Muscle building in swimming: which style is good for what?

Swimming is perfect for building up muscles in a holistic way that is easy on the joints. But each swimming style stresses the body parts differently.

Jule Fox

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While swimming you train your whole body and protect your joints. Each style of swimming works out different areas of the body. We’ll tell you which style is best for building muscle, building endurance, and strengthening your spine.

1. Breaststroke for holistic muscle building

Many amateur swimmers find breaststroke the most comfortable of the four common swimming styles. This is certainly due to the fact that relaxed swimming in the water in the breaststroke position is least strenuous. However, if you approach breaststroke athletically, you will quickly reach your limits untrained. Because you need a whole range of muscles for this kind of locomotion. Technically correct, breaststroke is even the most power-intensive and technically demanding variant compared to crawl and backstroke.

The forearms and upper arms are heavily used in breaststroke to provide the best possible support for the hands as "water scoops". Through the sweeping strokes, you train not only your shoulder muscles to the back, but also very intensively the latissimus, the large back muscle, synchronously on both sides. The chest muscles are also kept busy by the arm movement – more than in any other swimming style.

Do you want to train especially your arm muscles while swimming? Then get paddles! You can use hand fins to increase resistance while swimming and really challenge the muscles in your arms. A pullbuoy can also help you. Simply clamp it between your legs while swimming. It provides buoyancy and you can fully concentrate on the arm work.

Footwork is complex in breaststroke, as you both push off in the water and pull your legs back into a squat position. This strengthens the entire leg muscles, especially those of the front and back thighs. The typical leg movement also trains your abdominal muscles as well as the posterior torso muscles in the back area.

Woman doing breaststroke in pool

Breaststroke is more demanding than many think. © iStock.com/quintanilla

2. Crawling makes speed

The fastest way to move through the water is with the crawl technique. Proper execution also plays a big role in this style of swimming. Untrained, you often get out of breath after just one lane, but after a while your strength and endurance benefit immensely. At the top of the list for crawl are the shoulder and arm muscles, which are heavily stressed by the crawl motion. But the muscles in your back are also immensely challenged. Torso, abdominal, gluteal and leg muscles support the typical crawling motion. Leg swings work the hip flexor and hip extensor in particular.

Woman doing the crawl in the pool

In addition to your endurance, crawl swimming also exercises many muscle groups. © iStock.com/microgen

When crawling, you can also make use of various aids to particularly challenge specific areas of the body. With a swimming board between your hands, you have to propel yourself with your legs alone; buoyancy aids, on the other hand, strengthen the training of your arms. The crawl is also recommended because of its good water position. Neck, knees and the hip joints are relieved by this technique.

3. Backstroke helps the spine

Swimming can strengthen the spine. For people with weak back muscles, backstroke in the back crawl style is ideal. On the one hand, the position in the water relieves pressure on the spine and neck; on the other, this swimming style builds up muscles, particularly in the lower back and buttocks, which stabilize the back. As in breaststroke and crawl, you also train the arm muscles in the backstroke, since a large part of the thrust is generated by the arm work. In leg work, your thighs are the main players, supported by the hip muscles. The shoulder muscles are also involved in the movement, as well as the abdominal muscles help stabilize the body. By the way, backstroke also prevents a hollow back posture, which is often observed in pure breaststroke swimmers.

Woman doing backstroke in swimming pool

Backstroke-style back crawl relieves pressure on the spine and neck and exercises the lower back. © iStock.com/microgen

4. High calorie consumption during dolphin swimming

The dolphin style pushes your body to peak performance. This swimming style, also called butterfly, is demanding and power-sapping. For the same distance, the calorie consumption is the highest here. You should definitely have an expert teach you the proper technique, though, to avoid postural damage. The arms and shoulders are so stressed during dolphin swimming that even one lane can bring you to the end of your strength. Plus, your core muscles are especially challenged when swimming with dolphins.

Man swimming with dolphins in the water

Arms and shoulders are heavily loaded during dolphin swimming. Also the trunk musculature is demanded. © iStock.com/ChesiireCat

By the way, the calorie consumption is higher when the water temperature is lower than 26 degrees during swimming. Your body has to work through the exchange of heat between your body and water to maintain your body temperature. A jump into the cool water can therefore be doubly rewarding.

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