Does swimming build muscle?

Does swimming build muscle

Most people do not associate swimming with building muscle, and most swimmers we see on television are slender and not super muscular. Because of this, the question of does swimming build muscle may seem strange or counterintuitive. However, as you will see in this article, perhaps this question is not as strange as it might first appear.

What muscles are used in swimming?

Before talking about swimming and muscle growth, we need to discuss what muscles are involved with swimming. Swimming is a broad term used to signify moving through the water, but it does not describe how you move through the water or, more specifically, what technique you use to move through the water. 

The specific technique you use to swim through the water is a swimming stroke. There are many different swimming strokes. Each swimming stroke differs in the muscles involved and the level to which these muscles contract during the stroke. Because of this, the level of muscle stimulation and ultimately possible muscle growth will be different between the different swimming strokes. Let’s look at the different swimming strokes and the muscles used in each. You will see a significant overlap of the skeletal muscles used in the 4 major swimming strokes, but understand that the degree to which these muscles are used or activated vary for each stroke. Some of the primary muscles used in one swimming stroke might be secondary muscles in another.

Freestyle stroke (front crawl)

The freestyle stroke, also called the front crawl, is the most popular swimming stroke, and most people think of or refer to it when they say “swimming.” The freestyle depends heavily on the triceps, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, deltoids and the major muscles of the legs.


The backstroke uses many of the same muscles as the front crawl, but because the arm movement is reverse to that seen in the freestyle, it engages much more of the latissimus dorsi and deltoids.


The breaststroke utilizes the primary swimming muscles latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, triceps and biceps. The significant difference with the breaststroke muscle activation is in the legs. The breaststroke kick is different from the other swimming strokes and is not a flutter kick. The quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals are used to a lesser extent. Leg muscles called adductors are used heavily to pull the legs together, and leg muscles called abductors pull the legs apart.

Butterfly stroke

The butterfly is a physically demanding swimming stroke and engages the major swimming muscles such as the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, triceps and biceps. The butterfly differs in muscle recruitment because it utilizes the abdominal muscles heavily, such as the rectus abdominus. It is also a leg muscle dominant stroke and recruits heavily the gluteal muscles, primarily the gluteus maximus, the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles.

As you can see, a core group of muscles are always recruited in swimming, and these primary swimming muscles are the muscles most likely to grow as they get the most training stimulus.

Does swimming build muscle?

Swimming does build muscle and can be a very effective muscle builder if done routinely, along with proper nutrition and rest. Most people do not think of swimming as a muscle-building exercise because most swimmers are slender and not big muscular athletes. However, swimmers are slim because it is more hydrodynamic, meaning they can glide through the water with less resistance. The lower the resistance with the water, the faster they can swim.

Swimming is a resistance exercise and, as such, does stress the working muscles and, if done to failure and exhaustion, can provide enough stimulus to trigger muscle growth. One study took seven men and subjected them to an eight-week-long swimming program to see if their muscle fibres would grow in size. At the end of the eight-week study period, the researchers found something interesting in that the type 1 muscle fibers (slow twitch) did not grow in size, but the type 2 muscle fibers (fast-twitch) did grow and substantially. The fast-twitch muscle fibers grew by almost 24 percent.[1] The interesting thing that this study highlights is that swimming seems only to cause fast-twitch muscle fibers (type 2) to grow in size. Another study done using a college-level swim program found that only the fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibers grew in size.[2]

It is pretty clear that swimming can build muscle, but only certain muscle types, or to be more specific, only fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibers.

How long does swimming take to build muscle?

On average, it takes about 6 to 12 weeks to build muscle with swimming. 6 to 12 weeks is the time it takes before seeing any noticeable muscle building from swimming. This time frame can vary significantly from person to person depending on how often they swim, how hard they train, their diet and their rest and sleep. The time it takes to build muscle from swimming can be shortened if you substantially improve your diet and increase your protein intake. Also, if you train harder and more frequently, this can speed up muscle growth.

Can you get ripped by swimming?

Swimming is an excellent aerobic activity and can get you “ripped.” You do not often see overweight swimmers. This fact is because it is an intense aerobic activity that recruits many muscle groups and, with some swimming strokes, almost recruits all of the skeletal muscle groups. Activating this many muscles for a prolonged period burns a tremendous amount of calories, and this burning of calories can undoubtedly help you drop body fat and get ripped. Swimming burns approximately 500 calories an hour.[3]

Conclusion Can swimming build muscle?

The conclusion you can draw based on the information we present is pretty clear that swimming absolutely can build muscle. The caveat to that is that it appears based on the studies that swimming can only build type 2 muscle fibers known as the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Type two muscle fibers are responsible for fast, explosive movements, whereas type one or slow-twitch muscle fibers are responsible for slow, sustained actions. Think of slow-twitch fibers are aerobic muscle fibers or long-distance fibers recruited when swimming for long periods.

The information contained within this article should not be taken as health advice. For health advice please talk with your doctor.