Does Swimming Build Muscle?

Title: The Impact of Swimming on Muscle Development

Swimming is a comprehensive, full-body workout that combines cardio, strength, and resistance training. The relationship between swimming and muscle development, however, is not as straightforward as one might assume.

Swimming is primarily a cardio-based workout. While it does engage multiple muscle groups concurrently, it does not lead to the same muscle hypertrophy, or growth, associated with weight training or resistance-based exercises (Layne & Nelson, 1999).

The resistance provided by water is approximately 12 times greater than air, according to research from Bucknell University (Bruton, 2009). This makes swimming a form of resistance training that can help develop muscle tone and strength. However, because swimming is a low-impact exercise, the gains in muscle size may not be as pronounced as with high-impact, weight-bearing exercises (Oja et al., 2014). Swimming builds lean, endurance-based muscle rather than the bulky muscles associated with weightlifting.

Moreover, the impact of swimming on muscle development can vary greatly depending on the swimmer’s technique, the type of strokes used, and the intensity and duration of the swim sessions. Each stroke targets different muscle groups. For instance, the butterfly stroke primarily engages the deltoids and latissimus dorsi, while the breaststroke works the pectorals and the leg muscles (Maglischo, 2003). A swimmer’s muscle development, therefore, can be shaped by their choice of strokes and training regimen.

Importantly, swimming can be an effective way to build muscle for certain populations. For instance, those who are unable to participate in high-impact exercises due to health or injury issues may find swimming a suitable alternative (Takeshima et al., 2002). As swimming is easier on the joints, it can provide a way for these individuals to safely build muscle strength and endurance.

In conclusion, swimming can contribute to muscle development, primarily by promoting muscle tone and endurance rather than bulk. Its role as a muscle-building tool depends on various factors, including the swimmer’s technique, training intensity, and the types of strokes utilized. More research is needed to understand the nuances of muscle development in swimming and to guide optimal training strategies for muscle building in this context.


Bruton, M. (2009). The Physics of Swimming. Bucknell University.

Layne, J. E., & Nelson, M. E. (1999). The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31(1), 25-30.

Maglischo, E. W. (2003). Swimming fastest. Human Kinetics.

Oja, P., Titze, S., Bauman, A., de Geus, B., Krenn, P., Reger-Nash, B., & Kohlberger, T. (2014). Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(4), 600-612.

Takeshima, N., Rogers, M. E., Watanabe, E., Brechue, W. F., Okada, A., Yamada, T., Islam, M. M., & Hayano, J. (2002). Water-based exercise improves health-related aspects of fitness in older women. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(3), 544-551.