Have you ever wondered how swimmers develop such athletic and finely tuned bodies? The fact of the matter is in the modern world everyone seems to accept the certainty that swimming is one of the best forms of exercise to not only build up your fitness levels but to also tone up your muscles.
So, at the end of the day, the question comes back down to whether swimming is considered as cardio or strength training? Luckily for you, you don’t have to look any further, because in this article we will cover everything you want to know.
In short- swimming is typically classified as cardio training, but can also develop strength due to the resistance created by the water. What makes swimming great, however, is its ability to develop cardio and strength at the same time by exercising many different muscle groups in your body.
Why swimming is great for cardio and how it develops strength.
Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise can be defined as any exercise that increases your heart rate and keeps it there for at least a couple of minutes. Cardio training typically develops more internal systems and muscles such as the heart, lungs and respiratory system.
This means as your cardio fitness levels become better and better your body will be able to deliver oxygen cells more efficiently and effectively to muscles and other organs.
By nature, this makes swimming a great form of cardio training since your heart rate is constantly elevated as you swim. You have also probably heard that swimming is a great form of low impact exercise, meaning you will be able to swim for long periods at a time without needing much rest.
The benefit of this is that you will be able to keep an elevated heart rate for long periods of time, ultimately building some good anaerobic fitness just by swimming some laps up and down. As you start to become fitter you can increase your swimming tempo which will elevate heart rate even more, ultimately increasing your cardio capabilities further.
Another reason why swimming is a great form of cardio training is because it naturally limits the amount of oxygen you can consume while you swim.
This will require your heart to become stronger so that is can distribute oxygen faster and more efficiently throughout your body to the muscles where it is required.
In terms of strength training, swimming can also be a good option since the water provides moderate resistance, initially forcing your muscles to grow in order to adapt to the resistance of the water.
Unfortunately, this means that traditional swimming alone isn’t the best way for building strength and muscle since once your body has adapted to the resistance of the water and developed those initial strength levels you will plateau in terms of becoming stronger and more muscular.
Don’t get me wrong you could easily build more and more strength and muscle each month just by swimming, at least for the first 6 months, as long as your workouts are becoming progressively harder and slightly longer here and there.
But eventually, you will get to a point where developing strength and muscle with only swimming won’t be possible.
As an example we can look at weight lifting, at first you will be able to develop a lot of strength just by lifting relatively light, since your body isn’t used to the extra resistance, but as you get stronger you have to lift more in order to keep progressing, the same goes for swimming in terms of strength development.
Luckily, there are a couple of ways you can develop some good strength just by swimming alone, let’s take a look how-
5 ways to develop some serious strength with only swimming.
Like I just mentioned, in order for us as athletes and swimmers to keep progressing and becoming stronger both in our cardio training and our strength training we need to be progressively increasing the resistance and intensity of our workouts, just like weight lifters increase the amount of weight they lift in order to become stronger.
Here are 5 ways to develop some serious strength with swimming-
1. Break your swimming workouts up into focusing on different parts of the body.
An easy way to increase the resistance on your muscles is to split your swimming into different parts. What I mean by this is you can divide your swim workouts into some pulling-only upper body training and on the other spectrum of things some kicking-only lower body training.
By splitting up your swimming workouts in will require certain muscle groups to exert more power and effort in order to keep you moving at a decent speed, ultimately increasing strength and muscle in those areas.
Try to incorporate some kicking and pulling into each of your swim workouts, this will also give you time to focus on specific technical aspects of your swimming strokes without having to worry about the rest of your body.
Try using some swimming equipment such as kickboards, pull buoys and paddles to spice things up.
2. Swim with a drag suit.
Swimming with a drag suit is probably one of the easiest ways to increase your total resistance in the water. When you swim with a drag suit is will naturally increase the amount of resistance you have to swim against.
And as we know by now, when the resistance gets increased it increases the intensity on our body and muscles and allows us to become stronger and better swimmers.
3. Try swimming with a resistance parachute.
Similar to a drag suit, you can also use a resistance parachute to increase the resistance while swimming. However, in my opinion, a resistance parachute is going to increase resistance and intensity much more than any drag suit will ever be able to do.
I wouldn’t recommend swimming an entire workout with a resistance parachute since it would be really quite hard and uncomfortable. (Props to you if you can do it).
I would, however, recommend doing some short sprints- for example, 10x25s maxed out with a resistance parachute will really get your muscles working.
4. Use resistance bands in your swim training
Swimming with a resistance band tied to your waist on the one end and onto the diving block on the other is another great way of increasing resistance in the pool while swimming. Like the resistance parachute, it also wouldn’t be realistic to swim an entire workout with a resistance band tied to you.
You could, however, also try to do a couple of 25s where you try to swim from the diving block to the other side of the pool. Chances are you probably won’t be able to get to the other side of the pool on your first try since the resistance would be too much for you to swim against.
But as you get stronger and progress you will eventually be able to swim to the other side of the pool with the band tied to you. Once you accomplish this you can increase the resistance by using stronger bands in order to keep progressing.
5. Swim with weighted pulleys
My final suggestion for developing some awesome strength by only swimming is to use weighted pulleys if you have them available. I know this one probably isn’t going to be very realistic for most people since not many pools have these pieces of equipment.
If you are, however, lucky enough to have access to weighted swim pulleys then I highly recommend you use it to your advantage. Do some weighted sprints or even a bit of distance with the pulley and increase the weight as your strength improves.
Interested in learning a bit more about strength training for swimmers? Consider checking out our strength training guide by clicking here or additionally check out our cross-training guide for swimmers by clicking here.
3 ways to progress your cardio training even further by swimming.
Just like with strength the strength aspects of swimming, your cardio training is also going to have to continually increase in difficulty in order for you to keep making progress and avoid plateauing.
Although, it is much harder to plateau in terms of cardiovascular fitness with swimming since it is mostly cardio-focused. It is still, however, possible and you should still be focusing on increasing intensity in order to maintain optimal physical progress in the pool.
1. Increase the total distance for each swim workout
One of the most common and easiest ways to keep increasing your cardio fitness in the pool is to simply swim longer workouts with more distance.
This is effective since your heart rate will be kept at an elevated level slightly longer each week or each session, depending on how often you decide to increase the distance of your swim workouts.
2. Swim on timed intervals to push yourself for improvement.
There will come a point where you simply cannot increase the amount of time or distance you swim any further.
This may be because you only have a set amount of time to swim each day, which is more likely, or if you don’t have any time limits you will eventually start running into recovery and overtraining issues.
This is where timed interval swimming comes in handy. You can set specific times for certain distances you want to complete in the pool. Then as you reach those times you make them faster and faster in order to keep progressing and increasing aerobic fitness levels.
For example, if you like swimming longer distances you can say aim to complete a mile in 25 minutes or faster. Or if you are more of a shorter distance sprint swimmer, like myself, you can do 50s or 100s on specific intervals like 45 seconds per 50 or 1 minute 30 seconds per 100 as a start.
3. Challenge your body with some hypoxic swimming
Hypoxic swimming is another way you can increase your cardiovascular fitness and enhance your cardio training in the pool. Hypoxic swimming essentially means to limit the number of breaths you are allowed to take for a specific swim distance.
For example, you can start with maybe 5 or 6 breaths for each 25 and decrease it from there as you become fitter.
Or you can create a set breathing pattern for certain parts of your swim workouts, for example, you are only allowed to breath once every 5 strokes and then you can increase it from there to say one breath every 7 strokes as you get fitter.
As a safety measure, I don’t recommend incorporating hypoxic swimming into your training unless you have a swim partner, a coach or a lifeguard on the pool deck in case something does go wrong and you pass out, but that is very unlikely anyway.
The most effective way to train for cardio and strength with swimming.
So back to that question in the introduction of this article- how do swimmers get into such great athletic shape? Well, the real answer is that most elite level swimmers also do some form of strength training in the gym to ensure they are getting the most out of their swimming and also to develop that extra bit of speed.
A lot of the muscle swimmers carry around is built and shaped in the gym and then fine-tuned in the pool. So if you are looking to get the most out of your health and fitness regimen and live a healthier lifestyle then I highly recommend also incorporating some form of resistance training into your exercise schedule.
It could be anything from some bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and dips to some light and moderate weight lifting. Keep in mind if your goal is just to be healthy and have a lean and toned shape then swimming will be more than enough on its own, especially when you combine it with some of the resistance swimming I described above.
All in all, it is clear that swimming is more focused on the cardio side of training, but it is still a great way to develop some basic strength and muscle tone. Swimming also provides many other benefits such as a low impact, full-body workout targeting your shoulders, arms, core, chest, legs and many other muscle groups.
At the end of the day, it is clear that swimming is supreme when it comes to maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Some of us may even want to take it a bit further and take a look into competitive swimming, which is also very enjoyable, especially in a team environment.
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