How much can you bench? How many pushups can you do? What’s your breast-stroke lap time? Exercise swimming is hugely under-rated – not just by body builders either.
You might not want to incorporate swimming into your workout every week (and you might not be able to if you did want to), but taking advantage of swimming for fitness when you have the opportunity can be enlightening and enjoyable.
The Biomechanics of Exercise Swimming
To understand how and why exercise swimming is so great, let’s start out by looking at swimming from a physics standpoint. You probably know how swimming works, but you might not think about it in these terms. Thinking about the forces involved in swimming can help you to think about it as an exercise.
Bear in mind that your muscles get a workout any time that they work against resistance. In lifting weights, this resistance comes from gravity but that’s not the only force in the world.
When your body is in water, the water partially takes the burden of gravity – though in most positions you still need to actively overcome gravity to avoid sinking. To move forward in water, you also need to overcome the drag force exerted by the water. This is significantly greater than the drag force exerted by air in exercises like jogging.
Now that we have a better understanding of the forces that your muscles are working against when you swim, let’s talk about all of the reasons that swimming is such a great exercise.
Easy on the Joints
The result of swimming working with gravity but against your muscles is that swimming can try your muscles without taxing your typically weight-supporting joints. That’s one of the reasons that it landed on the HTBM article on exercises for people experiencing mobility problems.
Whether you’re experiencing mobility issues because of a recent injury, a health condition, or just residual soreness from your last workout, swimming can be a fun and comfortable way for you to fit a workout in regardless.
Hopefully this goes without saying, but if your mobility problem is such that you aren’t sure that you can safely support yourself in water, stay out of the pool. Or, at least, stay out of the deep end.
One of the reasons that exercise swimming might not be on your radar is that it is a cardio exercise. Basically, as good a workout as it is for your muscles, it’s an even better workout for your heart and lungs.
Cardio is tragically under-represented in the schedules of many weight lifters, but we trust you’ll find that you can perform better in your lifting routine if you pay more attention to the “support infrastructure” that is your cardiovascular system. Even if you don’t want to devote a whole day to exercise swimming, you may want to consider making it your cooldown routine.
Swimming makes a particularly good cooldown routine because its variable intensity. Fast or slow, it’s a low impact way to keep your body moving without the burden of weights. Keeping your blood moving in this way can help it to do its job removing waste, including the waste that builds up during exercise contributing to soreness.
That having been said, there is a similar warning to end this section as the previous section. If you have a heart or lung condition that makes this kind of exertion difficult, talk to your doctor before penning “exercise swimming” into your schedule. Your doctor is less likely to give you a red light than they are to advise you how to swim in a way that is both safe and rewarding.
A Versatile Workout
Exercise swimming is incredibly versatile. Some strokes can be a full-body workout, working out your arms and chest, legs, back and core all at once. However, you can also make swimming a more targeted exercise by switching up your stroke.
Changing the stroke that you use can put all of the focus on your arms, or your legs, or even target your core. Not only that, the broad range of motion involved in different strokes can be particularly effective at targeting otherwise hard-to-work muscle groups like the rotator cuff.
Going into the different strokes and how to make them fit your needs is a little beyond the scope of this article. In fact, swimming at all is so far outside of our general purview here at HTBM that an article like that is probably not forthcoming any time soon. However, you can learn more about swimming’s four main strokes from this article by Swimming World Magazine.
Of course, you don’t need to know any fancy strokes to get the most out of exercise swimming. Just put some time into experimenting. Do a stroke until you start to feel tired and then ask yourself where you feel tired – those are the muscles that are doing most of the work in that stroke.
When you think about exercise swimming, think about the physics described above. You may be able to invent or modify strokes to target different muscle groups.
But, what if you’re doing the above experiment and the first sore area aren’t your arms or legs but your heart and lungs? That just means that you need an extra helping of cardiovascular exercise in your schedule anyway.
Swimming Is Fun!
Swimming is fun! Yes, that makes it a good workout.
Sure, some people actually enjoy lifting weights, but for a lot of us it’s something that we have to do to get the results that we want. That desire is enough to push us to push ourselves to hit the weights. However, there’s a lot to be said for exercising in ways that you actually enjoy.
We’ve mentioned that exercise swimming can be a solid occasional option when you have a mobility-affecting injury or when you are too sore for your regular routine. However, swimming can also be a good way to break up your routine when your routine is what you’re sick of.
We’ve all had days when we couldn’t bring ourselves to work out, but if it comes down to exercise swimming or taking a skip day, taking a few laps around the pool can keep your record up. That having been said, there are worse things than taking a skip day.
Finding Water Near You
Maybe you live on a tropical island or near the beach and you can swim whenever you want. That’s nice. However, if you live further inland or the weather isn’t always warm enough for outdoor swimming where you live, you probably still have plenty of opportunities to get in the water. You just might have to look for them a little harder.
Community Pools and Fitness Centers
If your area has a dedicated community pool, that’s swell. Keep in mind that the community pool might be inside another community resource.
If you don’t have access to community resources like this but you already have a fitness center membership, check if your facility has access to a swimming pool for member use. If you don’t already have a fitness center membership but there is a fitness center near you, check if they have a pool anyway.
Most fitness centers will allow visitors to purchase a day pass. If you plan on making swimming a regular part of your workout, this model won’t be more affordable than just getting a membership. But, it’s a valid option if exercise swimming is an occasional treat rather than a staple in your workout plan.
If you have a mobility complication that won’t be there for ever but also isn’t going away over the next few days, ask if the fitness center has a less-than-annual pass that will get you access to their facilities for a couple of weeks or months.
We here at HTBM don’t have stock in fitness center membership but, for the record, these more affordable, shorter timeframe membership opportunities are a great way to get some exposure to fitness centers before deciding on full membership anyway. After all, you (probably) can’t put a pool in your home gym.
Other Community Resources
If you don’t have access to a community pool or fitness center pool, it may be time to get creative. Think about other area institutions that might have a pool.
Even though these locations might not be “public” many of them subsidize the cost of expensive health and fitness equipment (like pools) through offering paid community access. Prime examples include universities, hospitals, and even high schools.
Keep in mind, however, that these institutions will plan open swims (if they offer open swims) around the schedules of their actual users and members. This means that their schedules may be restrictive. For example, your local high school might offer an open swim, but it might only be on the weekends. Your local hospital might offer open swim, but only in the evenings, &c.
Most of the access that most of us have to pools are in hotels. However, most hotels guard their pools more jealously than the Rangers of Ithilien guard the Forbidden Pool in Lord of the Rings.
The Water’s Fine!
If you don’t think about swimming as exercise it’s time you did. It won’t help you bulk muscle in the same way that lifting weights will, but it can target hard-to-reach muscles like nothing else can and it’s great for your overall health. The single biggest downside to exercise swimming is how hard it can be to find a pool.