into the pool. Use a set of water dumbbells to do Bicep Curls while treading water, for example. You could also wear light weights around your wrists and ankles to increase resistance. (Be careful when adding weights in the pool, since it can make you sink!)
Building muscle through swimming is a great way to stay lean and toned if you go about it the right way. These tips can help you build muscle with very little long-lasting impact on your joints and bones.