Swimming is simply one of the best exercises for weight loss. In fact, you can burn up to 500 calories an hour just swimming freestyle laps in a pool. That’s up to 1200 calories per hour if you’re doing strenuous backstroke laps. Plus, swimming strengthens your muscles and helps reduce cellulite build up (which has nothing to do with water retention).
Tips for swimming to lose weight
Whether you’re swimming to lose belly fat, increase muscle tone, or just change up your workout, here’s how to get the best results.
1. Swim in the morning before eating
A morning swim isn’t feasible for everyone, but it’s worth a try if you can access a pool before work.
“Waking up in the morning and going for your swim will leave your body in a fasted state ready to utilize those fat stores as energy,” explains Nick Rizzo, a trainer and fitness director at RunRepeat.com, an athletic shoe review site. “Swimming isn’t only a great form of cardio, but it’s a full-body workout as well, so you can expect some great results.”
2. Swim harder and faster
Swimming burns a lot of calories when you’re just starting out. But as your swimming skills improve and you become more efficient, your heart rate doesn’t increase as much, warns Paul Johnson, founder of CompleteTri.com, a website providing guidance, tips, and gear reviews for swimmers, triathletes, and fitness enthusiasts.
The solution, according to Johnson, is to swim harder and faster to keep your heart rate up.
Wear a waterproof fitness tracker to monitor your heart rate while swimming. Your target heart rate during a moderate-intensity workout should be about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
3. Take a swim class
Learning proper stroke techniques can help you swim at a moderate pace. Contact a community center or YMCA for information on swim lessons, or sign up for a class through the American Red Cross.
4. Switch up your swim routine
If you swim at the same speed and use the same technique over and over again, your body may eventually hit a plateau.
Stepping outside your comfort zone and modifying your routine is an excellent way to utilize different muscle groups, helping to maximize your results.
5. Swim four to five days a week
To lose weight, the more physically active you are, the better. This applies whether you’re jogging, walking, using cardio equipment, or swimming.
The frequency of swimming for weight loss is the same as other cardiovascular exercises, so aim for four to five days a week for the best results, according to Jamie Hickey, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with Truism Fitness.
6. Start slow
Start with 15 to 20 minute swims every other day, and then gradually increase to 30 minute swims five days a week, as your body allows. If you start a new swimming routine at too high an intensity, muscle soreness and fatigue could cause you to give up.
7. Alternate swimming with water aerobics
You don’t have to swim every day to see results. Take a water aerobics class on your off days. This is an excellent low-stress exercise to keep moving on active recovery days.
8. Swim with a float or pool noodle
If you’re not a strong swimmer, swim laps in the pool using a pool noodle, kick board, or life vest. These will keep you afloat as you use your arms and legs to move through the water.
9. Use water weights
If you’re swimming to lose weight and tone up, do a few bicep curls with water dumbbells in between laps. The water creates resistance, which can help build strength and endurance.
10. Adjust your diet
With any weight loss program, you must burn more calories than you take in, swimming is no exception.
“If your aim is to lose a few pounds, you still need to make adjustments to your diet,” mentions Keith McNiven, founder of the personal training company Right Path Fitness.
“And be careful. Swimming takes a lot of energy, so you’ll need to refuel with food. Also, the cold water can cause your appetite to increase substantially after a session.”
If you’re feeling hungrier, McNiven recommends adding more vegetables to your plate, grabbing a protein shake, and staying away from snacking.
Swimming strokes to help you lose weight
Keep in mind that different swim strokes can result in a greater calorie burn, depending on the muscles being worked. So experiment with various routines to keep your muscles and body guessing.
Swim freestyle one day, and the next day do the butterfly stroke. “The butterfly stroke is the most demanding, working the entire body and will burn the most calories,” says Hickey. “The breaststroke would come in second, and the backstroke third.”
Mixing up the intensity of your workout also has great results, notes Rizzo. He recommends sprint interval training, which consists of sprints for 30 seconds, followed by four minutes of rest.
This can be full on rest, or you can continue to swim at an intensity of 1 out of 10, repeating four to eight times, he says. “It doesn’t sound like much but remember, you were going 100 percent during those entire 30 seconds. It is demanding to say the least, but effective. You can switch between different swimming styles or strokes, or keep it pretty straightforward.”
Can swimming help you lose belly fat?
Remember, any activity that burns calories will help you shed fat all over—including around your middle. Certain swimming exercises also target your core specifically, like flutter kicks (lower abs) and butterfly kicks (obliques). In fact, a 2015 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that women who swam three times a week shed more fat around their waists and hips compared to those who walked three times a week.
Another big benefit: Water-based workouts are low-impact, so they tend to be easier on your hips, knees, and feet. “Swimming can give you cardio and muscle building without the heavy wear and tear on your body that you might get from a ground-based activity like running,” Caprio says.
How much do you have to swim to lose weight?
It all depends on how intense your workout is. Swimming vigorously for an hour burns around 800 calories. Do that four times a week, and you could lose three or four pounds in a month. (You need to burn 3,500 calories to lose one pound.)
Prefer a less intense approach? Swimming at a moderate pace for 30 minutes burns around 250 calories. Do that four times a week, and in a month, you’ll lose a little more than a pound.
But every body is different, and research suggests that some people lose more or less weight than others—even when they do the same amount of exercise. However, making exercises, like swimming, a part of your regular routine can help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. If you’re trying to drop pounds, consider aiming to do moderate or vigorous exercises like swimming for around an hour a day.
What does a swimming workout look like?
There are swimming workouts for every level, but here’s what a beginner’s time in the water may look like:
Beginner swim workout: 500 yards
4 x 25 yards, 40 seconds rest in between
2 x 25 yards butterfly with 2 strokes right and 2 strokes left arm
2 x 25 yards backstroke with 2 strokes right and 2 strokes left arm
2 x 25 yards breaststroke with 1 stroke and 2 kicks
2 x 25 yards freestyle stroke catchup (keep one arm outstretched while the other strokes and touches the hand on the opposite arm)
Do two rounds of the following, making a faster interval for the second round (or taking less rest).
1 x 50 yards
2 x 25 yards
How to get the most out of your swimming workout
Swimming for exercise might be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but getting started is easy. Here are some expert tips:
Start with a simple stroke. Breaststroke and freestyle are the easiest to master, so they tend to work well for beginners, says former USA Swimming national competitor Stella Metsovas. Once you get those down, you can experiment with more challenging ones like backstroke or butterfly.
Get a kickboard. Tight hips can make kicking feel tough and even uncomfortable. But you can loosen up and expand your range of motion by doing laps with a kickboard, Metsovas says.
Add some speed. Intervals are a great way to increase the intensity of your workout and burn more calories, Metsovas says. Try going hard and fast for one lap and recovering at a slower pace for two laps, repeating as desired.
Check your breathing. The wrong breathing technique can make it harder to get into a rhythm and tire you out faster. “Many people will lift their head too high each time they breathe and it disrupts the flow of their stroke,” Caprio says. Try practicing turning your head just enough so you can take a breath from your mouth without actually lifting your head out of the water, she recommends.
Ready to dive in? Check your neighborhood pool, nearby gym, or local YMCA to see if they have a pool available to use. When the weather gets warmer, consider making a trip to the nearest beach or lake a few days a week to squeeze a swim in.
Then, stock up on the swimming gear below (and don’t forget to grab a cute coverup!)
How can you burn more calories while swimming?
There are several ways you can burn more calories swimming. Try these ideas next time you want a more challenging workout.
- Increase resistance. You can increase resistance in the water by adding flippers, resistance bands, or buoys. Any items that makes it harder for you to kick and stroke through the water will increase your strength.
- Change up your stroke. The type of stroke you use also makes a huge difference, with studies showing that butterfly burns the most calories, closely followed by breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle. It’s not easy to do an hour of butterfly, though, so instead, Gagne recommends a combination of all the different strokes. In your workouts, aim to do your harder strokes for a minute or two at a time, and then sub in freestyle for when you get completely exhausted as an active recovery.
- Incorporate intervals. HIIT intervals can help you burn more calories when you swim, since the faster you go, the more challenging the workout. “Research from the American College of Sports Medicine estimates that a 155-pound person swimming freestyle fast for an hour will burn 704 calories, as compared to 493 calories swimming at a slower pace,” says Gagne. However, since you probably won’t be able to swim that fast nonstop, incorporating intervals will help. For example, swimming as many lengths as fast as you can for 30 seconds, with a 30 second break in between. Breaking up your workout into sets of specific intervals allows you to maintain a higher rate of speed and stroke form, which will help you improve your performance and the amount of calories burned.
- Work out with a swim coach. “A swim coach can also help you create a workout plan and incorporate breath exercises so that you can slowly build up your time and speed over the course of a few months,” says Gagne, which will lead to more calories burn in the pool. “Getting started is probably the hardest part, especially if you’re not an experienced swimmer,” says Gagne. But a coach can help you move past any fear or hesitation so that swimming can become a fun, go-to workout for you.