Can You Get in Shape Just By Swimming? (Here’s What to Expect)


It’s no secret that swimming is one of the most popular forms of exercise out there. Despite its popularity, there are still lingering questions regarding its effectiveness, particularly as a person’s sole means of exercise.

You can get in shape just by swimming, since this activity activates all major muscle groups concurrently, boosts cardiovascular health, and increases muscular tone. However, it is important to supplement your swimming with a nutritious, healthy diet or your progress will eventually plateau.

Everyone knows that swimming is a healthy habit to get into, but far fewer people know the true extent to which swimming can transform an individual’s health. Below, we’ll discuss whether swimming is supportive of your specific fitness aspirations and look at a real life example of how swimming visibly transformed someone’s physique.

How a Dedicated Swimming Regimen Can Get You in Shape

Swimming has several unique properties that separate it from other prominent forms of exercise. There’s no question that these special fitness benefits have the power to get you in shape, no matter where your individual starting point may be.

Works All Major Muscle Groups Simultaneously

First and foremost, you should know that swimming is a full-body workout. As soon as you hit the pool and wade into deeper waters, your muscles are fighting vigorously to keep your head above water so you can keep breathing, a technique that’s more commonly referred to as treading.

Treading is largely seen as one of the more simpler variations of swimming. Nonetheless, this technique involves continual exertion from the arms and legs, as they have to be in a state of perpetual movement for this to work.

To offer some perspective, treading water burns in the range of 300 to 444 calories in half an hour (source). In comparison, running burns in the range of 200 to 500 calories in half an hour (source). Of course, there are a number of variables that influence the exact number of calories you will burn with each exercise, including your body weight, fitness level and workout intensity.

And that’s just treading water! There are multiple other swimming strokes that are even more muscle-intensive than treading, including the freestyle stroke, butterfly stroke, and breaststroke. With all of these swimming strokes, there is an even greater emphasis on muscle activation, namely the:

  • Core Abdominals: keep the body in a steady, balanced state while gliding through the water
  • Glutes: generates propulsion through the water from the lower limbs by facilitating hip extension
  • Hamstrings: assists the glutes with hip extension
  • Shoulders: forces the body to glide forward by pulling the arms down and through the water
  • Upper Back: stabilizes the shoulders and assists with the pulling motion of the arms

There are additional muscles not listed above that contribute as well, but these are largely considered the primary movers that allow an individual to move with purpose through the water.

Notice that this list of muscles spans almost the entire length of the body. If you’re burdened with a busy schedule and want to be as efficient as possible with your workout time, swimming may very well be your best bet. Few other forms of exercise actively engage such an assortment of muscles all at the same time.

Dramatically Improves Cardiovascular Fitness

Another crucial aspect of your fitness that swimming will positively influence is your cardiovascular health.

For most people, the average swimming session lasts anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes. This prolonged type of physical exertion places a heavy emphasis on the efficient use of oxygen, since the body must make use of whatever oxygen is available to fuel continuous movement through the water.

The only issue is that swimmers can only resurface so often to take in a breath. Since their primary goal is to move forward as quickly as they can, resurfacing too often can actually detract from this goal by interrupting their rhythm and throwing off their technique. For this reason, the body must adapt accordingly to gather the most amount of energy possible from the few breaths that they’re able to squeeze in.

Eventually, the metabolic processes of the body become so accustomed to the aerobic demands of swimming that the heart automatically pumps more oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Furthermore, the lungs adapt by taking in oxygen with greater efficiency and the muscles adapt by converting oxygen into energy at a quicker rate.

All of these metabolic benefits will not only make you look better, but they will also make you feel better in the long run. The results may be hard to notice at the onset, but they will become more apparent as you continue to swim on a more regular basis.

Promotes Better Overall Muscle Tone

In addition, swimming has been shown to support better muscle tone. As a quick reference, muscle tone is a term used to characterize resting muscle tension. Highly toned muscles have a high resting muscle tension, which makes them appear hard and firm.

The “toned muscle” look that’s characteristic of most experienced swimmers is due to their low body fat percentage. Since swimming is such a physically demanding activity, regular swimmers burn through their caloric reserves practically every time they embark on one of their long swimming escapades. In most cases, this results in a caloric deficit, which helps to strip the body of any excess fat stores that conceal the lean muscle underneath.

This is not to say that this process is easy. Burning away enough of these excess fat stores to achieve the coveted “toned muscle” look generally takes weeks to months of regular swimming. Even then, most people will have to supplement their training regimen with a low-fat diet to avoid replenishing the excess fat stores they’ve worked so hard to burn away.

It’s important to note that toning is not the same thing as bulking. Where toning strips fat away and reveals the muscle underneath, bulking has to do with putting on muscle mass in order to look bigger. In other words, toning is used to sculpt the muscle, whereas bulking is used to provide the sculpting material.

Although swimming is a viable form of exercise for muscle toning, it does not do nearly as well with muscle bulking. Since swimmers are only responsible for moving their own body weight in the water, their muscles rarely ever reach a point of overload, where the muscles are burdened with more weight than they can bear.

Is Swimming Enough to Reach Your Long Term Fitness Goals?

There’s no question that swimming can get you in shape, as evidenced by the various fitness benefits listed above. However, it’s important to know that swimming gets you in a very particular kind of shape. Before committing to a strict swimming regimen, you may first want to consider if your personal fitness aspirations align with the fitness benefits that swimming has to offer.

Depends on What Your Fitness Aspirations Are

The very first step in this process is to figure out exactly what your long term fitness ambitions are.

For some individuals, their primary goal is weight loss, which would entail a cardiovascular intensive program. Other people simply want to look bigger, which would entail a fitness program based around muscle bulking. Certain athletes may not even have any real concern over their appearance. What they really want is to get stronger, faster, and more agile to improve their sports performance.

No matter what your personal goals are, you need to decide whether or not swimming is the best type of training suited for you to reach these goals.

Swimming is largely considered to be ideal for weight loss and sports performance, but not for strictly adding muscle mass.

If your overarching goal is to put on as much muscle mass as possible, lifting weights is likely to do you far better than swimming. This way, you can continually increase your muscle workload and force them to grow. Put simply, swimming is more geared toward stripping away fat than putting on muscle.

Cannot Overlook Quality Diet and Nutrition

Exercise is certainly a major part of living a healthy lifestyle, however, it’s not the only factor that needs attention. Maintaining a healthy diet is just as, if not more, important than establishing a strict exercise routine.

Swimming can help you to reach a specific fitness threshold, but it’s very likely you’ll end up hitting a plateau if your diet is poor. In order to train with greater intensity and frequency, you’ll need to fuel your body with high quality nutrients that keeps your metabolism churning. Without any nutritious fuel, it’ll be extremely difficult to push past your limits on pure mental discipline alone.

Quality diet and nutrition is especially important when it comes to the goal of weight loss. At the end of the day, if you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning, you’ll end up gaining weight rather than losing weight. Unfortunately, swimming will rarely ever defeat a poor diet, even if you do manage to make it out to the pool three to four times a week.

For this reason, you will have to revamp your diet as you progress on your swimming journey. As a general rule of thumb, you should analyze your fitness goals using the “80% nutrition to 20% fitness” ratio (source). The basic premise of this rule is to prioritize nutrition above all else. You’ll be better equipped to tackle your fitness aspirations if you acknowledge the fact that dietary habits play a greater (or at least equivalent) role in body composition relative to exercise.

In summary, swimming alone is enough to push an individual in the right direction, but diet must improve as well for most people to get attain their long term fitness aspirations.

Sample Swimming Program to Get Yourself in Shape

Now that you know swimming combined with solid nutrition can get you in shape, you probably would like to have a general notion of what an effective swimming program actually looks like. To make this process easier on you, I outlined a free training regimen that you can use to jumpstart your swimming journey.

Warm-Up

Before you even begin your swimming workout, it’s a smart idea to warm up your joints and muscles with light exercise movements and dynamic stretches. It may seem tedious, but this small effort will prevent injuries in the long run.

For instance, you can take a brisk walk for five minutes before even entering the pool so your muscles aren’t completely tense for the coming workout. If this is not an option, you can stand in place and do a few dynamic stretches, such as arm swing, lunges, and knee pulls.

Once you actually venture into the pool, you should ease into the workout by swimming a few warm-up laps at a comfortable, yet steady, pace. If you have access to a kickboard, this can be a convenient tool for these warm-up laps, as it allows you to move forward without having to worry about buoyancy.

Exercise Regimen

Following your warm-up routine, you can now safely move into the main section of the swimming workout. It’s highly recommended that you adhere to a workout plan so that you can keep yourself accountable and make steady progression over time. In the absence of a concrete workout plan, it’s a lot more tempting to cut your workouts short and lose sight of your long term goals.

A solid workout regimen specifically addresses the exercise plan, workout intensity, and workout frequency. There should also be rest days scheduled into the workout regimen to allow time for muscle recovery. If you’re a beginner searching for a proven workout plan, look no further! You can use the free 4-day workout plan below to spark your fitness journey.

DAY 1 (Aerobic)DAY 2 (Technique)DAY 3 (Speed)DAY 4 (Aerobic)
SWIMMING DISTANCE400m100m50m400m
VOLUME3 sets9 sets12 sets3 sets
INTENSITY LEVEL65%50-60%100%65%
RECOVERY2 minutes1 minute1 minute2 minutes

Since rest days are built into this program, you can tailor the plan to fit your schedule. This way, you won’t have to feel boxed in with having to follow a strict training regimen.

This workout plan is effective in that it hits on several crucial aspects of swimming—that being speed, technique, and aerobic fitness. By structuring your workouts in this manner, you’re able to diversity your training and break up the monotony of your weekly workout. It also forces you to be a solid, all-around swimmer, as opposed to focusing in on a singular dimension of swimming. This ultimately translates into you being in all-around shape with a proportional physique.

It’s highly recommended that you experiment with alternative swimming strokes on different workout days. For example, if you choose to practice freestyle on Monday, mix things up and practice the breaststroke on Wednesday. Subtle variations like these not only make the workout more challenging, but more entertaining as well.

As you progress, you can scale the intensity level and amount of sets accordingly to push your boundaries. This is extremely critical, as this is what will take your overall health and appearance to the next level.

Cooldown

Once you’ve finished the scheduled swimming workout for the day, it’s smart to get into the habit of cooling down immediately afterwards. Swimming at a slow, steady pace for a few minutes affords your body’s musculature the chance to decompress and your heart rate the opportunity to drop back down to normal.

Plus, there’s always a sense of pleasure in basking in the glory of a completed workout!

Real Life Example of a Swimming Transformation

If you still have any lingering doubts as to how effective swimming is at getting people in shape, check out the story of Mike Allon. Allon lost 100 pounds by swimming four days a week! If you don’t want to take my word for it, click on the video below to hear it from Allon himself.

Although swimming was a major contribution to Allon’s weight loss journey, it would not have been possible without the lifestyle changes he made regarding his nutrition. In the video, Allon mentions that he established a weekly meal prepping routine to make it as easy as possible for him to eat clean. The swimming regimen may take up much of the spotlight, but the dietary aspect cannot be overlooked either.

This is definitely an extreme example of what swimming can do for an individual’s health, but it proves the concept that swimming can get people in shape, no matter what their current fitness level is. So if you’re looking to look better and feel better, why not give swimming a try? All you have to do is take that first leap of faith into the swimming pool!

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, swimming has the capacity to get people in shape, given that they follow a solid program and a healthy diet. The road to transforming your health for the better may be intimidating at first, but swimming can help you break through these initial barriers and make great strides toward your personal fitness finish line.

All content written by HydroPursuit is for informational purposes only. The material found on this site is not intended to replace professional medical advice, treatment, or diagnosis. Consult with an accredited health care provider prior to initiating a new health care regimen.

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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