Swimming vs. Going to the Gym: Which is Better?


With such a wild variety of fitness approaches being pushed out nowadays, it can be difficult to make sense of which type of training regimen is best. One major fitness dilemma that has stood above the rest is the clash between swimming or going to the gym. If forced to choose between the two, which option is better?

Swimming is better suited for weight loss and muscle toning, whereas going to the gym is better suited for adding mass and muscle-bulking. Each fitness approach has its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s best to identify what your goals are before committing to either of these training regimes.

Choosing between swimming and going to the gym can be tough, especially if you have limited fitness experience to begin with. Below, we’ll go over the benefits and drawbacks of both of these training approaches so that you can make an informed decision on what exercise plan is best for you.

The Pros & Cons of Swimming

To start, we’ll first analyze the advantages and disadvantages of following a specialized swimming program. Afterward, we’ll conduct a similar method of analysis for going to the gym.

PRO: Accelerates Weight Loss

The foremost benefit of swimming regularly is that it helps facilitate weight loss. Swimming is largely considered to be one of the premier calorie-burning workouts out there. In fact, renowned exercise physiologist Tom Holland states that just one hour-long swimming session can burn in the range of 400 to 700 calories, depending on how physically demanding the session is (source).

If an individual can sustain a consistent swimming schedule of three to four sessions per week, these burned calories can make a tremendous difference in weight loss. But, ultimately, weight loss is all about establishing and sustaining a caloric deficit.

For those who do not know, the phrase “caloric deficit” refers to a dietary situation where a person consumes fewer calories than their body uses within a specific time interval. Put simply, a person is taking in less energy through food and drink than what their body currently demands. Consequently, their body must use up any excess fat stores to fuel normal metabolic function, resulting in a lower body fat percentage.

A caloric deficit can be accomplished in two ways:

  1. Reducing daily calorie consumption (through eating and drinking).
  2. Raising physical activity (through additional exercise).

Although the primary means of establishing a caloric deficit is through diet, upping physical activity is also a possibility, especially when it comes to swimming. Since swimming uses up so many calories within such a brief timeframe, it significantly eases the burden of preserving a caloric deficit day after day.

PRO: Supports Better Overall Muscle Tone

In addition, swimming frequently noticeably improves muscle tone over time. As a quick reference, muscle tone is a measure of how firm that a muscle looks in its resting state. High muscle tone is aesthetically appealing because it’s indicative of leanness.

Swimming promotes superior muscle tone because it gradually strips away the fat reserves that conceal the hard-earned muscles underneath. Not only that, but long bouts of swimming keep constant tension on muscles throughout the body, helping to maintain muscle mass while the body uses up fat stores as energy.

Of course, you cannot achieve superior muscle tone without a nutritious, healthy diet. Unfortunately, no matter how hard or how long you swim, it will be tough to achieve a lean appearance if you’re consuming hundreds of calories more than what you’re burning. You cannot outwork—or out-swim in this case—a poor diet. This is the main reason why you cannot get abs through swimming alone.

You can find more detailed information on this topic by visiting Can Swimming Give You Abs? (Here’s What to Expect).

PRO: Low Impact on Joints

Furthermore, the joints experience far less pressure with swimming than other popular forms of exercise, such as lifting and running. Since you’re in the water, your joints do not experience the same amount of stress as you would on land.

Consequently, swimmers are less likely to face joint injuries in the long run. Again, this is in stark contrast to other physical activities.

Long-distance runners, for example, typically have problems with their knee joints and ankle joints after pounding on the pavement for miles. On the other hand, Lifters put their joints at risk every time they choose to move around heavy weights. Elbow pain is common for frequent bench pressers, and knee pain is a frequent complaint of heavy squatters.

The only maximum weight load that swimmers move around is their own body weight. For this reason, swimmers rarely ever push past the limit of their joint strength. This is why individuals recovering from previous injuries often transition to swimming to avoid doing further harm to the muscles.

CON: Not the Best Muscle Builder

One of the major drawbacks of swimming is that it isn’t the most effective at packing muscle mass. As aforementioned, swimming is largely considered an aerobic activity that’s optimized for calorie burning. Consequently, swimming is ideal for putting the body in a catabolic state (the “breaking down” element of metabolism) as opposed to an anabolic state (the “building up” aspect of metabolism).

The resistance that the muscles encounter during swimming is fairly constant. As a result, the training stimulus rarely ever fluctuates. Once the body adapts to this stimulus, there’s no further room for muscle growth.

A key element of the muscle-building process is a principle known as progressive overload. The foundational premise of this principle is that muscles only ever grow when they face a more intense stimulus than they’re accustomed to. As the muscles meet this greater form of resistance, they’re forced to push beyond their boundaries and work harder than normal (source).

There are a few ways to achieve progressive overload, including:

  • increasing the weight resistance
  • increasing the amount of repetitions for any given set
  • increasing the amount of total sets
  • increasing training frequency
  • minimizing rest time between sets

Unfortunately, swimmers do not have the option of increasing the weight resistance, so they’re forced to up their repetitions, total sets, and training frequency to compensate.

The only problem is that the average person only has so much time during the week. They can only do so many swimming repetitions and sets with the time that they have. This is not a problem for typical gym-goers because they can simply tack on more weight to achieve progressive overload.

CON: Dealing with the Effects of Chlorine and Irritable Skin

Another overlooked disadvantage to swimming is the petty annoyances of being in the water for excessive periods of time.

For one, the chlorine found in swimming pools can be irritable to the skin and eyes. If you’ve ever opened your eyes underwater and experienced a stinging sensation, you know exactly how this feels. As chlorine combines with ammonia, a chemical called chloramine is produced. This product is an irritant and is responsible for the redness, soreness, and puffiness around the eyes when you look underwater (source).

Eye irritation aside, chlorine may also lighten your hair color over time as you continue to swim regularly. This is because chlorine is a form of bleach. Moreover, the chlorine found in pool water will also gradually weaken the integrity of your hair strands, making them more prone to fracture and split ends (source).

So if you’re especially mindful of your hair, you may want to take this into account before you start swimming for hours on end!

CON: Seasonality

Lastly, you should know that swimming is extremely seasonal, with most people hopping on board the trend in the summer and abandoning ship during the cold winter months.

Part of the problem has to do with accessibility. In some areas, there may not be an indoor pool available for public use. If you live in one of these areas, swimming during the winter is simply not an option. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for the outdoor pools to open back up during the summer or scour the far reaches of your town to find an indoor pool.

Even if accessibility isn’t the problem, motivation may become one. Often, people have a much easier time completing their swim laps outside under the hot rays of the sun as opposed to the dull scenery of an indoor pool.

There’s just something about basking in the great outdoors that motivates people to keep going. So if you happen to live in an area that isn’t warm year-round, you may want to give this idea some thought before purchasing a pool membership.

The Pros & Cons of Going to the Gym

Now that we’ve talked in great length about the benefits and drawbacks of swimming, it’s finally time to move on to the gym. Much like swimming, going to the gym has its pros and cons as well. To start, let’s begin with the pros.

PRO: Easy to Put on Pounds of Muscle Mass

For one, the gym is filled with equipment that’s specialized specifically for muscle-building purposes.

Earlier, we discussed how difficult it is to build muscle size by swimming since there’s no clear-cut way to increase weight resistance gradually. Sadly, the resistance of the water is fixed.

If you choose to go to the gym, you’ll find no such complications. Gyms are filled with weight equipment where the resistance is interchangeable. This way, you have the option of increasing the weight resistance week after week to force muscle growth, the very basis of progressive overload. Lifting is universally considered to be the best form of exercise for muscle bulking because of this fact.

You should note that going to the gym is only half the battle of building muscle. Diet is equally, if not more, important than going to the gym if you want to put on muscle mass. So whatever route you choose to go down, whether it be swimming or going to the gym, know that diet will still be a critical part of what you hope to accomplish.

PRO: Many Opportunities to Diversify Your Training

Not only do you have a variety of weight resistances to choose from when going to the gym, but you also have a variety of exercises to choose from to mix up your training stimuli.

For example, gym-goers can focus on their legs one day by hitting squats and then concentrate on their shoulders the next day by hitting overhead shoulder press. Likewise, if a gym-goer doesn’t want to lift on a certain day, they don’t have to! Instead, they can spend their time on the treadmill or the stationary bike, building up their cardiovascular endurance. Gym-goers can even lay down a mat and stretch to work on their mobility if none of the prior options sound too appealing.

Other popular forms of exercise, such as swimming and cycling, are effective full-body workouts, but they don’t afford people this level of diversification. Swimmers only have a few strokes to choose from when they embark on a workout session. Cyclers can change up the scenery, but they cannot change the pedaling required to keep them moving forward.

Some individuals lose their training motivation once their workouts become monotonous. If you fall into this category yourself, you may want to consider a gym membership over a pool membership.

PRO: Year Around Gym Access

Another major benefit of heading to the gym is that the opening of gyms is not dependent on the fluctuating weather outside. So, whether it’s winter or summer, you always have the option of going to the gym to get a workout in. Unfortunately, swimmers may not have this luxury if they can find only outdoor pools in their area.

This benefit is often disregarded, but it’s an important element to consider, especially if you live in a location where snowy winters are prevalent. Plus, a gym that’s open year-round eliminates any excuses you may have about not going to the gym. As a swimmer, it’s a lot more tempting to skip working out if you don’t have access to a pool.

CON: High Impact on Joints

Although there are plenty of benefits to going to the gym, there are also plenty of drawbacks. One significant con of working out at the gym is that the joints suffer a much greater impact than swimming.

Whether it be lifting weights or running on the treadmill, joint integrity is pushed to its maximum capacity for consistent gym-goers.

If a person overworks themselves and fails to take the time to recover properly, their joints may undergo excessive strain. This excessive strain can lead to injury, halting any gym progress for days or weeks.

For those of you that have shaky joint health to begin with, you may want to explore other exercise plans before committing to the gym. Swimming definitely holds the edge in this fitness area since the water greatly reduces any impact that the joints may undergo.

CON: Greater Potential for Muscular Imbalances

Another drawback of exercising at the gym is that there’s a higher likelihood of developing muscular imbalances. As a quick reference, a muscular imbalance is when a particular muscle is larger, smaller, stronger, or weaker than its muscular counterpart on the other side of the body (source).

Ideally, all musculature should be symmetrical on each side of the body. Unfortunately, daily activities over years and years gradually tip the balance in favor of one muscle over the other. These muscular imbalances may become more pronounced over time until some serious issues result. These issues include, but are not limited to:

  • mobility restrictions
  • mild pain
  • lopsided physical appearance

If a workout regime is structured correctly, going to the gym may help combat muscular imbalances rather than promote them. But, unfortunately, the majority of gym-goers opt to create their own fitness programs that inevitably result in muscular imbalances in the long run.

For example, many lifters are guilty of bench pressing two to three times a week but skipping out on their weekly squat workout. Consequently, their upper body develops disproportionately to their lower body, resulting in a lopsided appearance.

Fortunately, swimmers do not have to deal with muscular imbalances to this extent since swimming works all muscles simultaneously as a full-body workout. In summary, make sure to structure your workout program appropriately to avoid any future muscular imbalances. If you already have a few muscular imbalances that you’re concerned with, swimming may be the best option to help bring up your lagging points.

CON: Waiting Around for Gym Equipment to Become Available

This last con may seem trivial, but it’s bothersome enough to make this list. Waiting around for gym equipment can definitely be a nuisance, especially if you’re in a time crunch.

This might not be nearly as much of an issue for less crowded gyms. Yet, a high number of commercial gyms have this problem, particularly after work or school. Of course, no one wants to have to sit around and twiddle their thumbs, but this issue comes up more often than you would believe.

In my experience, I’ve rarely ever had to wait for a swimming lane to open up, but that may be specific to the pool that I go to. The availability of the gym equipment or swimming lanes in your area should factor into your decision, especially if you don’t consider yourself the patient type.

How to Know Which Workout Suits You Best

Pros of SwimmingCons of SwimmingPros of the GymCons of the Gym
accelerates weight lossnot the best muscle buildereasy to put on pounds of muscle masshigh impact on joints
supports better overall muscle tonedealing with the effects of chlorine and irritable skinmany opportunities to diversify your traininggreater potential for muscular imbalances
low impact on jointsseasonalityyear around gym accesswaiting around for gym equipment to become available

There’s no definitive answer to what form of exercise is best, as the answer ultimately lies with what your personal fitness aspirations are. For example, if you want to shed body fat and lean down, swimming is likely the best option available. On the other hand, if you want to put on as much muscle size as possible and build strength, going to the gym is probably your best choice.

Many people overlook the fact that a hybrid of both fitness strategies is a viable option. By taking this approach, you take the best of both worlds and diversify your fitness background, exposing yourself to new and unfamiliar training stimuli.

In summary, you can’t go wrong with either option. As long as you commit to a consistent exercise plan, you’re setting yourself up for a healthy lifestyle in the long run.

Sources: 1 2 3 4

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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