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Muscles Used When Swimming: Styles, Strokes, and More!

Swimming is one of those types of exercises that can be surprisingly quite demanding and exhausting, even after a brief session. It incorporates the use of many different muscle groups; however, due to the complexity of swimming, a lot of people may be left uncertain as to what muscles are used. If that’s your case, you’re in the right place! 

When swimming, we use almost all the muscles in our body, especially our shoulders, arms, torso, core, chest, back, hips, and leg muscles. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that specific muscles will be used in different proportions depending on the swimming style.

Also, swimming, which is an intense cardiovascular exercise, works our heart and lungs significantly. 

Here, I’d like to give you a more in-depth perspective on the importance of knowing and recognizing which muscles you use when swimming and what you need to know about them.

The Importance of Knowing Which Muscles Are Used When Swimming

If you are considering getting into swimming regularly, it’s essential to understand what consequences and advantages will it have on your body.

Some benefits of knowing which muscles are used swimming are:

1. To prevent injuries.

Understanding which muscles are going to be stressed and in what proportions during each swimming session is quite important. By knowing this, you will be able to better understand and plan which muscles need to rest.

Here is why rest is essential.

One of the most frequent reasons why injuries happen with most of the people that are into some kind of training or sport is due to repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

RSI occurs by not giving your muscles enough time to recover between different training sessions. This eventually leads to serious injuries that may take anywhere from two weeks and up to several months to fully recover from.

Swimmers frequently suffer from injuries in the shoulders, lower back, neck, and biceps areas.

2. To understand how to improve your performance.

Knowing which muscles are, mainly, used when swimming can help you focus on improving the strength and endurance of these targeted muscles; thus improving your performance under the water. Besides, you can work on enhancing your flexibility and range of motion in these areas. 

All of this can lead to more speed and better overall swimming performance.

3. To better combine swimming with building muscle or toning.

If you’re into gaining muscle and frequently hitting the gym, you may want to find ways to combine your gym training with swimming.

When you are aware of what muscles are being used when swimming, you can structure your gym workout program in combination with your swimming sessions to better suit your goals.

You will know which muscles need to rest, when they need to rest, and which muscles may need extra attention in the gym in order to develop a well-balanced body composition.

4. To know in what way swimming will develop your body.

There can be many different and valid reasons why someone will start to swim regularly. Among several reasons, it could be just to stay active, to improve endurance, to lose weight, or to stay healthy. However, if you are after aesthetics and how your body looks, you will find value in knowing which muscles are being utilized when swimming.

Swimming will alter the proportions of your body. Just take a look at most of the elite swimmers. They are usually characterized by having a broad rib cage and broad and well-developed shoulders.

That way, you can have certain expectations for how your body will develop with time, and decide if this is what you’re after.

Main Muscles Used When Swimming

We can rely on the fact that specific muscles will always be used while swimming, regardless of the swimming style. However, there are some important caveats here.

Depending on how you swim – or the different types of strokes, swimming styles, or techniques – you will be placing different amounts of stress on different muscle groups.

The muscles that will always be used while swimming, despite the style or technique, are the following (but not limited to):

  • The shoulders.
  • The abs, obliques, and lower back muscles.
  • The back muscles.
  • The quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus muscles.
  • Forearms.

But that’s not all. These are considered skeletal muscles or the muscles that we can consciously control. However, swimming will also place a high amount of intensity on two involuntary muscles.

Two of the most important muscles that can be very easily overlooked are:

  1. The heart.
  2. And the lungs.

In essence, swimming is considered a cardiovascular exercise

Being such, it has proven to be very beneficial in improving one’s heart health. In overall, cardiovascular exercises have been linked to lower blood pressure, better sleep, improved brain function, improved mood, and more.

Furthermore, swimming can lead to better lung capacity, too. One study concluded that elite swimmers generally have higher lung capacity compared to elite players in land-based sports. However, the study couldn’t find out if that was due to genetic predispositions or due to the specific type of exercise; which in the case of swimming, involves holding your breath while having enough oxygen delivered to your muscles and organs.

Muscles Used During Different Swimming Styles 

So far, we have established that certain muscle groups will always be used when we swim regardless of the swimming style.

However, the different swimming styles and techniques will place certain muscle groups under higher demand than others.

Here we will go through some of the most commonly used swimming strokes and which muscle groups they place more demand on. This is essential as it can play an important role in achieving optimal performance and recovery.

1. Muscles used in Freestyle (Front Crawl).

In case you didn’t know, rather than a stroke, freestyle is considered a category in swimming competitions, where front crawl strokes are used. It is known as one of the most efficient types of swimming techniques. As such, it will allow you to swim further while exerting less force compared to some of the other swimming styles.

While swimming freestyle you will be doing a lot of twists and turns. This will place a lot of stress and demand on the core muscles. Nevertheless, many find it quite challenging to get into the right breathing rhythm.

The main muscles used during freestyle are: 

  • Core: The abdominal muscles and obliques.
  • Arms: the forearms, triceps.
  • Deltoids (the shoulder muscles).
  • The neck muscles.
  • Trunk: the chest muscles, the trapezius muscles, the erector spinae.
  • Legs: The gluteus muscles, the hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

2. Muscles used in Backstroke.

Backstroke is, often, considered to be one of the easiest styles to learn, but at the same time, one of the most difficult to truly master.

As the name suggests, you will be swimming on your back so you will be using more of the muscles found in the posterior chain.

The main muscles used during backstroke are:

  • Trunk: Latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles.
  • Legs: Quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Arms: Biceps.
  • Shoulders.

3. Muscles used in Butterfly.

The butterfly stroke is considered one of the most physical and strength-demanding swimming styles. Although it’s not as technical as breaststroke, many beginners may find it to be the most challenging style to learn. It places incredible demand on the chest and back muscles, as well as the legs and arms.

The main muscles used during butterfly are: 

  • Trunk: Latissimus dorsi and pectoral muscles.
  • Deltoids.
  • Arms: Biceps and triceps.
  • Core: The abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back muscles.
  • Legs: Gluteus muscles, hamstrings, and calves.

4. Muscles used in Breaststroke.

Breaststroke is a slower swimming style that can be very tiring. It requires the use of excellent form and technique.

The main muscles used during breaststroke are

  • Trunk: The pectoral and latissimus dorsi muscles.
  • Legs: Quadriceps and glutes.
  • Shoulders
  • Arms: The biceps and forearm muscles.