Will Swimming Tone My Arms? (Here’s what to expect)


swimmer with muscles in a pool

For many people, myself included, toning the upper arms to show muscle definition and remove the flabby “bingo wing” or “batwing” look is desirable.

The arms can be a really hard area to target as other factors, such as hormones and genetics, can determine how easily you build muscle definition in your arms.

According to the experts, swimming is a full-body workout that will tone your arms if done regularly. Although it is more difficult to target the arms specifically in the pool, all swim strokes use the arms and shoulders and therefore will cause better muscle definition if you swim regularly.

As someone who has struggled with achieving toned arms my entire life, this is something I want to explore to see if swimming will tone my arms and how much work is required to achieve my goal.

In this article I will cover:

  • Does swimming really tone your arms?
  • How can I target my arm muscles in the pool?
  • Which swimming stroke is best for toning arms?

Does Swimming Really Tone Your Arms?

Swimming is a great full-body workout that works all the muscles in your body.

Swimming will tone your arms if you swim regularly, as swimming is a great workout for your shoulders and arms. The breaststroke, butterfly, and front crawl are particularly good at toning the arms.

When you swim, and as you pull your body through the water, you are increasing the resistance on your arm muscles. With time and frequency, your arm muscles will get stronger from this motion and you will feel them become tighter and more toned.

It is important to point out that swimming will not grow muscle, it will tighten up and tone what you already have.

In order to grow muscle or “bulk up” as they say in the fitness industry, you need to lift heavy weights in the gym. Ideally, you will need to lift weights that are a little heavier than what you are used to in order to grow muscle mass. This is known as progressive overload. [source]

In very simple terms, when you lift heavy weights, you are tearing your muscle fibres. When these muscle fibres repair, they increase in thickness and number to “grow” the muscle. There is a full science behind this which you should look up if muscle growth is your goal. I recommend you start with this article if “bulking up” is your goal, “How Do Muscles Grow? The Science of Muscle Growth” [source]

When you swim, you are not lifting a heavy weight. The most weight you will ever lift is your own body weight as you pull yourself through the water, which is greatly reduced as it is buoyant in the water.

As a result, you will work the muscles you already have, making them stronger and toned.

As mentioned, swimming will not help you grow muscle and have a bodybuilder physique, but it will help you look toned with well-defined muscle. Just look at any competitive swimmer to see the results of swimming regularly.

The major advantage of using swimming to tone your arms is that swimming provides a far safer way to tone your arms than hitting the gym.

As swimming is a low-impact sport that places very little wear and tear on your joints, you can get a great cardio and a full-body workout in your swimming session with a reduced risk of injury, compared to lifting weights where you are typically targeting just one muscle group.

There is no doubt that swimming will tone your arms if done regularly, but how much and for how long do I need to swim to achieve notable results?

How Long Does It Take To Tone Arms?

As a general rule, with regular arm exercises, for example, swimming twice a week for at least 30 minutes, and improving your diet to support weight loss, you can expect to see an improvement in your muscle definition in 6 to 8 weeks.

This might seem a very clear deadline to work towards. However, how much of an improvement is seen in your muscle definition will depend on other factors, such as genetics. [source]

We all store fat in different places over our body, with some of us storing more fat in our upper arm region than others. As a result, it is difficult to follow a general timeline as fat distribution and where it sits on everyone differs between individuals.

In addition, because of genetics, some individuals with long muscles and short tendons are going to show muscles more easily than others. [source]

Furthermore, our hormones can affect how our bodies respond to muscle growth. For example, optimal levels of testosterone positively impact muscle growth and muscle tone. [source]

As men typically have more testosterone than women, men can build bigger and stronger muscles with less effort. [source]

With so many factors involved in gaining toned arms, it is not possible to pick a set timeline that works for everyone, but between 6 to 8 weeks with two 30 mins sessions per week in the pool should be enough to start to feel results.

How Can I Target My Arm Muscles In The Pool?

Simply swimming regular strokes such as the front crawl, butterfly and breaststroke will work your arm muscles and give you a great workout.

As well as regular swimming, there are some additional exercises and things you can do in the pool to target your arm muscles.

1. Use Hand Paddles

Hand paddles are a great way to give your arms and shoulder muscles a great workout in the pool.

Hand paddles are hard plastic paddles that you place on your hand while swimming, which will increase the water-resistance as you pull, and as a result, increase the resistance experienced by your muscles.

This is a very simple way to increase the resistance while swimming and expose your arm muscles to a greater resistive load.

In addition to improving your upper body strength as you swim, these paddles improve your technique and “catch”, which is the start of the pull stroke.

Hand paddles are a lightweight and effective solution that can be easily carried in your gym bag and left on the pool deck as you incorporate them into your workout.

Hand paddles also come in a range of sizes from small to large. As you get stronger, you can progressively increase the resistance by using a larger pair of swim paddles.

A large swim paddle will pull more water, therefore will have a higher resistance.

It is a better approach to start small with swim paddles and gradually increase in size. If you have never used swim paddles before, you will be amazed at how exhausted your arms can become after a few lengths.

I recommend the TYR Unisex’s Catalyst Stroke Training Paddles, which come in a range of sizes from XXS TO XXL.

They are very durable and comfortable and as you want to increase the resistance, you can upgrade to purchase the next paddle size up.

They are fantastic for arm strength training.

2. Aqua Dumbbells

Aqua dumbbells are a great solution if you love going to the pool and want to target your arm muscles.

Just like regular dumbbells in the gym, you can use aqua dumbbells in the pool to perform bicep curls and a range of other muscle-building exercises.

Aqua dumbbells are typically made from soft and light foam, making them super light when dry.

Once the dumbbell is submerged, however, the foam absorbs the water, and the dumbbell becomes heavy.

You can then use the dumbbells at the shallow end of the pool and complete a series of exercises to target your arm muscles.

To learn more about using aqua dumbbells and alternative water gym equipment, take a look at my article, “Pool Exercises For Non Swimmers (A Full Guide)”

Which Swimming Stroke Is Best For Toning Arms?

There are typically four main swim strokes (the breaststroke, front crawl, backstroke and butterfly), all of which will tone your arms.

Some swim strokes burn more calories than others, so different swim strokes will have a greater impact on burning fat and revealing your toned abs and arms.

You need a balanced diet in order to swim your way to a toned body, but the table below lists the main swim strokes with the typical calories burned per hour, so you can see which swim stroke is worth spending more time doing.

How many calories you burn will depend on

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  • your current weight
  • intensity of your workout.

The heavier you are, the more calories you will burn in the pool, as you must pull more weight through the water.

The more intense your workout, the better results you will see.

The following calories burned per hour is the average for a swimmer weighing 150lbs.

Swim StrokeCalories Burned Per Hour (kcal)Main Muscles Worked
Butterfly986Deltoid Muscles, Trapezius Muscles
Front Crawl414Deltoids, Latissimus, Trapezius, Triceps, Biceps
Breaststroke379Pectoralis, Biceps 
Backstroke343Latissimus Dorsi (Back muscles)

The Butterfly For Toning Arms

The butterfly is one of the most difficult swim strokes and can be very difficult for beginners.

The butterfly is an incredibly powerful stoke and requires the most arm muscle engagement for the full stroke cycle, making it the best stroke for toning arms and shoulders. [source]

If you have ever watched the butterfly competitors in the Olympics, you will see very wide shoulders and a pronounced triangular body shape.

Although butterfly swimmers rarely swim as far as the other swim stroke competitors, the butterfly stroke is so intense that they have very toned muscles throughout their bodies.

The deltoid muscles which are at the front and back of the shoulders and the trapezius muscles which are behind and to the side of the neck are some of the core muscles required to perform the butterfly stroke. [source]

The Front Crawl For Toning Arms

The front crawl is a full-body workout, but the largest muscle groups of the arms and legs are used by front crawl swimmers to propel themselves through the water.

Alongside the shoulder and arm action, front crawl swimmers require excellent hip rotation to help propel through the water.

To really give your arms a workout while swimming, you could use a pair of hand paddles, which will increase the resistance placed on your arms while swimming.

The Breaststroke For Toning Arms

The pectoralis and bicep muscles are the major muscles used in breaststroke. In addition, the shoulder and back muscles benefit from the sweeping in and out arm motion of the breaststroke.

Although the breaststroke does not burn as many calories as the butterfly, it is still a great full-body workout and is a stroke that many beginners can learn.

The Backstroke For Toning Arms

The backstroke is the lowest calorie burner but is still a great full-body workout. Unlike the other strokes, the backstroke is more helpful for back and shoulder muscles.

Personally, I love the backstroke for helping me with my posture and not so much for toning my arms.

Sitting at a desk for much of the week, my shoulders get hunched, and the backstroke is a lovely swim stroke to stretch out the spine and pull back the shoulders.

Final Thoughts

Regular swimming will tone your arms, but how defined and visible your arm muscles are will depend on other factors such as genetics, hormones and diet.

I swim regularly and do not have visibly defined arms, however; I have noticed a significant improvement in upper arm strength and my arms feel toned and tighter.

The great thing about swimming is that it is a full-body workout, so I have felt this increase in strength all over my body, but most noticeably in my abs and core muscles.

I do not think that I will ever have visibly toned arms due to my genetics, but beneath the outer layers, I know my muscles are strong, toned, and tight.

At the end of the day, being strong, fit and healthy is the most important thing. Whether you can physically see the muscle toning results of swimming, you will feel the results and that is what matters.

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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