Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better? (Explained)


swimming pool dumbbells

I have been a regular gym and swim goer and have seen the benefits of each type of workout, however; I have often wondered where I should be spending most of my time to see the best fitness returns.

Although I am biased towards swimming as it is what I love to do, going to the gym can also be addictive and very enjoyable.

Whether you choose to swim over the gym will depend on your personal goals. If your goal is to lose weight, build cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone, then swimming is the better overall option. If your goal is to build muscle mass, then hitting the gym will give better results in a shorter time.

In general, swimming tends to be the better overall option for most people as it will burn calories, give a full-body workout, build muscle tone and stamina.

In addition, swimming is a low-impact sport that is better for your joints and excellent for cardiovascular fitness.

That said, the top swimmers in the world (and nearly all competitive swimmers) will include gym and weight lifting sessions during their workweek.

Both options have their pros and cons, and at the end of the day, it will depend on your personal fitness goals.

Below is a list of the most common fitness goals. Although swimming and going to the gym both contribute to achieving these goals, I have summarised which activity type is typically considered the better option for quicker results for each specific goal.

Fitness GoalSwimmingGym [Weights & Running]
Weight LossBetter
Avoid InjuryBetter
Build MuscleBetter
Cardiovascular FitnessBetter(running still excellent)
RecoveryBetter
Full-Body WorkoutBetter

In this article, I want to explore the most common fitness goals and explain why swimming might be better than going to the gym (or vice versa) for each fitness goal.

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better For Weight Loss?

Between swimming and going to the gym, swimming is better for weight loss as you burn more calories per minute swimming than you do in the gym.

As swimming is a full-body workout, you will burn more calories in the pool for the same amount of time in the gym.

Below is a comparison of how many calories you burn swimming in comparison to common gym activities such as jogging, lifting weights and cycling. [source]

ActivityWeight Of PersonDurationCalories Burned
Swimming170lbs (77kgs)30mins300
Jogging 170lbs (77kgs) 30mins269
Weight Lifting 170lbs (77kgs) 30mins134
Cycling 170lbs (77kgs) 30mins288

In this example, swimming freestyle for 30mins will burn twice as many calories as lifting weights for 30 minutes. [source]

In addition, these estimates are for someone who weighs 170lbs (77kgs). The heavier you are, the more calories you will burn as you exercise, as you have more mass to move.

In conclusion, minute for minute, you are better off swimming for weight loss instead of going to the gym, but there are some other points to consider if weight loss is your goal, including:

  1. How intense is your workout?
  2. Do you eat a calorie balanced diet?

How Intense Is Your Workout?

The level of intensity of your swim or workout session will determine how many calories you burn.

Therefore, if you can run fast for 30 minutes but can only maintain a leisurely swim pace, in this example, you will burn more calories running as you can maintain a higher intensity for longer.

This is worth bearing in mind before you chose a leisurely swim over an intense run if burning calories is your objective.

Do You Eat A Calorie Balanced Diet?

As someone who has tried a lot of diets looking to lose weight, I have learned that what you eat is far more important than swimming laps when it comes to weight loss.

If you do not have a calorie balanced diet or load up on the carbs after an intense swim, you will not lose weight.

Swimming can make you hungry as it is such a great workout, but in order to lose weight, you need to be conscious of what you eat before and after your swim.

I have covered this topic in greater detail in my article, “Can Swimming Give You Abs?“, where I talk in greater depth about what to eat to lose, weight including what worked for me.

Watching what you eat will ensure you meet your weight loss goals both in the pool and the gym.

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better To Avoid Injury?

When it comes to swimming or going to the gym, it is widely accepted that swimming is by far the better option to reduce the risk of injury.

Swimming is a low-impact sport, which means that it does not cause excessive wear and tear on your muscles and joints.

When you run, every time your heel strikes the pavement that is causing stress, wear and tear to your joints.

With swimming, as your body is floating in the water, the only force exerted on your muscles and joints is the resistance from the water as you pull your body through it.

As a result, it is much easier to avoid injury swimming.

Of course, it is possible to get an injury from swimming if you swim excessively or have a poor body position in the water which can cause strain. However, the risk of injury from swimming is much smaller than any other sport.

Swimming is a common rehabilitation exercise recommended by health professionals to help athletes recover from injury. [source]

As you are buoyant, gravity is not as strong and you only bear about 10% of your body weight when partially immersed. [source] As your joints are conditioned to carry your own body weight, this is well within a weight safety factor for injury recovery.

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better To Build Muscle Mass?

Building muscle mass is much easier to do in the gym than in the swimming pool. If big muscles are your goal, then stick to the gym.

To build muscle mass, you must lift a lot of heavy weight. You must repeatedly lift this weight and gradually increase the weight as you progress to build muscle. This concept is known as progressive overload. [source]

The science behind progressive overload is based on progressing to lift more weight than you are used to. This will cause the muscles to increase in size and endurance.

Some ways you can push your muscles by using progressive overload is too:

  1. Increase the number of weight lifting reps
  2. Increase the resistance
  3. Increase the intensity by reducing the rest periods
  4. Increase how often you train

All these steps are intended to overload your muscles, causing them to work harder as you progress and, as a result, progress and increase in size.

In the pool, the maximum weight you can pull is your own body weight as you swim through the water.

Although swimming is fantastic for toning muscles, and I think everyone is in agreement that a swimmer’s body looks fantastic, if you are looking for muscle mass and bulk, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to do this in the pool.

There is little opportunity to increase the weight you place on your muscles as you swim, but there are some basic things you can do to help improve your strength in the pool.

Again, swimming aids which aim to improve power and muscle mass in the pool are great to tone muscles but will never compete with building muscle mass by lifting weight in the gym:

Swimming Aids To Help Muscle Tone

  • Swim Paddles – These will allow you to pull more water as you swim, increasing the weight placed on your arms
  • Swim Parachute – This is a piece of material that looks like a parachute that you drag along as you swim. The extra drag and resistance offered by the swim parachute will place your arms and body under greater resistance and, as a result, help improve muscle tone.

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better For Cardiovascular Fitness?

Swimming is fantastic for cardiovascular fitness. If you want an activity to improve your cardio and get your lungs and heart working, then swimming is a great choice.

If you swim regularly, you’ll be able to take that fitness from the pool to other land-based activities such as running or cycling, as you will have a high base level of fitness.

In order to achieve the same level of cardiovascular fitness in the gym, you will need to stick to high-intensity exercises with good aerobic benefits, such as running.

Lifting weights does not build a good level of cardiovascular fitness, as you are working your muscles and not working your heart and lungs to the same extent.

A high level of cardiovascular fitness is essential for good health. It means you have a strong heart and lungs and can easily benefit from that fitness in other areas of your life, such as chasing after kids or running up the stairs to work.

A high cardiovascular fitness level is associated with a reduced risk of developing a wide variety of health conditions, such as stroke and heart failure. [source]

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better For Recovery?

Swimming has been scientifically proven to be an excellent way to recover from strenuous activity.

Active recovery is defined as exercise at a low intensity and research is showing that this is good for us. [source]

We flush out lactic acid from our muscles from the previous day’s high-intensity workout if we are active on a rest day. One of the best ways to recover from an intense workout is to have a gentle swim.

A study called “Effects of a Recovery Swim on Subsequent Running Performance”, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that a swimming-based recovery session enhanced following day exercise performance. [source]

https://chasethewater.com/should-i-swim-on-a-rest-day-the-pros-cons/

This means that we can use a gentle swim to support or intense workout week and actually improve our overall performance.

Using swimming to recover and progress your training is an excellent approach. I have covered this topic in much greater detail in my article, “Should I Swim On A Rest Day?”

Swim Or Gym: Which Is Better For A Full-Body Workout?

Swimming is naturally a full-body workout, as you are using a combination of all your muscles to pull your body through the water.

When you swim, you are working virtually every muscle in your body, from triceps to biceps to abs to quads and everything in between.

In order to get the same full-body workout in the gym, you would have to hit a range of machines.

This is one of the reasons why a “swimmer’s body” is so desirable as every muscle group is worked and toned. In addition, this is done in a balanced way.

For example, if you lift weights and focus on bicep curls, you will have big biceps, but the rest of your body might be less developed.

If you are looking for a full-body workout, then swimming is by far the best approach.

You will not get those great big bulky muscles from swimming, but you will get an overall muscle tone.

Final Thoughts

I love the pool and the gym, but when it comes to a better overall workout experience and results per minute invested, then swimming is by far the best option.

If you are looking for muscle mass, then lifting weights is the best option, but other than bulky muscles, there is little that the gym offers over what you can gain in the pool.

My personal goals are to improve my cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone and from all the data I have looked at, swimming will help me achieve these goals.

Of course, if you can combine the pool and the gym as part of your workout, you will have the best of both worlds

For me, the swimming pool wins, and I will choose to swim over the gym every time.

Happy swimming!

Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure.

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