The Fitness Dilemma: Does Swimming Build Muscle?

Swimming is considered a cardiovascular exercise great for the heart and lungs and healthy weight management. However, it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when looking for exercises to build muscle. Still, when we look at professional swimmers, we often see a well-muscled body with low body fat, which comes from none other than swimming practices. In fact, swimming provides a workout that challenges every muscle group in the body, making a well-rounded and time-efficient way to build muscle.

In this article, we’ll explore how swimming impacts the body and how to accelerate the muscle-building process by making swimming part of a wider fitness program. A healthy lifestyle and optimized nutrition are also essential to bring about true change.

Does swimming build muscle?

Swimming does build muscle because it is a form of both resistance training and aerobic exercise. However, the resistance is generally lower than weightlifting because your muscles are moving against water rather than a heavy weight. This makes swimming a more gentle form of resistance training, which poses less risk of injury for some people. For many people, swimming is the best workout you can do.

Swimming works all the major muscle groups in your body at the same time, meaning it provides an effective full-body workout that not only builds muscle but also adds cardiovascular benefits. Cardiovascular benefits of swimming include increased stamina, a boost for your immune system, weight management, a stronger heart and lungs, and mental health benefits such as decreased stress.

How does swimming build muscle?

The three things you need to build muscle are metabolic stress, muscle tension and muscle damage. Let’s explore these three mechanisms in more detail and how they relate to swimming.

Swimming for longer periods depletes your muscle energy storage and can cause the accumulation of metabolism by-products such as hydrogen ions, lactate, and creatine. In turn, this creates metabolic stress in muscle cells that promotes an adaptive response, leading to muscle growth.

Swimming is a form of resistance exercise because it creates muscle tension as your body moves against the water. Even a single bout of resistance exercise stimulates protein synthesis. Regular resistance exercise makes your muscles grow bigger over time, a process known as hypertrophy.

It is not yet fully known how the process of muscle hypertrophy works, but here is one of the proposed mechanisms. When you push yourself in resistance workouts, you actually damage your muscle fibers by creating microtears. During recovery, your body repairs damaged muscle fibers by fusing them, increasing the muscle size.

What muscles does swimming work?

As a general rule, most swimming strokes work most muscles in your body. However, some strokes are better at full-body muscle activation, while others place more focus on a specific area. Let’s look at some of the most common strokes and the swimming muscles they work:

Breaststroke

The lower body is key for breaststrokers. The frog-leg kick combined with a powerful chest press makes a great full-body workout, but if you’re particularly looking to build lower-body strength, breaststroke may be best for you.

Backstroke

Backstroke, while also a great full-body workout, places a particular focus on the chest muscles, thighs, and glutes. During backstroke sprints, swimmers engage muscles in their backs called the trapezius and latissimus dorsi.

Freestyle

Freestyle, also known as front crawl, really works your hips, hands, and feet. It also makes use of the largest muscle groups in the arms and legs — freestyle is one of the best strokes for full-body muscle building.

Butterfly

Butterfly requires the most full-body muscle activation of all swimming strokes. Butterfly swimmers make use of their triceps, biceps, shoulders, abs, hips, hands, and backs in this high-intensity stroke.

How much swimming do you need to build muscle?

The intensity of your swim sessions, your current fitness level, and how your body responds to exercise will all affect the amount of swimming you’ll need to build muscle. Consistent training with progressive overload (gradually boosting your workout intensity) is essential for continued muscle growth.

As a new swimmer, shoot for 2–3 swimming sessions per week if you want to start building muscle. Each session should last between 30 and 60 minutes, with a focus on proper technique to avoid injury.

Swimming techniques for maximum muscle gain

As a beginner, the water resistance alone with consistent training will be enough to start building muscle. However, your body will adapt after several months of training, and you’ll need to switch things up to continue seeing results.

Interval training is a great way to boost muscle-building potential while swimming. It involves alternating between high and low-intensity spurts of swimming, which challenges your muscles and encourages growth.

Additional tools such as swim parachutes and resistance bands can up the intensity of your workout and make your muscles work harder. Increased muscle activation will further increase your ability to build muscle.

Reducing rest periods and including hypoxic training are great ways to further increase metabolic stress and, therefore, your ability to build muscle. Hypoxic training refers to training in low-oxygen conditions — in swimming, this can be achieved by holding your breath for portions of your workout. However, it should be done safely in order not to overexert yourself.

Achieving optimal muscle gain necessitates a balanced diet rich in protein and varied workout routines. Protein serves as the foundational element for muscle growth, supplying the essential amino acids required for this process. Without sufficient nutritional support, your diligent efforts in training may yield minimal results. Therefore, maintaining a diet high in protein content is paramount to ensure your hard work translates into significant muscle development.

The final word

Swimming for fitness provides a full-body workout that builds muscle and offers amazing cardiovascular benefits. The greatest muscle-building benefits are reaped when you combine swimming with a well-rounded weight-lifting program.

Freestyle and butterfly work the most muscles, but most swimming strokes offer a full-body workout. To turn things up a notch and build muscle faster while swimming, consider using interval training and resistance equipment once you’ve mastered the basics.

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