How to start swimming for exercise
Swimming is the new gym. But it’s also a form of modern meditation and there’s nothing quite like a swim to help achieve the equilibrium required for a healthy body and mind.
The hypnotic rhythm of the stroke-and-breathe lulls you into a serene state and physiologically you benefit from one of the best total-body workouts there is.
“Swimming is something most people can get into because it isn’t an impact sport,” biokineticist Jaco van Onselen says. That’s why this low-impact activity is used for rehab during injury and is a safe form of exercise throughout pregnancy.
“Plus exercising in water is good resistance training that benefits most of your muscle groups,” Jaco says. “The core muscles in particular grow stronger.”
Strengthening the core muscles in and around your back and stomach is a good exercise goal because these muscles work to support the spine and keep the body stable.
Weak core muscles can contribute to lower-back pain or lead to unpleasant injuries if other muscles start overcompensating for a weak core.
On the flip side healthy core muscles improve sports performance and lengthen muscles, improving your posture as you grow older.
A further advantage is that a swimming session makes your cartilage more flexible, specifically by unlocking the joints in the neck, hips, shoulders and limbs.
The practicalities of taking the plunge
For a structured training programme and expert advice, a swim club or school would be the most obvious entry point. But always check that your instructor is a qualified trainer. Also check whether his or her CPR qualification is current.
A professional instructor can certainly help you perfect your technique in a few dedicated lessons but these days many upmarket gyms in bigger centres have Olympic-sized pools where you can train and hone your skills.
If you start swimming as an adult and want to swim to stay fit, it’s fine to start on your own if you have a basic idea of the various strokes and techniques.
But if you’re more serious about swimming and would like to include it in your fitness routine and get the full workout benefit, it might be wise to get an instructor – either for a few weeks while you familiarise yourself with the various strokes and techniques or for longer if you want to continue improving or start swimming competitively.
Make sure your training plan is practical and sustainable. In other words, it needs to fit into your life and shouldn’t interfere with work, family time or rest. Three weekly pool sessions should do the trick.
Swimming utilises all the major muscle groups. Although you can use specific strokes to target individual muscles, you'll generally get an all-over workout regardless of which stroke you use.
1. Front crawl and freestyle
Front crawl is the most basic stroke and is ideal for all ages. It's a good starting point as the simplicity of the technique helps you to focus on other factors such as breathing. Beginners are often confused between the front crawl and freestyle.
The front crawl is a swimming stroke in which you're face-down and you use alternate arm pulls and recovering arms above the water. The legs kick down alternately from the hips and breathing is done by turning the head to the side. Freestyle as it is known today is a speed-swimming term for swim meets. In a freestyle race you can swim any way you wish (butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke) but the most common freestyle stroke is the front crawl. Why? Because it's the fastest.
Muscles used: Front crawl predominantly uses the thigh muscles.
Good for swimmers of all ages, particularly beginners who want to build stamina and people with shoulder injuries.
This popular stroke for recreational swimmers is done while leaning on the chest with the legs always in the water. The head is underwater for the second part of the stroke.
Breaststroke is the slowest competitive stroke because the arm and leg recovery create frontal resistance. Learning how to glide is important because it will help you get the timing of the stroke right and minimises turbulence.
Muscles used: All major muscle groups including the hamstrings, quadriceps, abdominals, glutes, biceps and triceps.
Good for all swimmers except those with knee injuries – much of the speed comes from the whip kick. The tension in the knee ligament increases as the knee moves from being bent to being extended and might make injuries worse.
It's something like an upside-down front crawl. You lie flat on your back with arms stretched in the direction you're going and legs extended in the opposite direction. The leg movement is similar to the kick in the front crawl. The disadvantage is that you can't see where you're going.
But a big advantage is the ease of breathing.
Muscles used: Muscle groups that are used less in the other strokes such as the lower abdominals. It also works the triceps and leg muscles.
Good for beginners and advanced swimmers alike. Perfecting backstroke isn't difficult and it can be more relaxing than other strokes (but you must be comfortable on your back).
This stroke involves a windmill-like movement of both arms in unison. But it can be challenging to keep your shoulders in line with the surface of the water and make arm and leg movements simultaneously.
Muscles used: Abdominals, deltoids and leg muscles.
Good for more experienced swimmers. It’s difficult to master so coaching is essential.
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