Professional swimmers are never scrawny, are they? They are well-built, well-oiled machines with low body fat and strong muscles. The swimmer’s body may well be the ideal physique, and in this post we discuss how you too can build muscle by swimming.
You certainly can. Swimming is one of those sports that provides a full body workout. Rather than focusing on one particular muscle group, swimming taxes just about every muscle group in the body. From the arms and shoulders to the back, and from the core, to the legs and feet, there's no escaping the burn of an intense swim session.
However, trying to build muscle by swimming alone is difficult. It's much better to make swimming a part of a wider program and mix it up with some weightlifting. A good diet and optimal supplementation are also important if you want to truly bring about a change.
What makes swimming unique?
With its low-impact nature, swimming is ideal for just about anyone. Regardless of age and condition, the benefits include improved recovery, a solid cardiovascular workout and of course muscle toning and growth.
Swimming is like a form of resistance training. It's similar to weight lifting but doesn't place the same stress on your joints. The low-impact nature of swimming means it's a more sustainable method of toning muscles without the potential negative side effects commonly incurred with the continual lifting of heavy weights.
With the full-body workout that swimming provides, many muscle groups can be worked. Swimming surpasses most other sports in this regard by providing an ideal stimulus for muscle growth right across the body. In particular, the shoulders, abs, back, legs and triceps get consistently worked while swimming.
By swimming on a regular basis and repeatedly exposing your body to that resistance created when moving through the water, you encourage your muscles to adapt to the stimulus and hence grow and develop.
Why swimming alone isn’t enough to build muscle
You can build muscle by swimming, but depending on your goals, swimming may not be enough in and of itself. By coupling swimming and weightlifting, you will make more impressive gains.
Most cardiovascular forms of exercise tend to break the body down. Cycling and running are prime examples of exercises that don't necessarily build muscle. Properly trained cyclists and runners want to minimise excess muscle mass. The nature of their sport means they must also carry that extra mass - and that excess shoulder and back muscle is not something any cyclist or long-distance runner wants to carry around.
Swimming, however, is different. Swimmers require muscle. Weightlifting can help apply that additional stress for optimal growth. When weightlifting, you should work the same muscles that you work in the pool when swimming. This means you should try and refrain from working the biceps and chest too much.
The nutritional protocol for muscle growth
Swimmers eat a lot. Those who train for several hours a day tend to work up a big appetite. You may not be at the same level, but if you want to build muscle by swimming, then you absolutely need to dial your diet in.
As you train in the pool and the gym, your muscles get broken down. But the growth occurs once the body repairs the affected muscles. They grow back bigger and stronger than before, hence the increase in strength.
To aid your body in repairing muscle after exercise, you'll want to ensure that you consume enough protein. The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids, and it's these that the body uses to repair those damaged muscles.
If you're an active swimmer, you'll want to consume at least 2g of protein for every kilogram of body weight, perhaps more if you train intensely. Protein is best taken in the form of a shake directly after exercise, as this is when your body most needs it.
Carbohydrate intake is also important, especially if you're swimming at high intensity. Muscle glycogen levels can become depleted after an intense session, and by taking carbohydrate on board you help replenish those supplies. Carbohydrate also provokes insulin excretion. And with insulin being anabolic in nature, it means that it promotes that muscle growth we’re after.
The importance of recovery
If you want to build muscle by swimming, then the actual building takes place out of the pool. It's crucial that you let your body recover after a hard swim session. While exercising, the body breaks down muscle, and it's when resting that you enable the body to rebuild stronger than before.
By resting and ensuring your body has its nutritional needs met, you give it the means to rebuild and adapt.
You can still swim each day if you like, but just ensure that you interspace the intense days with sessions where you take it easy in the pool. Working your muscles further when they have not yet recovered from the previous stimulus is not a good idea. However, light exercise still results in increased blood flow and that helps your body excrete waste products, thus aiding your recovery.