A swimming workout may not cross your mind when you’re looking for a new way to challenge your body. After all, it requires finding a pool, then grabbing a swimsuit, cap, and goggles—so it takes a little extra planning. Plus, you can’t really tell if you’re sweating when you swim, so…is it even doing anything?
“Swimming is an amazing full-body workout with minimal impact on joints,” says Helen Lin, a Master swim team coach based in Boston. “It also builds muscular endurance and is a great cardiovascular workout.” So yeah, it’s effective.
Swimming is definitely something to consider if you tend to get injured from high-impact exercises like running, says Albert Matheny, CSCS, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab.
Besides, have you seen what Olympic swimmers look like? They’re sculpted in all the right places, so clearly swimming is effective.
Total caveat here: There are a lot of factors that go into how many calories you burn doing anything, including swimming. I’m talkin’ things like how much you weigh, your personal metabolism, and how hard you push yourself. But in general, Matheny says you can expect to burn about 300 calories for a half hour of swimming freestyle laps at a moderate pace.
Your experience level matters, too. It’s totally unfair, but Lin says that swimming newbies are more likely to burn more calories than veteran swimmers, which may help with goals like weight loss or strength building. “It takes an impressive amount of coordination with body position and breathing to put it all together,” she says. Once you know what you’re doing, you learn to move through the water with as little resistance as possible—which inevitably means you’ll burn fewer calories.
But hey, that means you can probably swim faster. If you’re more experienced, add a few sprints to the mix to kick your calorie burn up a notch, Matheny says.
Prefer to stay on land today? Try this total-body strength workout:
The cool thing about swimming is that it works pretty much all of your muscle groups, Lin says. But, obviously, some get more of a workout than others. That include your latissimus dorsi (back) and deltoids (shoulders), since there’s a lot of pulling to get your body through the water. Your pecs, glutes (butt), and quads (thighs) also see some solid action thanks to kicking. “All strokes will engage your core muscles to support your limbs as you propel through the water,” Lin says.
The strokes you use matter, too. In general, Matheny says you’re going to work the following muscle groups (in addition to your deltoids and latissimus dorsi) with these strokes:
In general, Matheny says it’s great to shoot for 30 minutes in the pool. But if you don’t have time to go that long, just try to get your heart rate up for as long as you can.
Sure, you can get in the pool and just go, but it may also help to have some structure in place for your workout. If you prefer to just swim laps, Matheny recommends aiming to swim 1,000 yards in 30 minutes. (For the record, most swimming pools you’ll find at your gym or community center are 25 yards long.) But if you want more specific swimming exercises, Lin suggests trying these:
If you’re just starting out…
If you’re more advanced…
(Heads up: you’ll want to grab a kickboard for this and, when you use it, hold it in front of you and kick with your legs straight out behind you.)
Matheny says you should start to see results pretty quickly once you make swimming exercises a regular part of your routine.
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