The pool may be the last place you would think of when it comes to working out. However, here, you burn calories and firm all muscles without you putting stress on your joints.
Look no further than superstar Natalie Coughlin to observe how water can whittle a sexy, sculpted silhouette. And you don’t have to be an Olympic gold medalist to get the perfect body. When researchers at Indiana University compared recreational fitness swimmers with non-swimmers, they found that swimmers of all ages had more lean muscle and trimmer waists and hips.
And while swimming may not offer the lace-up-your-shoes-and-go convenience of running, all you need are three key items—swimsuit, cap, and goggles—and you’re set to hit the water. So go ahead: Make a splash with one of the best workouts for women!
Why Water Works
The body-shaping benefits of swimming workouts are the result of a perfect storm of calorie burn and muscle recruitment. An easy swim burns around 500 calories an hour, while a vigorous effort can torch almost 700. And because water is nearly 800 times denser than air, each kick, push, and pull is like a mini resistance workout for your entire body—especially your core, hips, arms, shoulders, and glutes. So in addition to blasting calories as you swim, you build lean muscle, which ignites your metabolism so that you burn more calories once you’ve showered and dried off.
The irony is that while swimming makes you lean and mean, it’s also kind to your body. Water basically neutralizes gravity, so you become virtually weightless when immersed, giving your joints a much-needed vacation. “You can swim almost every day without risking injury,” says Joel Stager, Ph.D., director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University at Bloomington, who has studied the effects of swimming for years. “You can’t say the same for running or strength training.”
And that makes swimming something you can do for your entire life—a major bonus because it can literally help you stay younger: “Our research shows that habitual swimmers are biologically up to 20 years younger than their actual age,” Stager says. The data, which were presented at an American College of Sports Medicine Conference, revealed that a swimmer’s blood pressure, cholesterol levels, cardiovascular performance, central nervous system, and cognitive functioning are all comparable to someone far younger.
The Starting Block
Most newbies hit the pool with high expectations. They jump into the water all gung-ho and plan to swim for a solid half hour. “Four minutes later, they’re inevitably hanging onto the edge, feeling completely defeated,” says Joel Shinofield, head swim coach at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
That’s because training in water requires your cardiovascular system and muscles to work differently than they do on land. Your lungs have to adjust to a new way of breathing (you can’t suck in air anytime you want like with dry-land workouts, and unlike any other form of exercise, swimming requires every muscle in your body to work as a team to keep you moving and staying afloat.
“The key to an effective swim routine is splitting it into shorter segments, mixing in a variety of work and rest intervals, and using different strokes, drills, and intensities,” says Shinofield. “It’s not only more interesting but also a better workout.” Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by taking rest breaks. “Swimming isn’t like walking, during which your heart rate drops quickly. It stays raised for at least 30 seconds after a few laps,” he says.
Try this starter workout: Swim four lengths of the pool at an easy effort (catch your breath at the wall between lengths if you need to). Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat five to 10 times. Try that two or three times a week for the first two weeks. If you haven’t swam for a while, use a kickboard for the first four lengths, suggests Robert Pearson, head swim coach at Macalester College in Minnesota. It will help you get used to swimming without having to coordinate your arms and legs. Once you master this workout, try “Get a Plan” on the back of the tear-out cards.
Freestyle is a fan favorite because it’s easy to learn and it burns major calories. But it pays to mix things up. “Using various strokes balances your muscles and helps beat boredom,” says Shinofield. Two to try are backstroke improves your posture by working your back and shoulder muscles) and breaststroke (it uses the hip and inner-thigh muscles, which are often missed in other workouts). Get the most from each stroke by following this advice from Shinofield:
Eyes up. Look straight up at the sky or ceiling—not at your toes, which causes your hips to sink—so your head is in line with your spine. Make a Y. Reach back with each arm at a 45-degree angle to your body; it places less stress on your shoulders and makes your stroke stronger.
Sweep through. Reach your arms overhead, palms together. Rotating your palms outward, pull down until your hands are nearly level with your chin. Bring your hands inward by your chest, then reach again. Whip it. Bend your knees and bring your heels toward your butt. Turn your toes outward and kick your legs back and together (like a frog) as you extend your arms forward.