Can You Swim if You Can’t Float? (Easy Explanation)


It’s no secret that the ability to float plays a complementary role to swimming, but the real question on many people’s minds is whether or not the ability to float is essential to learning how to swim. Although this is a rather common question, the truth of the matter may actually surprise you.

People that lack the ability to float can learn how to swim, if given the proper training from an accredited instructor. Negative buoyancy may complicate matters such as your endurance, mental state, and breathing technique, but these difficulties can be overcome with time.

This is not to say that the learning phase will be painless. Taking on these problems one-by-one does require time and effort on the part of the swimmer. Below, we’ll discuss exactly how the inability to float complicates particular aspects of swimming and proven strategies to conquer these obstacles.

Why the Inability to Float Makes Swimming Difficult, But Not Impossible

In this section, we’ll discuss common problems that negatively buoyant individuals have with learning how to swim. As a quick reference, negative buoyancy is a scientific term used to describe someone or something that has a natural propensity toward sinking in water (source). For each problem, we’ll then discuss various ways on how to beat these issues in order to become a competent swimmer.

Difficult to Overcome an Extreme Psychological Fear of the Water

One of the foremost issues that negatively buoyant individuals have with learning how to swim is conquering their extreme fear of entering the water. These individuals have often been conditioned to be afraid of the water because of their past negative experiences. Needless to say, it’s a frightening experience to naturally sink underwater with no means of keeping your body afloat.

This fear typically manifests itself as a mild case of aquaphobia. According to Medical News Today, aquaphobia is defined as an “extreme or irrational fear of water” (source).

If a person is unable to confront this condition and take a leap of faith into proper swimming instruction, then the prospect of learning how to swim dwindles significantly. One of the very first hoops that a novice swimmer must jump through is getting accustomed to being comfortable in the water. After all, an individual that cannot mentally concentrate in the water will be unable to carry out the necessary technique to swim in an efficient manner.

How to Overcome this Problem:

Fortunately, phobias are classified as treatable conditions. There are multiple avenues to combat aquaphobia, but the two leading treatment plans are exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

The general premise of exposure therapy is to gradually expose the patient to greater and greater stimuli of their specific phobia until they’re able to function normally in its presence (source). Typically, the healthcare provider will begin with the least intensive form of the phobia during the very first session. If the patient shows positive feedback, the next session will involve a slightly more intensive form of the phobia and so on.

Cognitive behavioral therapy takes a slightly different approach. With this treatment plan, healthcare providers concentrate their efforts toward interpreting the underlying thought and behavior patterns that contribute to the patient’s phobia (source). By gathering this information, healthcare providers are better equipped to develop relaxation strategies and coping mechanisms for the patient.

Hard to Maintain a Steady Level of Swimming Endurance

Another serious swimming issue associated with the inability to float is endurance. Sadly, negatively buoyant individuals do not have the luxury of floating on their back if they get tired. For these unlucky individuals, it’s a constant uphill battle just to keep their heads above the water’s surface.

Most people do not have a superhuman stamina level where they can swim for long, extended periods of time. In fact, there’s a great deal of people out there that have trouble treading water for five to ten minutes!

The physical rigor of continually remaining in a state of motion can be enough to drive people from learning how to swim altogether. Swimming is hard enough exercise for those that have the luxury of floating. Not being able to take a break from treading certainly adds another layer of difficulty to the learning process.

How to Overcome this Problem:

The only real way to overcome the issue of endurance is to build up your cardiovascular fitness until your body is used to extreme physical stress. For most people, this means looking into an intensive cardiovascular training routine that can be done on a weekly basis.

Although establishing a consistent weekly swimming regimen would certainly be effective for developing stamina, this is not the only means of approaching this issue. If you want to diversify your training and get away from the water for a little bit, other popular forms of exercise such as long-distance running, basketball, soccer, and biking can be equally as effective.

There’s no shortcut to laying a strong foundation for your cardiovascular fitness, but you have to be willing to go the extra mile (pun intended) if you want to learn how to swim despite not being able to float.

Tough to Keep Your Body in a Calm, Relaxed State

Aside from the factor of endurance, preventing yourself from tightening up your muscles or flailing your limbs around aimlessly can be hard, especially in a fit of panic.

When inexperienced swimmers lose their nerve in the water, their first instinct is to thrash around in an attempt to keep their head above the surface. If they don’t do that, then they typically freeze up, which is equally as bad for a negatively buoyant individual.

Ideally, you want to find a happy medium where your body is neither static nor overly mobile. You should be slow and methodical with your movements in order to ensure that your body is working with you, not against you. Of course, this is easier said than done, particularly if these negative subconscious muscle patterns are working in combination with an underlying psychological fear of the water.

How to Overcome this Problem:

Accredited swimming instructors are specially trained to teach students exactly how to move their limbs in a way that they get the most from their expended energy. These certified instructors are also trained to identify technique errors that hold students back from moving with purpose in the water. It’s nearly impossible to spot your own mistakes as a beginning swimmer, so it helps tremendously having someone else there to do this work for you. Not only that, but swimming instructors can help to reinforce positive habits that support long term success.

In short, relying on self-teaching methods usually isn’t the ideal way to learn how to swim, especially if you’re negatively buoyant. In many ways, this does more harm than good since it promotes feelings of panic and stress when things don’t go your way. Reaching out to an experienced swimmer for help is the most effective option to avoid instilling these negative body movement patterns into your subconscious.

Difficult to Take Slow, Deep Breaths When Under Duress

Lastly, not having the reassurance of flotation as a backup can have an adverse effect on breathing.

Often times, the importance of breathing goes overlooked in the domain of swimming. Many people concentrate on the kinesthetic motion of a novice swimmer to the exclusion of everything else. Body movement certainly is critical, but breathing is just as important. How a swimmer breathes in the water has direct consequences on their overall stamina, flotation capacities, along with the time they’re able to stay underwater.

In a perfect world, a swimmer should make a conscious effort to take slow, deep breaths as they swim. This way, a sufficient supply of oxygen is being delivered to the muscles, so they’re able to swim for longer. A higher volume of oxygen in the lungs also supports flotation, which slows the rate at which a negatively buoyant swimmer sinks. Slow, deep breaths also permit a swimmer to stay underwater for longer periods of time, so they don’t have to frequently go through the hassle of resurfacing every few seconds.

Unfortunately, negatively buoyant swimmers tend to panic as soon as they begin to sink, causing their breaths quicken and become shallower. Hence, they rapidly run through their energy reserves, sink at an accelerated rate, and resurface unnecessarily.

How to Overcome this Problem:

The most effective strategy for overcoming this issue is to develop a natural comfortability in the water. By remaining calm in the face of perceived danger, you’ll be better equipped to handle your breathing and retain control over the situation.

The approaches used to slow your breathing down are similar to the techniques used to treat aquaphobia, like exposure therapy. Since exposure therapy has been known to increase a person’s comfortability around the water, this treatment is also effective at slowing down a person’s breathing to a normal rate when around water as well.

So if you find yourself struggling to take slow, deep breaths in the water, keep at it! By immersing yourself in the water, you’ll slowly develop a tolerance for it until you develop a strong sense of breathing control as you swim.

Additional Tips on How to Swim Effectively in Spite of Flotation Issues

Now that you know it is possible to combat some of the most prevalent issues associated with negative buoyancy, here are a few additional tips on how to drastically accelerate the learning process.

Prioritize Underwater Swimming Strokes Over All Other Swimming Strokes

Since negatively buoyant swimmers have to exert a greater amount of effort to stay above water, it’s to their benefit to execute swimming strokes where their body is partly or wholly submerged underwater. This way, no effort has to be wasted on treading in a vain attempt to stay afloat. All of their effort can instead be concentrated on moving forward.

The breast stroke, for instance, is an ideal swimmings stroke for negatively buoyant swimmers because it fits all criteria described above. When propelling through the water, the swimmer is entirely submerged from head to toe. The only time that a swimmer ever resurfaces is when they need to breathe.

Other swimming strokes, like the freestyle stroke and the backstroke, requires far more natural flotation. For this reason, these strokes aren’t nearly as favorable for negatively buoyant swimmers.

This strategy may take some time to get used to, but it’s a worthwhile investment in the long run. If you do choose to go this route, I would highly advise purchasing some goggles. Trying to see underwater with your naked eyes can definitely be an unpleasant feeling!

Pace Your Swimming Strokes Slowly for Maximum Efficiency

Another helpful tip to keep in mind is that trying harder does not necessarily equate to more power when it comes to swimming.

When you’re first learning the ropes of how to swim, it can be rather easy to try too hard. Often times, when a novice swimmer struggles, their first instinct is to kick their legs harder or pull with their arms more vigorously. Unfortunately, this usually only leads to more frustration, since they exhaust themselves more quickly and don’t progress through the water any faster.

Instead, it’s a far better option to swim with the water by taking it nice and slow. You can’t force it. You have to be patient and get into the habit of feeling your way through the water.

Focus on Your Long Term Swimming Goals, Rather than the Short Term

Lastly, it’s important to keep your eyes set on the bigger picture as you learn to swim. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of your long term goals when you encounter hardships in the beginning stages, with the biggest challenge being the task of keeping your head above water.

No matter how frustrated you get, you should make an effort to get into the pool on a weekly basis and continually improve. Think about it this way: each day that you get into the pool will be better than the last.

Sporadic swimming sessions may help somewhat, but the benefits pale in comparison to following a consistent training regimen. Keep yourself accountable, or better yet, recruit others to keep you accountable. It’s a lot easier to tackle big picture goals when you have a supportive team motivating you every step of the way.

Is Negative Buoyancy the Root of the Problem, or Is It Some Other Issue?

Many people that encounter difficulty learning how to swim claim that the problem lies with the fact that they’re negatively buoyant. Although many people claim that negative buoyancy is their problem, this does not necessarily make it true. Sometimes, there are other problems working in the background that go unnoticed by novice swimmers.

How to Tell When Buoyancy is the Root Problem

In order to accurately diagnose the problem, you may want to consider conducting a basic buoyancy experiment on yourself. This test is very simple to perform, and the best part is that it can be conducted in practically any swimming pool.

Follow the instructions below to determine your natural buoyancy:

  • Put on a swimming suit that will have a negligible effect on your buoyancy. Buoyant swimming suits will skew the results of this test.
  • Get into a freshwater pool that’s deep enough for you to completely submerge yourself underwater but shallow enough for you to stand. For the average person, 4′ of depth is a solid benchmark.
  • Breathe as much oxygen into your lungs as you can and hold your breath for twenty to thirty seconds. Practice this for two to three repetitions.
  • Fill your lungs with oxygen until it’s at maximum capacity. Then, lightly drop into the water and keep your body completely still. The premise of this stationary state is to allow the water to determine whether you sink or float.
  • Hold this static position for approximately twenty seconds. By the end of the twenty seconds, you’ll either be floating at the water’s surface, floating underwater, or laying at the bottom of the pool.
  • Compare your results to the following table in order to determine your natural buoyancy.
ResultBuoyancy Level
Floating at the Water’s SurfacePositively Buoyant
Floating UnderwaterNeutrally Buoyant
Laying at the Bottom of the PoolNegatively Buoyant

*Keep in mind that your buoyancy level is not permanent. It can change over time as you age and your body composition fluctuates.

Alternative Reasons for Why Some People Encounter Difficulty with Swimming

If you find that you’re actually neutrally buoyant or positively buoyant, there’s likely some other factor at play that’s holding you back from learning how to swim.

For instance, there are certain people who feel extreme discomfort with the swimming dress code, to the point where they cannot function properly in the water. Others attribute their swimming difficulties to social conditioning, after having been boxed into the “non-swimmer” category at a very young age.

There are plenty of other reasons besides negative buoyancy that can have a tremendous impact on an individual’s capacity to swim. If you’re curious about these reasons, click over to 10 Reasons Why Some People Simply Can’t Swim for more details.

The Bottom Line

In summary, it is possible for people who can’t float to learn how to swim. Negatively buoyant individuals will undoubtedly have a tougher time moving past the learning stage, but it can be done with the help of a swimming instructor and an intense level of commitment.

If you’re learning how to swim, you should always seek the guidance of someone who’s experienced in this field. Remember that your safety takes priority above all else. Novice swimmers should avoid deeper waters at all costs until they’ve learned to tread water and execute the basic swimming strokes.

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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