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August 9, 2005 12:07 PM   Subscribe

What's the best calorie-burning swim workout? Is the best muscle-building workout the same or different?

The previous question reminded me I had a pool related thing to ask too. :)

I've been doing a bit of lap swimming recently, mostly using a kickboard, sometimes with fins. So I want to know what I should be doing to get the "best" workout.

It seems obvious that regular laps without the board will be the best for cardiovascular fitness, because I find myself getting out of breath after doing a lap or two. So it seems like that's my best bet if I want to increase lung capacity.

But what if my goal is to build and tone muscle? (I already do a good amount of upper body strength training at the gym, so for the sake of argument, let's say I want to tone my legs.) Am I working the muscles more if I swim with the kickboard alone, or do flippers make the workout more thorough?

The flippers seem easier (I find myself less tired), but I'm also increasing water resistance, so is that actually getting me more of a workout?
posted by MsMolly to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm also in the market for a good workout involving swimming, although I'm pretty positive that flippers minimize the effect of the workout by providing more propulsion with less effort.
posted by cyphill at 12:35 PM on August 9, 2005

In a past life I was a certified physical trainer. This doesn't really mean anything as the groups doing the certification out there are fairly dubious. I strongly recommend a level of common sense to most people (someone who says three sets are better than two better know the research studies, beyond anecdotal experience.)

If you can perform an activity for greater than 180 seconds, it's aerobic (vascular) in nature. Swimming. Running.
If you cannot continue to perform an activity for 180 seconds, it's primarily anaerobic in nature.

Swimming is a good (all body parts) vascular activity.) It has to be aerobic or you'd sink.
Running is generally aerobic. Hill climbing, sprints or intervals are anaerobic (similar to doing sets in a gym).

Muscular systems respond to an overload. Given rest, they will recover and increase in performance. It's a question of Intensity over duration. It's better to work very hard over work more.
Vascular systems respond to duration first, then difficulty, all gauged by your heart rate. It's better to first work longer and then increase your intensity (very gradually)

You can't spot reduce fat (doing work with your legs to remove fat from your legs, waist etc.) Fat stores exist across your entire body, but for men center in the waist and buttocks, and for women in the breasts and hips.
People in great condition have genetics on their side. Always. Often anything they do will cause an improvement in their physique.

Generally, weight loss will occur if there is the reduction of the intake of calories and the increase of activity. Additionally, more muscular mass increased your basal metabolic rate (The rate you burn calories doing nothing).

"Toning" is an illusion. Reduce body fat, increase body muscle = tone.
Women as a general rule cannot build bulky muscles. They have neither the genetics nor the body chemistry (testosterone) to do so. Most men don't build muscle easily either. They have to work at it.

If you're getting out of breath after a lap or two, the work you're doing is too intense for vascular work. Either reduce the intensity or use a method to make the work easier for a longer period of time (swim fins or a kickboard.) As far as the flippers - if it means you can continue the work for 20 min...the extra resistance is still aerobic. Your heart rate is a fantastic guide to your improvement as well as your level of load.

A 'smart' strength training program permits the increase in load in small graduations - which is why weights or machines are good choices - the new load is just slightly greater than the previous. So if you're looking to "tone" your legs, doing it at the gym is better than doing it at the pool. Also, machines/weights will have a better range of motion, a balanced resistance (both positive and negative phases to the exercise), where aerobic activities increased in difficulty to the point of anaerobic exercise do not.

So, my advice - make the pool activity easy enough that you enjoy the aerobic benefits of it. Get yourself doing 20-60 min of it. At the point where you want to make it more challenging for your vascular system, start making it more difficult (faster) or remove those tools you're using that permit you to go for an aerobic duration (fins, kickboard).
posted by filmgeek at 12:39 PM on August 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

Best Cardiovasular workout (?)--I do not know--I am guessing that any variation of interval and endurance is going to achieve the goal--there are numerous schedules available on the internet--Best from a caloric point of view(?)--probably all very similar--one interesting thing about swimming--while it is an excellent activity for flexibility, toning, strength and endurance it is not an efficient way to burn calories--study after study shows this--running, walking, biking, cross country skiing, etc are all much more efficient--the theory is that when the body is submersed in water there is an atavistic response that reduces metabolism--Speaking as a parent (who did a little research) of a highly competitive teenage swimmer who could not understand why she and her team mates did not look like the cross country team when they (thje swimmers) worked out 3-5 hours a day year around--Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 1:08 PM on August 9, 2005

I've never used fins, but I regularly use small hand paddles and the increased resistence definitely gives me a muscle-building upper body workout.
posted by sic at 3:00 PM on August 9, 2005

Swimming, though excellent exercise, is not so great for weight loss because simply being immersed in cool water stimulates the appetite.

Some references:
here and here
posted by bephillips at 3:13 PM on August 9, 2005

Visit US Masters Swimming. They're the experts, and I've used their training schedules before with good results.

The fins are fine for laps, as is the kickboard with fins. To work your upper body, get a pull buoy, which is a float you place between your legs to keep your lower body still. Don't exclusively use one or the other - balance is the objective. You won't build a lot of muscle by swimming, but you'll gain stamina and cardio conditioning.

The best advice I can give you as a lap swimmer is to learn correct stroke technique. If there's a swim coach in your area, ask them to videotape your stroke and narrate along so you can see what you're doing right and wrong. That was the single best piece of advice I ever got, and it greatly increased my time in the pool and my enjoyment of the workout.
posted by lambchop1 at 7:08 PM on August 9, 2005

I would say that interval training is the best swim workout you can get, mixing anaerobic sets (fast, short distance, lots of rest) with aerobic ones. Also keeps you from getting bored. However, if you are getting winded after a length or two, you may want to spend a few months getting up to being able to do about a thousand yards in forty-five minutes or so.

If you intend to use paddles, please get a coach to look at your stroke first. You can hurt yourself if you use paddles with bad technique.

Overall, you could do worse than investigating Masters Swimming. Though you can compete, most swimmers do not, and you well get a good workout with a good coach.

Now a bit of derail: Swimming burns calories just fine. The studies most people cite didn't compare the activites adequately (generally, half-assed swimming v. real running). In fact, swimmers burn more calories per hour than runners, and a study that I can't find just this second indicated they ate less. Some have speculated that the reason swimmers have more body fat than runners is that swimming doesn't penalize you for having fat like running does, so people who are more inclined to have body fat gravitate towards the sport that suits their body type. Others suggest bodies with a bit of curve is more hydrodynamic. But "swimming doesn't burn calories" is old thinking, as is "swimming makes you eat more." I know swimmers who chow, but we all liked eating before.
posted by dame at 7:29 PM on August 9, 2005

just wanted to second interval training. if you want swimming to do the most for you, you have to push it. interval training --doing a set of laps at a regular interval, like 4 lengths every 2 minutes, and you get to rest if you get there before 2 minutes(that's what the pool clocks are for)--is the best way to keep it hard. anyone can swim forever if you don't increase the intensity.
That said, i will second whoever said that if you make it too hard you may hate it and stop doing it. so don't go too hard.
its great. i miss it.
posted by alkupe at 8:37 PM on August 9, 2005

Former swim coach speaking.

If you're getting out of breath from just a couple of laps, but find you're able to do a lot more with the kickboard, there's a couple of reasons that might be. The first is lack of upper-body strength, since when you're using a kickboard, you're just using your leg muscles. Doing a stroke that uses a lot of leg muscles, such as breast stroke, would be a good way to build up lap swimming.

Secondly, a big reason why people have difficulty doing laps is improper breathing technique. If you're swimming front crawl, make sure you are taking full breaths, through your mouth. Make your strokes slower while you are breathing, and this will probably help you add some laps. Swimming backstroke as well will help with the breathing. Also, as others have mentioned, improper technique will use up lots of energy without you moving very far. A Master's class is a good place to start, but also check out your local univeristy pool. They probably have instructors that can do a couple of private sessions to help you with technique.

In terms of fat burning/weight training, the best muscle building would be interval high/low intensity kicking w/the kickboard, and doing pulls with paddles. For overall fitness though, laps combined with the above is best. It'll work all muscles and is a good aerobic excercise as well.
posted by orangskye at 8:59 PM on August 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Dame--would appreciate a reference on weight loss--clearly swimming is an efficient way to burn calories but does that translate into proportionate weight loss vis a vis other sports--I am 100% a calories in calories out person but the studies I have seen suggest that even when equal calories are expended for some reason swimming does not appear to lead to as much weight as other activities--and-swimmers--even highly competitive swimmer have significantly higher percent of body fat than other athletes Thanks
posted by rmhsinc at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2005

weight loss not weight
posted by rmhsinc at 1:26 PM on August 10, 2005

I'm calling bullshit on bephillips's assertion above that swimming isn't great for weight loss.

If you look at the study which asserts that cold water exercise stimulates appetite, you'll note that the water was far colder than any swimming pool you'll swim in (below 70 degrees. The cold pool I swim at is 81 degrees). Also, note that the cold water exercise wasn't swimming.

Also: the 2nd linked article is an ad for a weight loss program. It abounds (as do the articles linked from there) that swimmers look fatter than cyclists and runners. Maybe. All I know is that the elite swimmers they are referring to are much less fat than I am.

Don't let sketchy assertions and advertisements keep you out of the pool...

(bephillips, nothing personal, I just hate it when folks give swimming a bad name on bad evidence).
posted by daver at 2:33 PM on August 11, 2005

Thanks everyone. I was able to get to the pool yesterday, and the first thing I tried was slowing down when I was doing laps using the crawl stroke. I think I had been pushing myself to go as fast as I could, which wasn't allowing me enough time to take in air. So I slowed down and found myself much less out of breath. Alternating with the backstroke helps as well.
posted by MsMolly at 8:47 AM on August 12, 2005

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