Photo Credit:
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Your Lap Swimming Workout

A great session in the pool can provide an effective cardio and strength routine—the key is perfecting your form
Written by 
Sharon Liao
Updated on: 
June 6, 2014

While walking with friends or hopping on a cardio machine might be your routine exercise choice, there are many reasons why lap swimming has gained popularity and become a go-to workout for many: It engages your entire body, burns calories (around 200-300 per hour), and it can help strengthen your heart and lower stress levels. Plus, the water’s resistance helps strengthen your muscles, too, while its buoyancy supports about 90 percent of your bodyweight—a helpful bonus if you’re susceptible to injury or suffer from aches and pains due to issues like arthritis.    

“Swimming is a lifelong activity that you can enjoy at any age.”

You don’t need be an Olympian to lap swim, but there are some things to keep in mind that can make the difference between a fun dip in the pool and an effective workout:

Fine Tune Your Form

How your body is positioned in the water is paramount to how efficiently you’ll complete laps and work your muscles. For a smooth, successful lap swimming stroke:  

  • Stay horizontal. It’s important that your body remain flat on top of the water, almost as if you’re skimming the surface. Practice staying balanced: Dip your chest into the water to raise your hips and straighten out your body. Keep your head relaxed at about a 45-degree angle, with your hairline right at the waterline.
  • Reach far. With each stroke, reach your arm way out ahead of you, rolling your body to the same side so it’s slightly diagonal in the water. Your hand should be tilted at a 45-degree angle, fingers together, with your thumb and forefinger entering the water first.
  • Dig deep. Curl your hand as you pull yourself forward; it should almost feel like you’re grabbing hold of the water. Finish your stroke so that your arm is fully extended and your hand is close to your upper thigh.  
  • Kick from your hips. Bending your knees to kick means that you’re only using the bottom half of your legs to propel yourself. Instead, keep your legs relatively straight as you use your gluteal and upper thigh muscles to kick. To avoid creating resistance, relax your feet so they feel loose and lightly point your toes toward the back wall.

Switch Things Up

Varying your lap swimming workouts prevents you—and your muscles—from getting bored. To ensure that you’re constantly challenging yourself:

  • Change your pace. Instead of swimming for 40 minutes straight, break up your workout into shorter, more intense segments with rests in between—an interval method that can increase your calorie burn. For example, after a few slow warm-up laps, swim four medium-paced laps and rest for 30 seconds. Repeat five to eight times, sprinting the final lap during your last two sets of four.
     
  • Use different strokes. While swimming is always a total-body workout, changing strokes can work different muscles. Once you feel comfortable with your freestyle form, start incorporating breaststroke (emphasizing your back, chest and gluteal muscles), backstroke (engaging your back, triceps and quadriceps) and butterfly (great for your upper chest and shoulder muscles) into your swim sessions.
     
  • Add distance. Whether completing 1 or 50 laps is challenging for you, adding a few extra trips up and down the pool can build up your endurance. 

Use a Prop

One of the wonderful things about swimming is its simplicity—all you need is a swimsuit, cap and goggles. But you can also benefit from including these tools:

  • Kickboard: This popular piece of pool equipment keeps your upper body afloat so that you can focus on your kick and improve leg strength. To use a kickboard properly, hold it out in front of you, arms extended and hands grasping the sides about halfway up the board. As you kick, keep your face in the water, lifting it to breathe as needed. Try various styles—breaststroke kick, back kick—to work different leg muscles.
     
  • Training Paddles: Strap these thin pieces of plastic on your hands to better propel yourself through the water. Wearing paddles also exaggerates your movements, which can highlight weaknesses in your stroke and encourage you to make some changes, like raising your elbows higher during your freestyle stroke. (Check with your doctor before using these if you have shoulder problems.)
     
  • Pull Buoy: This peanut-shaped piece of foam is placed between your thighs to float your legs on the surface of the water. With them kept still, you can use your arms and shoulders propel you, building your upper-body strength.
     
  • Fins: Typically thought of as snorkeler gear, fins create drag that can help strengthen your legs and ankles. They also increase your speed and make swimming easier, which can help when learning more difficult strokes like butterfly. Plus, if your feet tend to feel tight and rigid, wearing fins offers a nice stretch and can improve flexibility. 
“Swimming is a lifelong activity that you can enjoy at any age.”
Reference(s) 
American Council on Exercise
Harvard Health Publications
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health
The American Journal of Sports Medicine
About the author 
Sharon Liao is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and editor specializing in health, nutrition and fitness. She contributes to many print and online publications, including Real Simple, Better Homes & Gardens and Fitness.