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by Katy Bergen

December 23, 2019

Swimming activates muscles not developed during other sports

Ask someone to describe a swimmer's body and you are likely to get a classic description.

Narrow hips. Long limbs. Broad shoulders.

It's this final descriptor that seems to consume the most attention when it comes to discussions of the swimmer's body.

Veteran swimmers often parade their well-developed shoulders with pride, while those new to the sport wonder (sometimes with impatience and sometimes with dread) if they'll be sporting a Michael Phelps-esque torso after a few months of training.

Even the definition of "swimmer shoulders" can be nebulous, depending on who you ask.

Still there's a reason that this particular muscle development has generated nicknames linked to the sport.

The most successful swimmers often have competitive advantages that are directly related to genetics; they are tall and long-limbed with larger feet and hands. But the lean, muscular bodies they sport—hypertrophied shoulders, defined triceps and lats, and clear-cut abdominals—come from countless hours in the pool.

Although swimming isn't going to magically create a body type most conducive to swimming fast—we can't change our bone structure after all—it is great for developing and toning muscles that aren't activated by participating in other sports, such as the lats, deltoids, and traps.

Those who commit to swimming will notice muscle growth and development—from the shoulders and triceps to abdominals to back muscles—that they might not have experienced before.

Muscle development isn't limited to the upper body.

Because swimming is a full body workout, swimmers spending consistent time in the pool can expect to see changes in the glute muscles, as well as the legs.

How much your body transforms has to do with your genetics and workout regimen. And whether you develop swimmer shoulders has everything to do with how many hours a week you’re training, says William Charschan, a certified sports physician and the medical director for USA Track and Field New Jersey.

As for the casual swimmer?

"It may have some effect, but it depends on how much you swim as well as the type of stroke you swim with," Charschan says.  "Swimming is a full body engagement exercise, so it will also affect the legs and core as well."

Those with concerns about developing too much muscle in the upper body will be relieved to know that, although swimming is considered an excellent source of exercise in part because of the resistance created by the act of moving one's body weight through water, a swimmer's ability to adapt to this load means there is a ceiling to the muscles an individual can develop in the pool without hitting a weight room.

(That doesn't mean that swimmers should be afraid of adding weights to their regimen. Lifting weights isn't just a strategy to strengthen muscles and drop time in the pool. It can help prevent injuries as well.)


  • Technique and Training