Swimming rarely makes an appearance in conditioning plans, and we’re here to change that.
There’s this persistent belief that swimming just isn’t great cardio. Freestyle messes up your shoulders. It stokes the appetite so much it makes it harder to lose weight. (Potentially true.) As you become more effective at swimming, you burn fewer calories. There are even studies that up and down swear that swimming is less useful than land-based exercise for weight loss and diabetes management.
We’re not saying those claims are necessarily true — there are plenty of studies that say swimming is perfectly good for weight loss, though the increase in appetite could explain why studies are conflicting. What we want to look at is how swimming can benefit strength athletes. And the restorative powers of a regular swimming habit are too numerous to ignore.
Swimming and Strength
“It’s phenomenal for conditioning, but it’s also uniquely beneficial for strength,” says Bo Babenko DPT, a New York-based doctor of physical therapy, strength coach, and BarBend contributor. “Strength is closely tied to having maximum mobility, and swimming is one of the best ways to increase extensibility of your tissues. That will generally translate very well to the weight room, especially in Olympic weightlifting and functional fitness where mobility is much more important.”
Another important benefit is proprioception. Many athletes know that the body awareness that gymnasts and dancers develop has tremendous carryover to strength sports, but a great thing about swimming is that the sensation of the water helps to improve your awareness of where your body is situated in space. Master swimming, and your lifting form (“Where are my hips during the first pull again?”) may improve.
Swimming is also damn hard work and excellent for aerobic conditioning and heart health, but what really sets it apart from other forms of cardio is its restorative properties: it improves mobility, deloads the joints, and it trains a lot of muscles that tend to get neglected in the gym. The rotator cuffs, the obliques, the neck — nothing gets left out.
“It’s working a lot of areas that are hard to work unless you’re doing a full rehab prehab program,” says Babenko.
Different strokes have different effects — breaststroke opens the hips, butterfly is great for fast twitch muscles, and backstroke may be the best for shoulder mobility. But freestyle is the go-to, and it’s the one that may translate best to strength sports. It’s great for the shoulders, back, and scaps, plus it strengthens a lot of important stabilizers, rotational muscles, and oft-neglected muscles like the serratus anterior.
Above all, it’s comparatively low skill. But remember that while it’s great for the shoulders, it’s smart to have good shoulder mobility before you get in the water. If you’re sitting at a desk all day, your shoulders will be internally rotated. While freestyle is a great way to open them up, most shoulder issues with swimming arise from coming in with bad shoulder mobility and overemphasizing the arms when swimming.
[Check out our ultimate guide to scap health to build injury-resistant shoulders.]
“The big issue with freestyle is trying to use the arms too much, kind of like how novice Olympic weightlifters use their arms too much,” says Babenko. “You need to use the entire body, the lats, the core, hip rotation, and make sure you’re not looking up — you need to look down at the black line beneath you in the pool and rotate your head from side to side when you’re breathing to open up the neck.”
Finally, good swimmers become more proficient at the sport. The idea isn’t to get as many “reps” (think strokes) as you can, it’s to cover more ground with fewer strokes. This could be counterintuitive to folks looking for a gut-busting workout, but that doesn’t necessarily mean swimming needs to become less strenuous as you get better. Rather it means that your goal should be to perfect your form, become more efficient, and gradually reduce the number of strokes needed to cover the same amount of ground — which you can do at a high or low intensity. It’s not unlike running in that regard; you can ratchet up the intensity, but correct form is always paramount.
For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to get an occasional session with a swim coach, just as it’s always smart for even advanced lifters to work with a coach now and then to make sure their form is on point.
How to Program Swimming Into a Strength Cycle
Powerlifters and weightlifters would probably get the most out of swimming if it’s used as active recovery: to deload joints, improve range of motion and extensibility, all that jazz. Babenko likes to repeat a lap of freestyle and a lap of breaststroke for thirty minutes once or twice a week. Switching styles can help to keep aerobic demands down.
“But if conditioning is your goal, I’d say go higher intensity, like repeating a twenty-five-meter sprint and a ninety-second rest,” he suggests.
Strongmen and functional fitness athletes might want to take a page from the playbook of 2017’s World’s Strongest Man, Eddie Hall. In an interview with BarBend, the former he shared his favorite swimming workout.
Yeah, I used to be a national champion swimmer and I found it helped massively with lung capacity, heart function, and more than anything the mobility (…)
So I do an hour of swimming once a week: a minute on and a minute off. I do two laps as fast as I can, have a minute rest, and repeat that for an hour.
Swimming’s restorative benefits are unparalleled, but remember that as is the case with running and lifting, we need to be taught correct form — “good enough” doesn’t really cut it if you want to get the most out of your exercise. (And the lowest injury risk.) Make the time to iron out your form with a coach and above all, talk to your doctor before undertaking any new workout routine.
Featured image via @eddiehallwsm and @photosmudger on Instagram.