Can Swimming Give You Abs? (The facts and road to success)

Revealing a set of well-toned abdominal muscles is often a key goal for many swimmers. Building well defined abdominal muscles is a hard thing to do, and it’s easy to put your energy into the wrong thing.

As a general rule, swimming alone will not easily reveal abdominal muscles (abs) for the average swimmer. Swimming can tone abdominal muscle, but to truly reveal a six-pack, external factors such as reducing body fat mass using diet and building muscle through abdominal targeted exercises is required.

In this article, I want to explore the facts about building abdominal muscle through swimming and find out the fastest and most efficient road to success.

I will explore:

  • How swimming helps people get abs
  • Is swimming alone enough to get abs?
  • What is the best stroke to build swimmer’s abs
  • Swimming exercises for abs – how do I get swimmer’s abs?

How Swimming Helps People Get Abs

It is easy to believe that swimming alone can give you abs, as all professional swimmers have toned abdominal muscles.

Michael Phelps is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes of all time and his perfect swimmer’s body is often featured in fitness magazines. His abdominal workout regime is routinely asked about so the rest of us can learn his secrets.

Although learning from greats such as Michael Phelps is inspirational, when it comes to the reality of trying to swim to build abs, most of us cannot replicate the lifestyle of Michael Phelps.

For the average swimmer to work towards the goal of building defined abdominal muscle, it is important to understand how swimming helps with abdominal development and what we can do outside of the pool to achieve our goal.

Calorie & Fat Burner

The first step to revealing and building toned abdominal muscles is to lose fat.

We all have abs, but for most of us, you can’t see them as they are hidden under layers of fat.

To lose weight, we need to restrict our food intake and burn calories.

Swimming is a great workout to burn calories, but how many calories you burn will depend on factors such as:

  1. Stroke Style – all stroke styles burn different amounts of calories, with the breaststroke and the butterfly being the best calorie burning swim styles.
  2. The Level Of Intensity – How hard you push yourself will determine how many calories you will burn. For example, an intense 30min swim will burn more calories than a relaxed 2 hour paddle.
  3. Body Weight – The heavier you are, the more calories you will burn as you are moving more physical mass.
  4. Workout Duration – Longer intense swims will naturally burn more calories.

To learn more about swimming to lose belly fat, including weight goals, I have covered this in greater depth in my article, How Long Should I Swim For? Times, Distances & Weight Loss Goals.

Aimlessly swimming to lose weight will be a long process, as you also need to restrict what you eat. However, as it is a fun and good calorie-burning exercise, it is a good sport to burn the calories.

Body Fat Percentage For Abs

It is important to burn fat to reveal abs.

Through the book “The Fast 800” by Dr Michael Mosley, I learned that burning fat reserves is a real thing and there is a tried and tested approach to burn belly fat.

The body has two sources of energy stores – sugar and fat.

The body prefers to burn sugar first, so if you keep your sugar stores filled, your body will never move on to burning fat.

I learned that the choice of food I was eating was causing me to gain weight despite swimming a mile a day, 5 days a week.

Basically, I was eating lots of pasta, potatoes and “white” carb foods that kept my sugar stores high. When I needed energy in the pool, my swim session would just burn off my last carb meal and nothing else.

I learned from Dr Michael Mosley’s research that by eating well and cutting down my intake of white refined carbs, my body soon burnt up my sugar stores and then moved on to burning my fat stores instead. [source]

When our body switches from burning sugar (glucose) to burning fat (ketones) for energy, we can enter the stage of “ketosis”.

This fat-burning ketosis stage is when the fat will melt away with every swim and you will have the best chance of revealing those well-toned, yet hidden abs.

To have a level of body fat that will reveal abs, here are the body fat percentage targets you need to aim for. [source]

GenderBody Fat Percentage For AbsComments
Male10% to 14%This is a lean body that is healthy, and abs will be visible.
Female15% to 19%An athletic build with a distinct abdominal definition.

Muscle Tone

Swimming in water creates resistance for the muscles, which will build strength and muscle tone.

If you are looking to “bulk up” and grow big muscles, then you need to hit the gym, as swimming is a low-impact sport that will not give your muscles the workout needed to get big and bulky.

To build large muscle, you need to lift progressively heavier weights with time. In swimming, you are only pulling your own body mass through the water so you won’t get that heavy workout needed for muscle bulk.

However, if your goal is muscle tone and good fundamental strength, then swimming is a great exercise to help us tone up our abs.

Is Swimming Alone Enough To Get Abs?

Swimming alone is not enough to get abs and should be used in conjunction with diet and dry land abdominal muscle exercises in order to build abdominal muscle definition.

Besides regular swimming, to succeed at gaining abs you should consider the following:

Low Carb Diet

To get abdominal muscle definition, you need to attack belly fat.

Beneath the layers of fat, you may have a strong core which we will never see unless you lose belly fat.

I always thought that losing belly fat was impossible, and I have fallen for crazy “kill belly fat” diets in the past.

After much trial and failure, I have finally found a brilliant solution that worked for me and knocked 3 inches off my belly fat diameter in just four weeks.

The method was simple – I cut out high carb foods such as white rice, potatoes, bread and pasta from my diet with incredible results.

To be honest, the first four days of eating normally, just without white carbs, almost drove me crazy. Your mind goes a little wild and starts craving carbs really badly.

I have learned that by doing carb restriction, you can flip your internal metabolic switch from burning sugar to burning fat, and you go into a state of ketosis. [source]

After I got through the initial low carb transition, I had so much more energy and felt great. All exercise seemed to knock off pounds.

By carefully following a carb-restricted diet, you can get into fat-burning mode and start moving that belly fat to reveal your swimmer’s abs.

To learn more about how you can lose belly fat safely and quickly, following the advice of a medical Doctor, check out this book by Dr Michael Mosley – “The Fast 800: How to combine rapid weight loss and intermittent fasting for long-term health

Dry land Ab Targeted Exercises

In addition to working on abdominal specific training in the pool, you can try abdominal targeted exercises on land.

Here is a video demonstration of six exercises to build your abs, including:

  1. Splitnter Sit-Ups
  2. Scissor Leg Lifts
  3. Reverse Belly Crunches
  4. Russian Twists
  5. Planking
  6. Sliding Pike

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training is a fantastic way to work out for the best results in the shortest amount of time.

As the name suggests, it involves going full pelt for a limited amount of time. Your muscles and lungs will burn after as little as 5 minutes.

One study showed that young men who performed HIIT training for 20 minutes three times per week lost an average of 4.4 pounds (2 kg) and saw a 17% decrease in belly fat over a 12-week period. [source]

The great thing about HIIT training is that you can still do HITT exercises in the swimming pool.

I have given a high-intensity fat-burning pool exercise that takes less than 10 minutes in my article, How Long Should I Swim For? Times, Distances & Weight Loss Goals

What Is The Best Stroke To Get Swimmer Abs?

Although all swimming is great for body tone, the butterfly is the most effective swim stroke for building swimmer’s abs.

Unfortunately, swimming the butterfly is not always practical in your local public pool. It is a dynamic stroke that moves a lot of water and typically you need sufficient space to swim the butterfly.

An alternative to the butterfly is the breaststroke.

Breaststroke is a good calorie burner. In addition, if done with a high level of intensity and effort, you can get your abdominal muscles working hard.

Finally, using swimming aids such as a kickboard is a good way to target your abdominal muscles.

Simply hold the kickboard out in front of yourself and use your leg kicks only to propel yourself forward in the water. This is a very effective exercise to target abdominal muscles.

Swimming Exercises For Abs – How Do I Get Swimmer Abs?

Swimming is a great sport to isolate and target specific muscle groups.

Use A Kick Board

Using a kickboard is a great way to develop swim kicking technique while working on core strength.

How much you kick while you swim will depend on your personal style, and swim stroke. However, you can use a kickboard to remove all contributions from your arms and rely 100% on your legs.

Using a kickboard is very difficult at first, and you will feel your muscles burn.

Here is a good demonstration of how to use a kickboard while swimming:

Flutter Kick Using The Wall

If you are not used to doing 6-beat flutter kicks as part of your freestyle stroke, you can hold on to the pool wall and practice your flutter kick.

This will allow you to kick repeatedly, in a safe area without sinking or risk burning out mid-pool.

This is a great cardio workout and will help build your core strength.

Here is a demonstration video on how you do the flutter kick as part of the freestyle stroke. If you want to know more about the different types of kicks in swimming, check out my article, What Are The Types Of Kicks In Swimming? (With examples)

Jogging tones many muscles of your body and it is possible to jog in the water.

This is a fun exercise to do with a friend, as you can lightly jog up and down the pool (assuming the water is only waist deep), and have a friendly conversation.

It is amazing how quickly time flies when you do this exercise with a friend.

The jogging movement and gentle resistance of the water are great for toning core muscles.

The Butterfly Stroke

The butterfly stroke is one of the best swim strokes to burn calories and build core strength.

However, the butterfly stroke is not commonly seen in local public pools as:

  1. It is an elite swim stroke and typically one of the last strokes you learn as a swimmer, therefore not every swimmer knows how to do this stroke.
  2. It is a dynamic stroke that moves a lot of water and requires space, making it unsuitable for shared lane swimming in a public pool unless you are really smooth.

If you have the space to swim the butterfly, it is the best stroke to define abs and reveal your swimmer’s body.

Treading Water & Aqua Fitness Workouts

Treading water is the art of keeping one’s head above the water for a long period, in a relatively stationary position without swimming forward.

It is a great survival skill and essential to know in case you find yourself out of your depth and unable to swim.

When done correctly, a swimmer can tread water for a long time without expending too much energy. However, if you want to get a full-body workout, you can incorporate aqua fitness workouts to help tone your muscles.

It is also a great workout option for busy public pools, as you can find a corner and just tread water, getting a full-body workout without competing for lane space.

Emma Moore

Hi, I am Emma, and I am obsessed with all watersports, from swimming to surfing and everything in between. I spend my free time in the water or preparing for my next water travel adventure.

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