Swimming for upper body strength.
November 3, 2018 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Mr. Terrier bought me a membership to our local YMCA, which features two great swimming pools. I’ve been going every day since! Anyway, I’m wondering: I hatehatehate to lift weights or do other kinds of sweat-inducing exercise. Can’t swimming take the place of lifting weights?

I’m in the pool 40 to 45 minutes, mostly side-stroking, back stroking, and dog paddling. I don’t use a kick board, because I want my arms to be working the whole time I’m in the pool.
My upper-body strength has wasted away due to years of neglect. At age 64, I'm in a sweat (heh) to make up for this.
I plan on swimming five or six times a week. No worries about backsliding; I find it absolutely addicting.
What is your opinion? Can I count on swimming to take the place of weight lifting?
posted by BostonTerrier to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It depends on what you mean by take the place of. You can definitely tone and condition and increase muscle mass a bit. And it's great for overall fitness and range of motion.

But if you're talking about weight-bearing for something like strengthening bone, or increasing muscle mass, it won't have the same effect.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:16 AM on November 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you want to do something in this vein, you might want to get a set of hand-paddles or aquafit gloves that will provide more resistance when you're pulling your stroke.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:18 AM on November 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

There are also floats that you grip between your knees while you swim and then you can use your arms exclusively to propell yourself without your bottom half sinking.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 8:21 AM on November 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

Hm. What's your form like? Any reason you aren't doing any freestyle (crawl) stroke in your workout? My biggest concern when I am swimming is my shoulder strength. Going 5x/week and using poor form could really torque your body. There are a lot of out-of-pool exercises to keep your shoulders limber and your neck and shoulder blades strong.

And yes, using a pull buoy (a float held between your thighs) to focus your energy on just your upper body is a good idea for a portion of your workout. And using hand paddles to create greater resistance as you pull through the water can increase the amount of work your upper arms and shoulders are doing. You also want to focus on your pecs, basically use the whole part of your shoulder, chest and upper back to complete a stroke.

It's all really different from weight lifting. I was swimming a lot for awhile. I joined a masters group and slowly worked my way up from slowest in the class to, uh, maybe third slowest. My heart and lungs where phenomenal! But my legs were weak (you can add fins to get more of a leg workout) and I really felt that for whole body conditioning, I was missing out on what I wanted.

So I started doing a drop-in "boot camp" class that had every kind of person, a wide age range, fitness level and body type. What was really ideal was the weeks I could get both in - swimming and weights/cardio on "dry land" and walking or running on the treadmill.

Keep swimming for sure! Having a good cardiovascular system is fantastic! Get into a groove on swimming and I really encourage you to work on form. Watch YouTube videos if you can't work with a coach or instructor. But I'd think about working in some weights and other strengthening activities - squats, lunges, things that work on your balance. Hand weights. Walking.
posted by amanda at 8:31 AM on November 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Because water offers resistance, you are getting some strength conditioning. Increase the resistance, as jacquilynne recommends, to increase strength conditioning.
posted by theora55 at 9:09 AM on November 3, 2018

The best exercise for your upper body is any exercise that you like and will continue doing. Keep swimming and revisit your plan in six months.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:13 AM on November 3, 2018 [17 favorites]

"side-stroking, back stroking, and dog paddling" aren't the strokes I associate with upper body strength. Maybe breast stroke or butterfly. They're nicely symmetrical.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:13 AM on November 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

The really muscular swimmers I know are muscular for swimming, not because of it. They do a lot of work outside the pool (including traditional lifting) to build the musculature.

That said, it's incredibly valuable to have an exercise you find "addicting" that you want to do 45 minutes six times a week. Keep swimming. It might not get you a bodyweight overhead press and magazine-worthy shoulders, but it'll still be way better than not exercising.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:21 AM on November 3, 2018 [11 favorites]

I started swimming 3 years ago after a 55 year+ break (age 76 now) and have been swimming 6 days a week for the last two years--I swim between 1000 and 1200 metres daily using the freestyle, back and breast stokes. Doing strokes and swimming laps will definitely tone muscles and strengthen your core. However, I agree, it will not add significant strength(a bit)nor muscle mass but it is an excellent exercise for flexibility, endurance, cardiovascular fitness and over all toning. Adding resistance equipment(paddles/etc) will increase the efficiency of the muscle thereby indirectly adding strength. But if you want to seriously tone and add some upper body strength you will need to do strokes--I took lessons to to "master/learn" the basic strokes. I also find it addicting--so keep it up and enjoy.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:48 AM on November 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not really. Swimming is high-repetition, low load. You’ll be building stamina and cardiovascular fitness (which are not bad things to have!).

Tons of references out there if you want to read up on the science - this has been done to death by the sports science community, but resistance training is the most effective way to build strength. Sweat is not an absolute requirement, but if you want the most effective strength building program, then a combination of metabolic and physical stress is required IIRC. (I can dig up some references, but don’t have anything to hand right now).
posted by pharm at 9:54 AM on November 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Join the ZeroTo1mile Facebook group! They are wonderful people. And you can do the zero to 700 plan if you prefer.
posted by jgirl at 11:08 AM on November 3, 2018

Any reason you aren't doing any freestyle (crawl) stroke in your workout?
I dislike the face-in-the-water aspect.

...Maybe breast stroke or butterfly...
I don't know how to do these particular strokes.

What's your form like?
My what? I'm not an athlete. I'm swimming to improve my (strictly recreational) ice skating. If I fell down center ice, I would have to hands-and-knees it to the boards, just to haul myself up! That's what I want to ameliorate.

Thanks for the answers so far!
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:39 PM on November 3, 2018

My YMCA actually has these float barbells that you use in the water. I've used them in water aerobics classes before - my impression is that they are intended to do what typical barbells do. Not sure if you can use them swimming, but maybe check-in with an instructor to get suggestions.
posted by Toddles at 12:59 PM on November 3, 2018

(BostonTerrier, I'm a 51yo in my 2nd year of ice skating. I could not get up from a fall in the way they teach, but a coach showed me a better/easier way. MeMail me if you want to talk about it.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:24 PM on November 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I learned to skate (age 36) I was taught how to fall (as best as situationally possible) and how to get up. That's an area to investigate technique, too.
posted by jgirl at 2:01 PM on November 3, 2018

"If I fell down center ice, I would have to hands-and-knees it to the boards, just to haul myself up!"

I agree with the previous commenters that this is a form issue, not a strength one. The strength required to push yourself up is nugatory. If you can get up off a couch, you can push yourself up from a skating fall. If you truly can't do this, you wouldn't be able to lift weights anyway. Body weight exercise, specifically push-ups, would be plenty sufficient to build this minimal level of strength.

Ice skating is notorious as one of the activities that least requires upper body strength. There are stories in the hockey community of European coaches who eschew upper-body workouts altogether. If your goal is to be a better skater, your plan should be to increase lower body strength and cardiovascular endurance. Swimming is an excellent way to do the latter.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:50 PM on November 3, 2018

I also hate lifting weights. I sit in a chair at home and lift some five or ten pound weights while watching tv. I lift them all kinds of ways. This works for me.

Anyway, swimming is great for toning, and you're swimming a lot. I would add a breast stroke. If you're doing it right (I think?), you shouldn't get your eyes in the water.
posted by xammerboy at 7:55 PM on November 3, 2018

If I fell down center ice, I would have to hands-and-knees it to the boards, just to haul myself up!


This makes no sense. How were you taught to recover?

The easy way is to get onto hands and knees, put one foot between your hands, rock that foot forward a little so the toe pick digs in, and then use the support of your two hands and that foot to get your second foot under you. If you have the upper body strength to crawl to the edge of the rink on your hands and knees, you have more than enough strength to get up.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:51 PM on November 3, 2018

I highly recommend you take a swimming class—I did this a few years ago and it made swimming so much easier and more efficient.
I already knew the basics like you, but having someone show me the proper form and teach a few other strokes made a big difference.
It doesn’t mean you have to be hardcore about it, it’ll just show you the best way to move your body.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don’t have a problem with my face in the water but a friend who did switched to a full face snorkel mask and it changed her enthusiasm for swimming immensely.
posted by emkelley at 9:17 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

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