What Muscles Does Swimming Work?

Does swimming target specific muscles?

Yes, and it does so very well indeed!

Swimming is an excellent sport for those focusing on rehabilitation or who want a low-impact form of activity. However, as you may have noticed, competitive swimmers have a lot of muscle definition.

When you think “Michael Phelps“… flabby is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Try “Ripped to all hell” and we’re getting warmer!

This might lead you to ask: what muscles does swimming work?

Swimming works most muscles in the body, such as the shoulders, hamstrings, glutes, and abdominal muscles. Different muscles are targeted depending on the swim stroke. For example, breaststroke focuses more on the lower body, while freestyle targets the shoulders, obliques, and hamstrings.

Swimming is a fantastic exercise because it targets various muscles you don’t ordinarily work on while training in the gym. In this guide, we’ll look at what muscles swimming works depending on each swim stroke and how you can train your muscles to improve your swimming.

We will also consider some of the other (significant) benefits swimming has to offer. Let’s get to it!

What Muscles Do You Train While Swimming?

What muscles does swimming work?
What muscles does swimming work?

Swimming is often disregarded as a form of weight training because it is a low-impact exercise. However, you will soon discover that swimming works many different muscles, including hard-to-target muscles that you don’t often reach with other forms of training. 

There are four swim strokes: freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly stroke. Each stroke targets different muscles. Even though many professional swimmers specialize in one of these strokes, all swimmers practice all four strokes and are proficient in each.

So what muscles do the different swim strokes use?

What Muscles Does Freestyle Target?

Freestyle is the most common swim stroke, which is the one most people can do, even if they aren’t frequent swimmers. For freestyle, your upper body does most of the work while you use your legs in an up and down motion to kick you forward. 

Swimming freestyle targets the following muscles:

  • The deltoid muscles
  • The shoulder muscles
  • The abdominal muscles
  • The back muscles
  • The hamstring muscles
  • The quadriceps
  • The hip flexors
  • The foot muscles

Swimmers often target the upper or lower body muscles by using a kicking board or flippers to practice their kicking style and target the lower body muscles. Or swimmers target the upper body muscles using a leg buoy or hand flippers.

Freestyle is one of the easier swim strokes and is, therefore, one that most people learn first. In addition, freestyle is a great swim stroke for a full-body exercise, as most of the major muscle groups are targeted while swimming freestyle. 

What Muscles Does Breaststroke Target?

Breaststroke is the lowest-intensity stroke. The movements are a lot slower in breaststroke, and it’s, therefore, the perfect swim stroke for the elderly or people focusing on rehabilitation. During breaststroke, the arms and legs pull and push you forward by making circular movements. 

Breaststroke primarily targets these muscles:

  • The glute muscles
  • The hamstring muscles
  • The quad muscles
  • The calve muscles
  • The pectoral muscles
  • The lower back muscles
  • The bicep muscles
  • The triceps muscles
  • The shoulder muscles

Although breaststroke is known to be less intense than the other swim strokes, you can still get a good workout when swimming breaststroke and develop and target various muscles in the body. Breaststroke focuses more on lengthening and stretching the muscles, making it the perfect rehabilitation swim stroke. 

What Muscles Does Back Stroke Target?

Backstroke might look like freestyle that you do upside down. However, this stroke targets other muscles than freestyle and is a challenging style to perfect. Because you cannot see the lane while swimming, many swimmers often swim skew during backstroke, wasting time and energy. 

Backstroke primarily targets the following muscles:

  • The oblique muscles
  • The hamstring muscles
  • The glute muscles
  • The back muscles
  • The outer pectoral muscles
  • The calve muscles
  • The quad muscles

When training for backstroke, the muscles in both sides of your body must be equally strong and work equally hard. This will ensure that you swim in a straight line and don’t drift away from your stronger side. In addition, switching to backstroke is an excellent way to recover when swimming longer distances or when you need to catch your breath. 

What Muscles Does Butterfly Stroke Target?

Butterfly stroke is probably the most technically challenging stroke, and it is also the least popular stroke. However, swimmers specializing in butterfly stroke often have the smoothest swim style in all their other strokes. 

Butterfly stroke primarily focuses on these muscles:

  • The back muscles
  • The hamstring muscles
  • The calve muscles
  • The glute muscles
  • The pectoral muscles
  • The shoulder muscles
  • The bicep muscles
  • The abdominal muscles

Butterfly stroke also burns more energy than the other strokes. Therefore, if you are aiming to lose more fat while swimming, butterfly stroke is the best stroke to do so. 

Now that we have established which muscles you can target through swimming, let’s look at how you can train those muscles to improve your swimming.

For example, if you want to be a stronger swimmer in one stroke, you must train those muscles more so they can push you further through the water and improve your speed.  

How To Train Your Muscles For Swimming

While you can strengthen your swimming muscles by swimming more, you can also train them by doing other activities. This is especially useful if you cannot go to the swimming pool every day or have a variety of training. 

When training in the gym, it’s crucial to warm up and stretch properly. Swimming helps to lengthen your muscles, giving you a longer reach in the pool. Therefore, you also want to keep your muscles as long as possible when training in the gym. When training for swimming, it’s important to remember that you don’t want to bulk your muscles. This will cause them to shorten and will shorten your overall reach in the pool.

You can strengthen your swimming muscles in general by incorporating these exercises into your training schedule:

Upper Body Exercises For Swimming

You can focus on all the upper body muscles when training your upper body for swimming. Ideally, you should incorporate muscle-building and endurance exercises into your training routine. 

Excellent upper body exercises for the gym include shoulder presses, bicep curls, tricep dips, chest presses, lat pull-downs, and back extensions. 

Always do a proper warm-up before weight training. Using resistance bands to simulate some stroke movements is a fantastic way to warm up your muscles before training. In addition, these exercises will help target the swimming muscles more during training. 

Lower Body Exercises For Swimming

Another large group of muscles you train when swimming are the lower body muscles. The hip flexors are especially important when swimming just as they are for running or sprinting. These muscles are often neglected during other forms of training. Therefore, it’s crucial to warm your hip flexors up correctly and improve their mobility while training. 

Some great lower body exercises when swimming training includes squats, deadlifts, glute bridges, calve raises, curtsy lunges, and leg presses. We recommend doing these exercises with more focus on the technique and endurance than the weight. 

When training for swimming, you should aim to do more repetitions with a lower weight. This prevents the muscles from shortening and helps keep your muscle endurance up. 

Abdominal Exercises For Swimming

Your abdominal muscles are crucial when swimming, and every stroke depends on your abdominal muscles. Therefore, you should strengthen your abdominal muscles as much as possible and practice proper breathing. This will help keep your body straight and maximize your breathing when swimming.

Some tremendous abdominal exercises for swimming you can do include sit-ups, v-ups, dead bugs, crunchies, mountain climbers, leg raises, and Russian twists. These abdominal exercises will strengthen your core muscles and help your swimming performance. 

Other Exercises For Swimming

In addition to the strength training exercises we have discussed, you must also improve your flexibility for swimming. The better your flexibility, the further you can reach while swimming, and the faster you move from one side to the other.

Furthermore, we encourage you to incorporate some form of cardio into your routine. Whether it’s cycling, running, or doing a step class. Incorporating cardiovascular fitness into your routine will help improve your fitness while swimming and help your muscles endure longer. 

What Are The Advantages Of Swimming?

Michael Phelps muscle
A ripped Michael Phelps, image courtesy of Bryan Allison (CC Flickr)

There are several health benefits of swimming. We’ve already mentioned that swimming is a low-impact sport, making it great for rehabilitation and recovery. However, this isn’t the only thing swimming has to offer. 

These are some health benefits of swimming:

1. Swimming Helps With Fat Loss

Swimming can burn between 223 and 878 calories per hour, depending on your effort and swim stroke. This is a significant number of calories and will result in fat loss if paired with a healthy diet. Therefore, you will lose weight with regular swimming.

2. Swimming Improves Muscle Tone

Swimming works various muscles in the body. As these muscles grow and become stronger, you will notice them more, especially if you also lose weight. Therefore, swimming can help improve your muscle tone and definition. 

3. Swimming Improves Lung Capacity

You hold your breath while swimming. As a result, swimming improves your lung capacity, ensuring your lungs are strong and work properly. Having strong lungs is crucial for ensuring overall health and stamina. Strong lungs can also help you recover faster from illness. 

4. Swimming Helps With Body Aches

Swimming is a perfect rehabilitation activity because it doesn’t strain your joints or muscles. Therefore, swimming can help improve body aches like knee pain or arthritis-related pain. Swimming helps to increase your blood flow, which also aids in recovery and rehabilitation. 

5. Swimming Helps You Sleep Better

Any form of exercise, including swimming, drains you physically. This helps you sleep better because your body is tired when you go to bed. So if you have trouble sleeping or often suffer from insomnia, swimming regularly can help you overcome this problem.

6. Swimming Enhances Your Mood

Swimming releases serotonin. This is the mood-enhancing hormone. Even if you don’t feel like swimming, you are guaranteed to feel happier afterward. Increasing your exercises will help improve your overall mood and can help you overcome bouts of depression, anxiety, and sadness. 

In Short: Swimming Is A Highly Effective Workout

Swimming works all the major muscles in your body.

In addition, swimming also works other minor muscles that are often overlooked, such as the hip flexors and foot muscles. Swimming is an excellent exercise for rehabilitation, fat burning, and muscle building.

Whether you are looking to improve your swimming, or leverage it as a vital form of cross-training, you will undoubtedly see significant fitness gains if you increase your time in the pool.

Author Profile

Alex Randall

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Alex is the editor at Revel Sports. It was his idea to take our post-club-run chats and build a website out of them. He is responsible for dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s when any of us have something to post. (Basically: it’s all his fault). A ferocious 5K powerhouse on his day, Alex is known for not understanding the meaning of the term ‘negative split‘.
Alex Randall

Revel SPorts Contributor

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