Need a Low-Impact Workout for Weight Loss? Get in the Pool. (2023)

If you're looking to change up your exercise routine this summer and get the same calorie-burning benefits of walking, consider swimming workouts. Swimming offers a great mix of cardiovascular and strength training in one workout, helping you burn calories and build muscle. And thanks to water's buoyancy, it makes an excellent low-impact workout for those who are recovering from an injury or have joint pain.

Bringing your workout to the water can also challenge your body in new ways. Water adds another element of resistance, forcing you to recruit more muscles to stay afloat and maintain form while also training your body to use oxygen wisely.

Haley Anderson, an Arena-sponsored, Olympic swimmer for Team USA, and the first American woman to win a an Olympic medal in open water swimming, explains, "Swimming is one of the best workouts you can do because it's full-body work. It's all about using your core, legs, and arms together. Some people forget to keep their core engaged, but it actually keeps your whole body connected."

What also makes swim workouts a great measure of strength and endurance is its use of time. "It's really easy for someone to track their progress because it's a timed sport," Anderson says. "You can compare your time from your previous practice. It's easy to push yourself and make things harder by using rest and lack of rest."

Whether you're looking to dial up the intensity or make it a more meditative experience, swimming can take the form of metabolic conditioning with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or low intensity, steady state (LISS).

"For example, if you're a beginner swimmer, try swimming 25 yards and then take a 30-second rest. Do it again and build up from there," Anderson says. But before you dive into the water, it's important to keep these form tips in mind.

How to do four common swimming strokes

There are many different swimming strokes out there, but if you're a beginner, these competitive strokes are best for getting a total-body workout because they incorporate every major muscle group. Depending on the type of stroke you're swimming, you could be using your upper body more than your legs. "Swimming longer distances in freestyle, for instance, uses more of your upper body. You want to recruit more of your lats, shoulders, and arms when you pull down. Your hands come way in front of your head so you can reach forward," Anderson explains. Here's a quick break down of the most common swimming strokes—and how to do them with proper form.

Need a Low-Impact Workout for Weight Loss? Get in the Pool. (5)

How to swim freestyle: There are three main arm positions in a freestyle stroke: the catch, the finish, and the entry. The catch is after your hand enters the water and starts to pull. The finish is when your hand is exiting the water at your hip, and the entry is when your hand is coming back around to start a new stroke. "It's important to enter the water at shoulder width and extend as far as you can to cover the most distance," Anderson says.

To do a freestyle stroke, stretch both arms out above your head with your hands tilted 45 degrees in the water. Then, press one hand down and out in the water with your fingers spread out for the catch. As you stroke the water, rotate your body towards the arm that's moving and move your hand back past your hips so your elbow forms a 45-degree angle when your hand exits the water. Then, bring your arm back around and make sure your hand enters the water well past your head. Putting your hand back in the water just above your head will slow you down and create a drag. Alternate arms while maintaining a straight line with your body and doing small, steady kicks with your feet.

Think of using your arms to pull your body forward and kick your feet just below the surface to push through water faster, Anderson says. Be sure to also keep your lower body parallel to the bottom of the pool and don't let your hips sink. Engaging your core and rotating your hips will help keep your lower half afloat and provide more power to your stroke when your arms and legs start to fatigue.

Need a Low-Impact Workout for Weight Loss? Get in the Pool. (6)

How to swim butterfly: As one of the most difficult swimming strokes, the butterfly is all about the arms and the kicks. The butterfly stroke has three different arm movements: the pull, the push, and the recovery. Just like the freestyle stroke, lie flat on the water and extend your hands above your head as far as you can, keeping them shoulder-width apart. Then, pull both hands at your sides toward your body, keeping your elbows higher than your hands, as you push your hands against water past your hips. At the recovery, sweep both arms out of the water at the same time and bring them to the starting position.

After nailing down the arm movements, you want to practice the kicks. There are two kicks in a butterfly stroke—a down kick and an up kick. Also known as the dolphin kick, your legs and feet should press and move together. The first kick is smaller and happens when you pull your hands toward your body and the second kick is bigger and happens as you push your hands past your hips. You also want your entire body to move in an undulating, wave-like shape as you swim in water, so when your chest is higher, your hips should be lower and vice versa. This will help you propel faster through water when your arms and legs begin to tire out.

How to swim backstroke: Lie flat on the surface of the water as much as possible with your hips up, arms at your sides, and your head and body in a straight line. The top of your head should face the direction you're moving towards. Your face should be half submerged in water, with your ears and the sides of your face just below the surface—but don't tuck your chin. Keeping your legs straight and together, flutter kick your legs. Then, extend one arm up toward the sky and swing it over your head, so your fingers point towards the direction you're moving to. Alternate arms as you go. "Make sure when you enter your hand in the water above your head, your hand is turned with your pinky entering first. As you pull your hand, try to exit the water by pushing and finishing at your hip," Anderson says.

Need a Low-Impact Workout for Weight Loss? Get in the Pool. (8)

How to swim breaststroke: Lie on water with your arms stretched above your head and your fingers pointed toward the wall in front of you. With your palms down, form a V with your thumbs and index fingers. Keep your head down toward the bottom of the pool with your toes pointing to the wall behind you. Start kicking by pointing your feet towards your body so that your heels move toward your butt. Once your heels reach your butt, keep your knees bent slightly shoulder-distance apart and then extend your legs straight back out behind you, bringing them together.

To bring your arms into play, turn your palms outward and push your hands down and out in the water. As your arms form a Y in the water, bend your elbows to bring your hands down toward your mouth. After each stroke, lift your head, neck, and chest out of the water to breathe but keep your hands in the water.

3 swim workouts for every fitness level

Now that you know how to master the four different competitive strokes, you're ready to dive into a workout. Based on your skill level, choose one of these three workouts designed by Anderson. For reference, most lap pools are 25 yards.

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

Intermediate swim workout: 1,000 yards

4 x 50 yards swim/kick
8 x 50 yards swim 2 of each stroke

Do four rounds of the following workout. (Try to take short rest after 75 yards for about 15 seconds and take more rest after the 25 yards)

1 x 75 yards
1 x 25 yards

Advanced swim workout: 1,500 yards

8 x 50 yards swim/kick, 30 seconds rest in between. On the odd numbered laps, take it easy and on the even numbered laps, go hard.
4 x 100 yards IM (individual medley, which includes all 4 strokes) drill, 30 seconds rest in between
2 x 100 yards (Use a kick board for first 100 yards and the second 100 yards without a board)
1 x 100 yards, 20 seconds rest (each 100 yards gets faster through the third time)
2 x 50 yards non freestyle stroke, 30 seconds rest
1 x 100 yards, 15 seconds rest
2 x 50 yards non freestyle stroke, 30 seconds rest
1 x 100

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Need a Low-Impact Workout for Weight Loss? Get in the Pool. (9)

Tiffany Ayuda

Tiffany Ayuda, a senior editor at Prevention and certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise, has specialized in fitness, health, and general wellness topics in her previously editorial roles at Life by Daily Burn, Everyday Health, and South Beach Diet. Tiffany’s work has also appeared in the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, PopSugar Beauty, Yahoo! Health, Health, and NBC News Better. When she’s not running or breaking a sweat with HIIT, Tiffany is cooking up healthy meals in her Brooklyn kitchen.

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