Can You Use Swimming to Tone Specific Muscles?
We all know that swimming is good for you.
We hear it all the time – how it’s a full-body workout that involves both cardio and muscle training, helping you to keep fit and build strength with a reduced impact on your joints.
But we don’t always hear the details.
How exactly does swimming help to build muscle? Which muscles does it train – and importantly – can you use swimming to target specific muscles in your body?
Let’s find out:
Building strength in your arms
No matter which stroke you’re using, you’re swimming with a lot of resistance on your arms and shoulders. Think about the freestyle or butterfly strokes, and how tired your arms can get!
When your arms pull through the water on the downstroke, they’re working against the resistance of the water. That resistance is what creates an opposite force that pulls you forward, propelling you through the pool as you swim.
But that same resistance is also what’s training your muscles. Because it’s a ‘pulling’ motion, the downstroke engages your biceps – just like it would when you ‘pull’ during a chin-up, or a bicep curl with weights at the gym.
At the end of that downstroke, you’re rotating your shoulder and raising the weight of your arm up out of the water – creating more work and resistance for your shoulder muscles and upper back.
But if you really want to focus on your arms and shoulders, one of the best strokes to practice is the butterfly.
When you’re swimming the butterfly stroke, you’re almost completely lifting your upper body out of the water. You won’t have the usual upwards support of the water to float in – and that means you need to work even harder against gravity to get there.
So in summary?
For the best strength gains in your biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles, train with the butterfly stroke.
Training your leg muscles with swimming
Every swimming stroke trains the leg muscles: the kick is a part of everything you do in the water.
But there’s one stroke in particular that creates more work for your legs – and that’s the breaststroke.
(Remember when you were a kid and people called it the ‘frog stroke’? Just think about the powerful back legs that a frog uses for swimming and leaping.)
With strokes like the freestyle or backstroke, your legs are hardly moving. They’re doing a ‘flutter kick’ – a tiny movement that doesn’t move much water, and doesn’t create much resistance.
But with the breaststroke, your legs are pumping through a full arc – shifting more water out of their way to create the opposite force that propels you through the pool.
You’ll notice it yourself if you try a few laps in breaststroke. Your legs become tired much quicker than they do with other strokes. And that’s a good sign: it means your legs are working harder and building strength faster.
So what does that mean?
If you want to focus on your leg muscles – especially your quads and calves – you should spend more time training with the breaststroke.
Giving your torso a workout
When we think about the muscles we use to swim, the legs and arms seem like the obvious choices.
But there are plenty more muscles being put to work – and they’re not always the ones you’d think of.
While they don’t move as much through the water itself, your chest and back are being trained hard when you swim. Your pectorals (chest) and your lats (back) are supporting and pushing your arms, and your hips and your core abdominals are helping to keep you streamlined in the water.
So how can you focus on your upper body and core?
For your back (and specifically, your trapezius and lats), you can train with the backstroke with a focus on swimming at high speed.
When you change into a backstroke sprint, you’re flexing these muscles to move your upper body into a higher position in the water. And while you can’t keep up a sprint forever, you can make it a regular part of your everyday training to help work those muscles harder.
For your chest (including the pectorals), you can train with the breaststroke.
Because of the motion of your arms during the breaststroke, you’re also including a powerful chest press. You’re pulling down on the water and inwards towards your chest – a bit like a bench press when you’re lifting weights at the gym.
How can I make my swimming workout even more focused?
Every style of swimming comes with some benefit to most of the major muscle groups. And by choosing the right swimming stroke, you can put extra resistance on the muscles you want to focus on.
But if you really want to step things up – with an even higher focus on the work being done – you can bring a training aid into the mix to help isolate parts of your body.
Our SOUL CAP Swimming Kickboard, for example, gives your arms and upper body a rest while your legs do all the work. You’re still moving the same body weight through the same water – but without your arms to help you, you’re forcing your legs to work even harder than before.
And it’s exactly the same with our SOUL CAP Pullbuoy. With a pullbuoy between your legs to support and immobilise them, you’re making your arms do twice the work to move the same weight – creating more resistance and a tougher workout that’s focused solely on your upper body.