Image of Michael Phelps swimming

Does Swimming Build Muscle? Let’s Talk About It

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated July 5, 2019

In the past decade, swimming has gained popularity among the fitness community through Olympians like Michael Phelps – and their slender, but toned bodies. The swimmer’s body has been sought after for several years, as the slim and streamlined, but powerful physiques of swimmers have graced our magazines and televisions as an elite aesthetic. But how does swimming measure up as an exercise? Do these guys really get built just from swimming, or are they pumping iron in the gym like the rest of us to make swimming easier?

Benefits of Swimming

Swimming has been a fitness method of choice for several people with pool access for quite some time, as it has many benefits in addition to learning how to not drown with efficiency. Here are some of the many benefits of swimming:

First, swimming is low-impact (almost no-impact), which will save your joints while you get in your workout. Low-impact training is recommended for people who are overweight and people who are aging, but swimming can be intense enough to benefit even the most elite athletes. If you ever go for a run and find that your knees and ankles hurt, or your plyometric training is taking a toll on your joints, work a swim into your next workout. The low-impact nature of swimming will let your joints rest while still getting in some quality exercise.

In addition to the muscular and calorie-burning benefits of swimming, it increases your lung capacity. With regular swimming, one’s body learns to use oxygen more efficiently, which can lead to lower blood pressure and lower resting heart rates. Also, with increased lung capacity, you will be able to run faster, longer. Running faster for longer will increase your ability to get those sprints or long distance runs in to burn those calories and reach whatever distance or speed goals you may have. The increased lung capacity that comes from swimming is actually what has made it a favorite among the marathon community as an extremely effective type of cross-training.

Stress can be a major factor in one’s health and daily mood, and swimming can help to relieve that stress. Several studies have been released that have linked swimming, or submersion in water to lower stress level by increased feelings of calmness. These feelings are due to dulling sensory input. Sensory deprivation has proven to be an effective meditative device in reducing blood pressure and stress-related hormones, and sensory deprivation tanks are now widely commercialized, with stress reduction and increased creativity being main advertising points.

Free weights and machines can hit all of your muscles with the hundreds of exercises out there; however, swimming engages muscles that you may not use very often in your lifts, especially if you use a lot of heavy, compound lifts in your workout. In addition to arms and legs, swimming will blast your core stabilizers to keep your torso balanced. while the rest of you works to push your body forward. A few weeks of swimming will have you noticing those muscles in your core that have been neglected poking out from the sides of your abs.

Swimming and Muscle Gain

“That all sounds great, but will I get jacked?” Well, no. Swimming is not going to turn you into Dolph Lundgren (although he has been known to use swimming in his routine). There is simply not enough resistance. Muscle is built through resistance, rather than repetitive motions that don’t offer much resistance (that’s why doing 100 pushups a day won’t give you the chest of a Greek god). Weight training is much more effective in this regard, is the capacity for resistance isn’t limited to the medium, it’s limited to your level of strength. However, with that said, you can gain a bit of muscle from swimming.

How much muscle you can gain from fitness, honestly, depends on your fitness level. Just like how curling 25lbs will blow up a novice lifter’s biceps, but won’t even tickle an advanced lifter. If you are fit, but don’t have much muscle mass, swimming can certainly offer enough resistance to get you toned and round you out a bit. If you already have some lean muscle mass on you, and you’re looking for a challenging resistance workout in swimming, it can be done; but, you’ll need some accessories. Water on its own does not offer enough resistance for a seasoned fitness enthusiast and participant to see the benefits of muscle gain from swimming.

Swimming with a kickboard will take your arms out of the equation and increase the resistance on your legs. Conversely, swimming with a pull buoy will increase the resistance on your arms. Try different strokes while swimming full out with one of these accessories to get a good workout. Remember to switch it up so your muscles don’t plateau by doing the same move every swim. The breast stroke and side stroke can be great strokes to really push your fitness limits and make some swimming-induced muscle gains.

Conclusion

We would recommend swimming as a viable exercise method? Of course! Swimming is low-impact, it can cut away stress and do wonders for your lung capacity and blood pressure. Swimming is a fantastic cardio exercise and, to anyone with pool access, working it into your routine would be extremely beneficial. Weight loss, general fitness, muscle toning, cardio improvement and several other goals fit right into what swimming has to offer.

Comments 1

  1. I’m on a weigh loss program with calorie counting, so I consume between 1200-1500 calories daily. I currently weigh close to 200 lbs and after resisting the exercise part of the program for 4 1/2 months, started swimming 5 days ago. I started with 250 yards swimming and 100 yards water walking and today did a combination of 825 yards swimming (mostly crawl, with some breaststroke and backstroke as well) and 400 yards of water walking for 34 minutes.
    Since I started swimming 5 days ago I have gained 3 lbs without going over my calorie budget. My big question is could muscle be building already or is it inflammation that has caused the weight gain? I’m at a total loss and am a bit bummed….

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