The chase for the elusive “six-pack abs” that marks the peak of physical fitness is a difficult one with all the different exercise regimens and dieting plans open to the public. However, one such exercise regimen stands above the rest… swimming. Swimming is a popular form of exercise across the world and, as a result, people are often curious as to whether or not swimming can give them abs.
Swimming can help to reveal abs by burning through excess body fat and lowering body fat percentage. However, swimming cannot replace a nutritious, well-rounded diet. A person must be in a caloric deficit to lose body fat around the midsection. This is rather difficult to achieve with a poor diet.
In short, swimming alone is typically not enough for an individual to reveal their abs. We’ll discuss why swimming is a powerful supplement to reaching your six-pack ab aspirations, along with the reasons why it isn’t the sole piece to the puzzle.
How Swimming Helps People Get Abs
Now that you know that swimming can expedite your journey to six-pack abs, you probably would like to know the scientific backing as to how this can be. However, before we delve into this intriguing topic, you must understand the concept of the caloric deficit.
Caloric Deficit: The Key to Six Pack Abs
Abs are revealed only when an individual is at a sufficiently low body fat percentage, generally under 14% body fat for men and under 19% for women (source). The average person lies slightly above these body fat percentages. To initiate a body transformation and reach these low body fat percentages, they will have to put themselves in a caloric deficit.
Since the body is not being supplied with the calories needed to fuel essential biochemical functions, the body resorts to using up the fat stores as fuel instead, which lowers body fat percentage over time.
It’s important to note that you should use caloric deficits in moderation to lower body fat percentage. Severe caloric deficits are largely considered to be unsustainable. In addition, a severe caloric deficit can also strip away hard-earned muscle since the body will most likely be in dire need of energy. Generally, a caloric deficit of 500 calories is considered to be the most effective for weight loss.
There are two primary strategies for achieving a caloric deficit:
- Increasing your daily physical activity.
- Consuming less calories throughout the day.
Why Swimming Helps People to Achieve a Caloric Deficit
Swimming weekly will help establish a caloric deficit, as it is one of the most efficient forms of aerobic exercise out there. A single hour-long swimming session can burn in the range of 400 to 700 calories, depending on the intensity of the workout (source).
Ultimately, the total amount of calories burned through swimming is contingent on the following:
- Workout Intensity – The more active your body is, the more calories your body will be forced to burn.
- Workout Duration – The longer your swimming session, the longer that your body will be in a calorie burning state.
- Body Weight – Heavier individuals burn slightly more calories over the course of a swimming session than lighter individuals (source).
- Natural Buoyancy Level – Negatively buoyant individuals must fight harder to resurface for their breaths as opposed to positively buoyant individuals, so they end up burning more calories.
- Swim Technique – Those with suboptimal swimming technique do not maximize their efficiency in the water. They cover less distance and burn less calories as a result.
- Swim Stroke – Certain swim strokes are more favorable toward calorie burning to others. These swimming strokes will be discussed later in the article.
If you have trouble maintaining a caloric deficit through dieting alone, swimming is an easy means to burn some additional calories to shed some weight. Nonetheless, swimming should not be viewed as the sole means of achieving abs. There are other fitness aspects to pay attention to, which I will detail in the next section.
Why People Must Combine Swimming with Other Factors to Get Abs
The majority of people who set out to earn their abs not only adhere to a rigid workout program but also reshape their lifestyle habits to support their new healthy physique. Rarely, if ever, does a person get abs just by swimming alone.
So what are these other factors that you should consider?
Low Calorie Diet
First and foremost, it’s important to realize that diet is the main deciding factor for whether or not a person will get abs. Fitness gurus frequently refer to a fitness maxim that “Abs are made in the kitchen” (source). Essentially, this is saying that diet is the most crucial component to stripping body fat away from the midsection.
The unfortunate truth is that not everyone has the free time or available energy to swim daily. Even people that can cram a workout into their schedule may find that building up the mental discipline to swim every day can be an uphill battle. The resulting fatigue and exhaustion can exact a heavy toll after a few rigorous weeks of swimming with little to no breaks in between.
Often, it’s easier for a person to establish their caloric deficit primarily through flexible dieting. When a person eats less, they do not have to stress about making it to the pool day after day. Put simply, it’s much more sustainable to scale back caloric intake and swim three times a week than it is to keep caloric intake the same and swim every day.
Ab Isolation Exercises
Everyone has abs, but few people have well-developed abs. Diet may reveal the abs, but training builds up the abs to make them appear more defined.
A strict swimming regimen is undoubtedly an effective weight-loss tool, as aforementioned. However, what you may not know is that swimming is not the best muscle-building tool. Fitness experts largely consider swimming to be ideal for muscle toning, as opposed to muscle bulking.
The reason for this is that swimmers only ever challenge their muscles by moving around their own body weight in water. Consequently, swimmers do not reach the threshold of muscle overload, where the muscles are tasked with moving more weight than they can bear. Muscle overload is the underlying foundation of how the body builds muscle. For this reason, alternative forms of exercise, such as powerlifting and bodybuilding, are more effective muscle builders.
If you want to make your abs more visibly defined, you should not rely on swimming alone. Instead, it’s a smart idea to concentrate your efforts on ab isolation movements that overload the core. For your reference, I included several ab exercises that are tailored specifically toward ab definition:
- Ab Rollout – This exercise requires either a stability ball or an ab wheel. Kneel down and slowly roll the stability ball or ab wheel forward until your body is extended forward. Once you’ve reached full extension, roll the stability ball or ab wheel backward to your starting position.
- Sit-Up – This is the most popular ab exercise for good reason. Plus, it requires no additional equipment. Lie on your back and bend your legs so that your feet are firmly on the ground. Curl your body up toward your knees and lower yourself back to the ground in a controlled fashion.
- Hanging Leg Raise – This exercise requires a straight pull-up bar. Grasp the pull-up bar and hold yourself in place. While keeping your upper torso stationary, raise your legs until they are parallel with the ground. Then, slowly lower your legs back to their starting position.
Lastly, you should note that genetics also play a big role in an individual’s ability to get abs. Humans have varying genetics, which affects many properties, including metabolism, body fat percentage, body fat distribution, and ab appearance.
For example, those that have high metabolisms typically sport a lower body fat percentage. As mentioned earlier, a lower body fat percentage lends itself to better ab definition and visibility. For this reason, individuals with high metabolisms have a more natural inclination toward ab definition compared to other individuals.
In some cases, body fat percentage may not even be the issue. Rather, body fat distribution may be the underlying root cause of why individuals may have trouble uncovering their abs.
For example, if a person has a disproportionately high body fat distribution around the midsection, they’ll have greater difficulty revealing all their hard work. They will have to reach abnormally low body fat percentages to compensate for the additional body fat around their midsection. No matter how well-developed a person’s abs may be, it won’t matter if a layer of body fat conceals what’s underneath.
Not only does genetics strongly influence a person’s ability to reveal their abs, but genetics also determines the very appearance of the abs themselves. Genetics dictate whether your abs will be crooked or aligned, short or long, and wide or narrow.
Your DNA is even responsible for determining if you will have a four-pack, six-pack, or eight-pack. For example, if you take a look at the most illustrious bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll see that he sported a four-pack instead of a six-pack due to his genetics.
Although you don’t have a say over your genetics, you have a say over your daily lifestyle habits. If you follow the tips listed above, you’ll be well on your way to a slimmer, more tapered midsection regardless of where your genetic starting point may be.
Best Swimming Exercises for Abs
To get the greatest return on your investment, it’s in your best interest to carefully choose your swimming strokes. Some swimming strokes are better for weight loss than others, so it’s important to keep this in mind as you commit to a weekly swimming schedule.
The backstroke is the lowest calorie burner on this list, but it’s still viable to lean down and trim body fat. However, if you choose to implement this stroke, you will need to practice maintaining proper buoyancy, as this stroke tends to favor those who are positively buoyant.
During the backstroke, the arms operate alternatingly, with one arm reaching out through the air and the other arm pulling through the water. This alternating cycle requires core activation to keep you tracking in a straight line. Not only that, but the perpetual leg kicking (that accompanies the alternations of the arms) places a heavy emphasis on the lower abs.
To see exactly how you should do the backstroke, check out the instructional video below:
Calories Burned: ~250 calories in 30 minutes of activity(source)
Swimmers typically go the fastest in the water with their freestyle stroke. This is without a doubt one of the most physically demanding swimming strokes, as it forces both the upper and lower body to work in unison to drive the body forward.
Freestyle works similarly to the backstroke. As the arms push and pull in an alternating fashion, the core must counteract any body-rocking that results. The lower abs must also stabilize the body due to the constant propulsion provided by the lower legs.
The proper mechanics of the freestyle stroke are outlined in the video below:
Calories Burned: ~300 calories in 30 minutes of activity(source)
The butterfly stroke may be the most complicated to learn of the three strokes on this list, but it’s also the most effective at calorie burning. With this stroke, the body is in a perpetual state of aggressive motion, forcing the body to burn through its energy reserves at a far more rapid rate than other swimming exercises.
Many swimmers think of the butterfly stroke as an upper-body intensive exercise since the arms and shoulders are tasked with pulling the body up and out of the water. Although this may be true, you cannot overlook the role of the abs in this swimming stroke either.
The lower limbs execute what is known as a “dolphin kick,” a motion where the legs rise and fall in an undulating fashion. The primary muscles that initiate this undulating motion are the abdominal muscles. So with every dolphin kick that a swimmer performs, they essentially perform one core repetition. By the end of a swimming session, those core repetitions add up!
You can see how the experts perform the butterfly stroke with the following clip:
Calorie Burned: ~450 calories for 30 minutes of activity(source)
The Bottom Line
Swimming should be viewed as a complementary piece in your journey towards abs, but nothing more. If you really want to have visible abs, you’ll first have to lower your body fat percentage through proper dieting. Then, you’ll have to perform ab isolation movements to pack on some muscle and really make those abs stand out.
Unfortunately, you can’t outwork a poor diet. So if you truly are committed to getting those abs, your main priority should be watching what you eat.