Swimming and weightlifting can make a great combo for your fitness goals if the swimming sessions are programmed correctly into your weekly workout plan.
This article discusses how to do that and shares a few of the benefits swimming brings when you add it to your training schedule.
And from the other side, I also talk a little about how weightlifting programs have been shown to improve athletic performance in swimmers.
Up ahead we’ll get into the things to consider when figuring out how & when to program swimming sessions into the weekly workouts & weight training routine.
Next let’s look at a few of the cool things swimming can do for our bodies & for our weightlifting goals.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Benefits of swimming
Here are a few good reasons why swimming is a great exercise/cardio option to incorporate into your weightlifting schedule.
Swimming is low-impact exercise
Thanks to the nature of water, it acts as a counterbalance to the effect gravity has on our bodies. (1)
This buoyancy makes us lighter & reduces the stress our weight causes our joints & bones when we’re doing land-based aerobic exercise of some kind. (2)
A swimming workout offers low-impact cardio which makes it a good choice for anyone looking to avoid joint pain, including those who are older, arthritic, overweight, etc.
Swimming has been shown to significantly reduce the pain & increase mobility limitations caused by osteoarthritis, according to results published in the Journal of Rheumatology. (3)
Swimming burns calories
According to Harvard Medical’s chart on physical activity, a 155 lb. person doing 30 minutes of freestyle (crawl) swimming burns over 400 calories; a 185 lb. person nearly 500. (4)
Compare that to:
*30 minutes of jogging @ 5mph, which burns just under 300 for the 155 lb. person
*30 minutes on a rowing machine or on a stationary bike; both burn 260 calories.
Swimming’s benefits for weightlifters
Winner of the 2017 World’s Strongest Man competition, Great Britain’s Eddie Hall is a dedicated swimmer. Here he discusses why he swims:
“I found it helped massively with lung capacity, heart function, and more than anything the mobility, because it helps the ligaments and capillaries and everything keep moving…”
And here’s his novel swim routine:
“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.” (5)
Swimming cuts risk of death 50%
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends swimming for its many health benefits, then simply states that
“Swimmers have about half the risk of death compared with inactive people.” (6)
Swimming’s benefits are better than walking
Research has found that swimming provides a few important health benefits better than good ol’ walking, especially for sedentary older adults.
Around 120 women over the age of 50 were split into two workout groups – either walking or swimming – and tracked for a year.
After the 12 month program was completed, medical scientists compared the effects of the two forms of exercise.
They found that swimming did a better job at:
- weight loss & managing weight
- body fat distribution
- lowering cholesterol
- managing insulin levels (8)
Tips on adding swimming workouts
Here are a couple of suggestions when you’re beginning, courtesy of a health club director who’s also completed several Ironman competitions.
Lower your performance expectations
Even if you’re in shape on land, if you’re a beginner in the water swimming may be harder than you think, cardio-wise.
No worries, just start with a few minutes per session at first.
Go easy in the beginning
Swim slow with good form and body awareness.
For more details on each of these tips and others, read the full article Swimming Workout Tips on Daily Burn.
Besides a swimsuit actually meant for swimming 😄, here are a few things to pick up to help protect you from the chlorine:
*earplugs if you want to keep your inner ears dry.
Swim on off days or AFTER lifting
Program your swim workout preferably on a non-lifting day or at the least, save your swimming until after your weight training is done.
The potential issue to look out for here is the swimming workout using up too much of your energy which will hurt your weightlifting’s strength & muscle gains. Sports science has shown (several times) that lots of weekly cardio can do this. (10)
Is weightlifting good for swimmers?
It’s been demonstrated that strength training – whether using weights on dry land or additional resistance in the water – enhances athletic performance in swimmers, particularly in sprints and middle distance swimming.
Here are results from a couple of research studies.
Weightlifting improves 50 meter swim speed
This study compared three groups training 6x/week for 12 weeks:
- regular swim training, no weights
- swim training + free weights on dry land
- swim training + resistance tubes in the water
At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers concluded
“we observed significant increases in swimming velocity”
in both groups doing the additional strength training. (11)
400 meter freestyle speeds increased
Here, an 11-week study with female & male swimmers tested the effectiveness of resistance training using a cable crossover station twice a week.
Those doing the dry land weight training significantly improved their times in the 400 meter freestyle, as authors noted
“dry land strength training can improve middle distance performance.” (12)
Weightlifting from the swimmers’ point of view
Here is some good feedback about weight training’s effect on a competitive swimmer’s results, courtesy of two successful collegiate athletes.
Jessica Barnes won two Big Ten team titles while swimming for Penn State, and is the assistant head coach of the Liberty University (VA.) swim team, current champions of the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association (CCSA). (13)
Speaking to Swimming World Magazine, Ms. Barnes said
“Weight training was absolutely beneficial to my swimming in college…I put on 15 pounds of muscle over the course of my four years, and as a result of getting stronger outside of the pool, I got faster in the pool.” (14)
Alex Henley is considered by her alma mater University of California – San Diego (UCSD) as “one of the most decorated swimmers” in their history. A 3-time NCAA Div. II champion, she holds several school swimming records for individual events, and was twice named one of the university’s athletes of the year. (15)
She too is a firm believer in the benefits weight training provides serious swimmers, saying
“I definitely noticed a difference in my swimming when I first started lifting weights about 2 1/2 years ago…I haven’t really stopped since then as I believe it is important to keep your strength up.” (16)
FAQs about swimming and weight lifting
Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding programming swimming into a weight training program, or vice versa.
(These first two questions are closely related.)
Can you swim and lift weights on the same day?
You can lift & swim on the same day, if that’s what your weekly schedule requires.
Ideally to get the most out of both workouts, you’d do them on separate days.
But certainly a casual swim after lifting is totally cool.
If you do both workouts on the same day…
…just keep in mind that swim sessions & weightlifting each require a lot of energy, so whichever exercise you do second will be affected by your level of fatigue caused by the first workout.
For this reason it’s advised that you do your lifting before hitting the pool, if increased strength & muscle are goals of yours.
This is because sports science studies have shown that muscle & strength gains from weight training can be lower for people who do a cardio workout before weightlifting on the same day. (17)
Is it OK to swim after weight lifting?
Swimming after weightlifting is a great idea: it’s a great cardio exercise choice to go along with your weight training program, whether you do both of them on the same day or not.
And doing some swimming afterwards is also a nice way to get some extension & mobility in those muscles right after you’ve been contracting them during all that lifting. (18)
Is swimming better than weight lifting?
Whether weightlifting or swimming is better for you depends on what your fitness goals are, and everyone has their own reasons for working out.
Swimming can provide an excellent low-impact cardiovascular workout that uses all your major muscles, plus is kind to your joints & bones. (19)
Weightlifting offers a whole slew of its own benefits, in addition to making you stronger & building your muscle: check out this brochure from the American College of Sports Medicine.
So if you’re looking to build lean muscle & get stronger, a consistent weightlifting program will get you there sooner than lots of laps in the pool. (21)
Do note that swimming will tone & strengthen your muscles some, since the water adds between 12 to 14% more resistance to your movements than if you were doing them on dry land. (22)
But why not combine swimming AND weightlifting?
As this article has hopefully shown, there’s no rule saying you have to pick one or the other – you can always do both during your workout week, and get the best of both worlds.
Related articles on heydayDo
I hope that my article on the benefits that swimming & weight training provide each other is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.