Does swimming build muscle?

Swimming not only provides a fantastic cardiovascular workout but is also brilliant for strength and muscle development. Physio Ed Orman explains… 

Male swimmer racing freestyle in the pool, breathing to the side

Swimming is regarded as a refreshing and enjoyable activity, and not only provides a fantastic cardiovascular workout but also offers a range of benefits for overall strength and muscle development.

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In this article, we will explore the transformative effects swimming can have on your physique and address common questions regarding muscle building through swimming.

Can you build muscle just by swimming?

Absolutely! The conditions required to build muscle are muscle tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. All can be achieved in swimming with the right intensity and frequency of sessions.

Swimming is a brilliant full-body workout that engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Water adds resistance while also supporting the body, making it an ideal exercise form for all ages and fitness levels.

What muscles does swimming work?

Swimming is renowned for its ability to engage various muscle groups, offering a comprehensive workout from head to toe. You’d be hard pressed to find a muscle that isn’t working during swimming. Let’s dive into some of the key muscle groups targeted during swimming:

Upper body: The repetitive use of your arms flexing and rotating to push and pull your body weight through the water effectively works the muscle groups of the shoulders, chest and back.

The pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles are particularly engaged during these movements, especially during breaststroke and butterfly. Your biceps, triceps and shoulders are heavily used in front crawl and backstroke.

Core muscles: The core muscles, including the abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back, play a crucial role in stabilising the body while swimming. The constant need for balance and coordination activates these muscles, resulting in a stronger, more stable core.

Not to mention their use in propulsion during dolphin kicks and turning.

Lower body: Did you know that the legs generate 33% of your speed in the sprinting freestyle? While swimming predominantly engages the upper body, the lower body muscles also receive a substantial workout.

Kicking movements activate the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles enhancing lower body strength and tone.

Cardiovascular system: Swimming elevates the heart rate, providing an excellent cardiovascular workout that enhances endurance and promotes overall cardiovascular health.

How much do you have to swim to build muscle ?

The amount of swimming required to build muscle varies depending on several factors, including; your current fitness level, intensity of your swim sessions, and your body’s response to exercise.

Importantly, being consistent and continuing to progressively overload the muscles are key principles when it comes to building muscle through swimming as with any exercise.

To begin building muscle, you should aim for at least two to three swimming sessions per week, with each session lasting about 30 to 60 minutes. Start gradually and focus on proper technique and form to avoid overexertion or injury.

It is also important to pair this with eating a good diet rich in protein and mix up your workouts to continually challenge your body. As a beginner, the water resistance alone will be sufficient to promote muscle growth but after the first few months of training you should be looking to vary your training to continue progression and overload.

To maximise muscle-building potential, consider incorporating interval training and swim-specific resistance exercise into your routine. Interval training involves alternating between high-intensity and low-intensity swimming, challenging your muscles’ max capacity and promoting growth.

Additionally, using tools such as swim parachutes and resistance bands can add an extra level of resistance, further enhancing muscle development.

Other techniques could include decreasing rest periods, incorporating hypoxic sessions and lactate-intolerant sets to enhance the metabolic stress required to build muscle.

Its full body engagement and low-impact nature make it an excellent option for individuals seeking to enhance their physique, not to mention the calming effects that being in the water has on your mental health.

By consistently incorporating swimming into your fitness routine you can enjoy the rewards of improved muscle tone, strength and power while enhancing your cardiovascular health. So, take the plunge, and let swimming propel you towards a stronger, fitter, and more muscular you!

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Top image credit: Getty Images