Looking to change up the way you exercise? Try taking your workout to the pool!
Swimming laps is a great, low-impact way to condition your entire body while also targeting specific muscle groups, but it's not the easiest sport to jump into. After all, swimming strokes are not natural movements for the body. How do you know you’re doing it right? How can your weight room routine transfer to the pool? Here’s a breakdown of four popular strokes and how they impact your body.
Freestyle, or front crawl, is perfect for those looking for a fast-paced workout. This stroke uses the downward pull of your arms combined with a flutter kick to propel your body forward. Your arm movements should feel like you are individually reaching each arm in front of you as far as you can and then pulling the water towards your hips, your hands trying to play catch-up with one another and bending at the elbow as you pull back. Throughout the exercise, your legs should be kicking up and down independently in a constant fluttering motion. It is important to keeps your hips high, as close to the surface of the water as possible, to keep your body from sinking. This applies to all four strokes, not just freestyle.
Your breathing should occur in-sync with your arms. As your left arm reaches forward and your right arm lifts out of the water, use your momentum to tilt your head to the right, breathing in the rhythm of your stroke. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, you don’t have to breathe during each stroke when swimming freestyle. In fact, it will be easier if you set a rhythm for yourself and take a breath every three to five strokes. I recommend you choose an odd number of strokes for your breathing pace. This ensures you breathe on both sides, which uses the muscles on each side of your body equally throughout the workout.
So which parts of your body does freestyle condition? Swimming, especially freestyle, conditions your entire body. While you focus on the muscles required to complete your stroke, the rest of your body uses other muscles to help you stay afloat.
Specifically, freestyle swimming highlights pectoral muscles, latissimi dorsi (lats), triceps and quadriceps. The forward reach of your arms works your chest, the downward pull of your arms targets your lats and triceps, and the constant flutter kicks work wonders for your quads.
Backstroke is a great stroke for those of us who just CANNOT get the whole breathe-to-the-side thing to work. The position of your body in the water during backstroke is more natural than other strokes, which makes backstroke a great recovery stroke.
Backstroke is similar to freestyle, but instead of floating on your stomach, you float on your back. Your arms should be fully extended, reaching behind your head in a pinwheel-like motion, and then bend at the elbow as you pull each arm to your hip. The kicking motion is the same as freestyle — a constant flutter kick.
Breathing during backstroke is easy. Since you’re on your back the entire time, you can breathe at a normal rate, unaffected by the stroke. Some people find they struggle with water entering their nose while swimming backstroke. If you find this to be the case, you can purchase a nose plug specifically for swimming from any sporting goods store.
Like freestyle, backstroke works your entire body. But it also targets muscles in your back that other strokes do not. Because this is the only stroke that requires you to float on your back instead of your stomach, it utilizes muscles in your lower back that are often neglected. If you suffer lower back pain after exercises like deadlifts or squats, I highly recommend trying backstroke.
Because the arm motions for backstroke are similar to those used for freestyle, it works the same group of muscles surrounding your chest and arms. Backstroke challenges your pectorals on the backwards reach and your lats on the downward pull. The major difference in backstroke is that, because you are essentially doing backwards freestyle, you are working the other side of your arms. Instead of pairing your lats with your triceps to complete the downward pull of your stroke, backstroke pairs your lats with your biceps. The same rule applies for your legs. Where freestyle works your quads, backstroke flips the workout to target your hamstrings.
Hellooooo, leg day! Breaststroke, otherwise known as froggy-style, is the ultimate leg workout. If you examine the way your legs move when performing this stroke, you’ll see why.
Breaststroke is the only stroke in which your legs are your primary source of thrust. Your legs move in a motion much like that of a frog swimming. In this stroke, your legs will be moving simultaneously. First, flex your feet while drawing your toes toward your shins. This will give your feet more surface area to push against the water. Next, pull your feet behind you towards your hips, bending at the knees. Don’t let your feet come out of the water, however, as this depletes the momentum of your kick. It is okay to let your knees drop a little deeper into the water at this point, but make sure your hips remain at the surface. Your legs should still be together. From there, kick your feet out in a circular motion, snapping your feet back together at the ankle and then straightening your legs. You should be careful not to let your knees swing out wider than shoulder-width, as this will not only give you less power but can also cause knee problems.
The arm motions for breaststroke almost perfectly mirror the leg motions. Start by drawing your arms into your chest, hands together at your fingertips. Then, reach your arms out in front of you as far as you can, hands still together. This will begin to pull your body forward, aiding your kick. Once your arms are extended fully, bring them out and around in a circular motion, drawing your hands back together at your chest, and then snapping your arms back out into the extended position.
The most challenging part of breaststroke is getting the rhythm right. Your arms and legs should both be doing their motions simultaneously and in a way that allows the motions to work together. Put simply, your arms and legs should reach their “extended” positions at the same time. As you snap your ankles together in your kick, your hands should be reaching forward.
Breathing for breaststroke is fairly self-explanatory. As your arms circle around and reach under your chest, your head will naturally rise out of the water. Come up high enough for your shoulders to clear the water, inhale, and then bring your head back down into the water as you reach forward. Breathe every stroke.
As far as the upper body is concerned, breaststroke works your chest, triceps, and deltoids. The full motion of reaching your arms out and around in a circle, all while pushing them through the water, both abducts and adducts these muscles.
Swimming breaststroke primarily focuses on your leg muscles — strengthening and toning your quads, glutes and hip flexors. Drawing your legs up at the beginning of your kick challenges your quads, while the snap of your kick works your glutes and hip flexors. The more you exaggerate your kick, the harder the leg workout.
Here we go. The mother lode. The true Goliath of the swimming world. Big, bad, butterfly. Butterfly is for the one who wants to do it all. Butterfly is leg day, shoulder day, chest day and back day, with a gut check on the side.
Butterfly is a difficult stroke and, for us non-Olympians, it’s not always pretty. But don’t let that deter you. Swimming a few laps of butterfly is arguably one of the best full-body workouts you will ever experience. It just takes a little practice.
For starters, in the butterfly stroke, the full length of your body moves in one fluid motion. It should feel like each stroke is a giant ripple running from the tips of your fingers down to your toes. Your stroke starts with your arms. In butterfly, your arms move together. Like in freestyle, they come out of the water in a pinwheel motion and then pull the water behind you toward your hips. The difference is, in butterfly, you move both arms forward at the same time, reaching forward so your hands meet in front of your body. As you reach forward, use your core and your legs to create that ripple motion. Reach your arms wide for this stroke, keeping them shoulder-width apart as you pull back.
The leg movement for butterfly is a dolphin kick. Your legs move up and down together, like you’re imitating a dolphin. An important tip for butterfly: Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Think of your kick as an extension of your stroke, not two separate motions. And whatever you do, DO NOT let your hips sink. Keeping these in mind will help you stay afloat (literally) and will make your stroke more efficient, allowing you to swim further without fatigue.
Breathing for butterfly is also a bit of a challenge. Like kicking, butterfly breathing should be a continuity of your stroke. As you bring your arms down to your sides, push against the water with your hands to lift your head out of the water. When you breathe, keep your chin down. It may seem like you can take in more air with your head tilted up, but doing so actually starts to contract your airways, causing you to take in less air. You will also expend more energy by craning your head back, with no added benefit to your workout. When swimming butterfly, breathe every two or three strokes.
Like I said, butterfly does it all. It works your chest, shoulders, lats, back and core as well as your glutes, hamstrings, calves and the tibialis muscles on the fronts of your shins. Reaching your arms forward for this stroke — and in such a wide stance — requires your chest muscles, shoulder muscles and upper back muscles to work together. When you pull your arms down, your lats pair with your shoulders (delts and traps) to push water behind you. As you do this, your body is fulfilling the ‘ripple’ motion using your lower back and your core. As the ripple gets to your legs, your hamstrings and calves take over. After the ripple, your gluteal and tibialic muscles kick your legs back up, leading back into your stroke.
Like any workout, swimming is what you make of it. You can choose to take it easy —swimming ten laps at a leisurely pace — or you can treat it like a circuit lift — sprinting one lap ten times with a ten-second break after each lap. Once you know which muscles you are targeting, you can emphasize individual movements. Want to focus on your legs? Kick harder and go easy on your stroke. Want to build your lats? Exaggerate the pullback on your arm stroke. Swimming gives you maximum control over your workout.
Located in the James E. Martin Aquatics Center, Auburn has two indoor lap pools that are open to members throughout the week. Generally, open swim is from 5:45-7:45 a.m., 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-7:45 p.m. during the week and 2-4:45 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Hours may vary, so check the schedule before you go.
Have any questions about swimming styles or strokes? Comment below or message us on social media @AuburnCampusRec.
Be well, Auburn.
Photography: Jack P.
Born and raised in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, Abby is majoring in graphic design. She’s an extrovert and will grab any chance she can to play outside and spend time with friends. She strives to always enjoy life like a kid, even as she continues to step further into adulthood.
Abby hopes to use her design talents as an opportunity to glorify the God who has given her these talents. As written in the Auburn Creed, Abby believes in work, hard work. She pushes herself to work diligently in all that she does, as she believes we are all called to do.