Swim or Gym – Which Is Better? Should You Swim Before or After a Workout!

With swimming being so popular both for sport and leisure, it’s no wonder there are many questions surrounding it. In this particular article, we (the TriathlonBudgeting.com crew) want to dive into the question of whether it’s best to swim before or after a gym workout (namely, lifting weights/strength training; though, a gym workout could include cardio-heavy workouts like running or cycling) as well as a few questions surrounding the benefits of swimming and the effect as well as the impact it can have on one’s gym workouts (namely, lifting weights/strength training), plus the effect that strength training (lifting weights)/cross-training has on swim performance. 

Ultimately, whether it is best to swim before or after a gym workout (lifting weights/strength training) will depend on one’s specific training goal(s). While one’s specific goal(s) ultimately dictate which order is best, there are pros and cons to either order in general.

Swim or Gym Workout First Pros & Cons,

Before we dive into specific training goals, let’s look at some of the general pros and cons of either order. 

Swimming  first (i.e., swim then gym) Pro(s) 

  1. The potential for more calories to be burned over the weight training session because the heart rate is already elevated
  2. Lifting weights after your swim ensures you can maximize your swimming intensity while building some [necessary] strength and power post-swim

Swimming first (swim then gym)  Con(s)

  1. Swimming will expend energy and therefore, you will not have as much energy for your gym workout (i.e. one will be tired and may not perform [as] well in the gym/on land) 
  2. Strength training with fatigued muscles can increase one’s risk of injury while lifting weights

Gym workout (lifting weights/strength training) first (i.e., gym then swim) Pro(s)

  1.  The aerobic system is much more efficient at generating ATP. Thus, lifting weights (a non-cardio workout) is more beneficial to creating the energy needed to power the movement of contraction in working muscles (i.e., it’s a great way to emphasize improving strength and power)  
  2. Lifting weights before swimming allows one to get to the fat-burning part of the swim workout more quickly because the gym workout (lifting weights/strength training) will have depleted the glycogen stores. This means during the swim, the body will use fat for fuel versus carbohydrates. 
  3. Focusing one’s energy on form in the gym/when lifting weights will result in greater strength gains and changes to one’s physique. 

Gym workout (lifting weights/strength training) first (gym then swim) Con(s)

  1. Lifting weights is taxing on the joints and muscles (i.e., it will fatigue the muscles). Thus, lifting weights first can make it difficult to push through a swim workout and one may notice their form deteriorate more quickly and a lack of intensity [than if they’d swam first]
  2. The fatigued muscles which can result in subpar swimming techniques can also make one more susceptible to injuries in the water

As we can see, both swimming first and completing a gym workout first have their benefits and drawbacks, respectively. So, when deciding to lift weights/strength train before or after your swim workout, one should consider their specific goal(s)- build muscle/increase strength, improve [swim] performance, &/or lose weight- as it will come down to what that goal is and what one wants to prioritize in their training.   

That said, let’s now take a look at each of those training goals and how swimming and gym workouts affect/impact them.

For more on this, check out our post Should You Workout Before or After Swimming? Pros & Cons

Goal Based Approach – Swimming VS Gymming

Goal #1: Build Muscle and Maximize (Increase) Strength

If you want to build muscle and increase strength, you will want to do your gym workout (lift weights/strength train) before your swim [workout]. This will allow you to strength train at an intensity necessary to provide a training stimulus (i.e. to see results).

Strength training after a swim does not provide the necessary stimulus because your muscles are already fatigued from the swim. However, it should be noted that, if you are lifting heavy weights, muscles that are already extremely tired can increase one’s risk of injury while swimming. (Thus, if one is lifting heavy weights in their gym workout, they may want to forego swimming on the same day altogether, and, instead, swim the next day as an active recovery.) 

Goal #2: Improve Swimming Performance

Perhaps one’s goal is to improve their swimming performance. If this is the case for you, you will want to swim before your gym workout (lifting weights/strength training).

So that an effective training stimulus is produced one’s muscles should be rested before a long and/or intense swim workout. Thus, weight lifting before your swim can have adverse effects on your efficiency in the water and increase your risk of injury to joints and muscles. 

Goal #3: Lose Weight 

If your goal is to shed a few pounds (i.e., lose weight), you will want to lift weights/strength train (do your gym workout) before your swim. Doing this will deplete your glycogen stores. This means during your swim your body will primarily fuel itself from fat stores versus carbohydrates. That said, you will need to train smart- you can’t complete a good, hard swim workout with absolutely no carbs on board.  You will need to refuel appropriately between workouts.

Though the fat-burning percentage is elevated (due to the depleted glycogen stores), calorie burn is still relatively low as swimming is a low-impact workout. Thus, when swimming and lifting weights to lose weight, ultimately, a negative energy balance is key (i.e., the old adage of “burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight”). Ultimately, to lose weight most efficiently, it matters how many total calories you burn in your workout(s).

Thus, you’ll also find you’re ultimately better off splitting your workouts up versus doing multiple workouts in one day (i.e., lift weights one day, swim the next- continue that alternation and include one day of passive rest each week). 

as they say, “your physique and pounds shed (overall health and wellness) are a result of 80% nutrition/’the kitchen’ and 20% physical activity/’the gym/pool’ “ 

So, while you can combine workouts on the same day and achieve results (the order of the workouts depends on your goals), ultimately, one should not combine workouts/it is best to spread workouts out (i.e., alternate your workouts throughout the week between lifting weights/strength training(gym workouts) and swimming)- not just for weight loss, but for goals regarding building strength/muscle and improving swim performance too.

Giving your body sufficient time to recover between workouts (i.e., the proper time to rest) will allow you to achieve better results in your strength training and swimming, respectively (i.e., perform at peak levels, respectively). However, if you do still opt to combine your workouts, follow the guidelines for your specific goal(s). (Source A)(Source B)

Can I Do a Gym Workout and Swim, Together, on The Same Day?

In the introduction, we established that one’s fitness goal(s) determines whether one would want to swim before or after a gym workout (lifting weights/strength training). We further established that while one could swim before or after their gym workout based on their training/fitness goal(s), the best results were seen when one splits the workouts up (i.e., doing the workouts on different days).  

It is acceptable to swim and do a gym workout (lift weights/strength train) on the same day- depending on the training goals, but, also, one will see the most optimal results when splitting their workouts up. So, ultimately, it will go back to what one is aiming for with the training goal(s).

So, then, the short answer is- Yes and no (i.e., it depends).

If your training goal(s) allow(s) for you to complete a gym workout and swim on the same day, you will want to assure adequate recovery (rest and fuel/nutrition) between your gym and swim workouts.

Also, be sure to get enough sleep each night, throughout the week, to allow for proper recovery and muscle development, drink plenty of water (avoid dehydration), and warm up properly to decrease the risk of injury. And, lastly, structure your workouts in the way that is most effective toward obtaining your goal(s) for training/fitness- swimming and strength training and/or weight loss goals. 

While one can certainly do a strength workout and swim workout on the same day in whatever order is best for their training/fitness goal(s)- there is nothing inherently wrong with this- one will see maximal results when splitting the training up and utilizing the swim workout as an active recovery activity/workout. 

Swimming between strength workouts (i.e. on “off”/active rest days) helps make possible crucial post-workout muscle recovery while still working the entire body (swimming is both aerobic and anaerobic meaning it works muscles/builds strength while working the cardiorespiratory system). Muscle recovery is a crucial part of weight lifting/strength training and seeing maximal gains. 

Strength training (lifting weights) focuses on working Type II muscles while swimming focuses on working Type I muscles. This is what makes swimming a really effective active recovery activity/workout. One can certainly swim a few laps to cool down after a gym workout.

After all, it’s a great way to stretch the entire body. Just be sure to keep it to a few, nice and easy laps- not an actual [swim] workout. And, keep in mind, to see maximal results, it is best to lift weights one day and swim the next (i.e. alternate strength days/gym workouts and swim days/workouts). 

So, to sum it all up, swimming and a gym workout can be done on the same day. However, going into one workout when you are tired from a previous workout is never an ideal situation. Doing this can have adverse effects on form and technique which puts one at a greater risk of injury and, ultimately, hinders one’s training.

On the other hand, pairing weight lifting and swimming is quite beneficial both to elite swimmers and those just looking to stay healthy. When looking to incorporate both workouts into your training schedule, it is best to strength train one day and swim the next (i.e., use swimming as active recovery from lifting weights). (Source A)(Source B)

On a side note, also check out our post “Why Do Swimmers Hit / Slap Themselves? It’s Actually Helpful!

In other words,

– As a swimmer utilize weight lifting to improve strength and power which will ultimately improve overall swim performance 

– As a weight lifter utilize swimming as an active recovery activity to allow for proper muscle recovery which will result in optimal muscle/strength gains

Is Lifting Weights Bad or Good for Swimmers?

Overall lifting weights has far more pros than cons for swimmers. The key is to be smart about the objective of the training. Understand the specific training goal(s) and how the body works most efficiently toward obtaining those goals. Then train within the guidelines/recommendations for those. 

Strength training (lifting weights), when incorporated, and performed correctly (i.e., properly) and with precision, can help a swimmer reduce injuries, address muscle imbalances, and improve power/speed (i.e., it can enhance swim performance). Many elite swimmers have started incorporating weight training into their workout routine/training schedule (and have seen positive results in doing so). 

Additionally, several studies were conducted concerning the effects of strength training and swimming of the front crawl (i.e freestyle) stroke. These studies showed that weight training had a significantly positive effect on their swim performance. 

Another study that looked at weight training effects on sprint swimming also found positive results. This study showed great improvements in starts and turns and increased range of motion, as well as decreased risk of injury. 

Though lifting weights (strength training) has more pros than cons for swimmers, here are some things to keep in mind as a swimmer when it comes to weight lifting

  1. Lift for speed and strength 
  2. Flexibility work is crucial- especially after lifting weights 
  3. Large, compound multi-joint exercises (i.e., deadlift, squats, bench press) should be performed first to improve athletic performance. 
  4. Lift to improve performance (not to induce pain/soreness)
  5. Throughout any lift, maintain bar speed
  6. Lifting promotes total body strength, improved nervous system function, and increased power/speed- it is a compliment to swim training that will help improve swim performance 
  7. Do not lift to [muscle] failure 
  8. Distance swimmers can see improved speed and power from lifting weights (lifting weights is great cross-training) 
  9. Remember the key is to train for the exact event- lifting for speed and strength should be the foundation of your lifting program. And, understand how weight lifting, body strength, speed & power work to help you as a swimmer. 
  10. Weightlifting is only one component of land-based training that complements swim training. Other land-based activities that can be utilized for cross-training include active stretching activities such as yoga or pilates, or any exercise regiment/workout that increases whole-body strength and can be included in your training program
  11. Know that every person’s muscle make-up is different. We all have fast and slow twitch muscles but at different percentages. Thus, one’s training regimen needs to be tailored to their muscle makeup for optimal performance and results. 
  12. Weightlifting can help one develop speed and power to be utilized in the water 
  13. Kicking drives your speed in the water. Power dictates the effectiveness of your kick, and power is best developed on dry land (through weight lifting)

(Source A)(Source B)

What Should Swimmers Do in The Gym?

We’ve established it is beneficial for swimmers to incorporate land-based training (gym workouts) in their training schedule, particularly strength training (lifting weights). But, strength training isn’t just about race/competition day.

Strength training is about helping one to be able to withstand long bouts of training/intense training, reducing the risk of injury while in the water/swimming, and addressing muscle imbalances & strength deficiencies.  

Building muscle through swimming alone is not very effective (or efficient). Thus, swimmers should (and, many do) incorporate strength training (lifting weights). 

While it is important to train the movements utilized in the water while swimming [with load], one should set strength training goals so that they align with their swimming goals and needs.

Here are some tips/steps to help you develop a training & workout/fitness plan/schedule 

  1. Decide on your training split 
  2. Decide the duration of your training regimen
  3. Choose the right exercises 
  4. Structure your sets and reps for optimal swim performance 
  5. Maximize your weight training progress by properly utilizing progressive overload 
  6. Take everything from steps 1-5 and organize it all into a plan that will provide you with optimal results. Put this plan on a calendar (or 3- to cover the next 12 weeks). 

Once you’ve determined your plan/schedule, you can decide on specific exercises to include in your plan as well as determine your starting weight, plus set and rep ranges for each exercise. Some of the best exercises swimmers can do in the gym include

  • [Weighted] Pull-Ups 
  • Lat Pull-Downs 
  • [Back] Squats
  • {alternating] dumbbell Bench Press
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead Press
  • Barbell rows 
  • Lateral Lunge 
  • Mini Band External rotation 
  • Squat jump 
  • Glute Bridge 
  • Broad Jumps 
  • Swiss Ball Jackknifes
  • Triceps Kickbacks 
  • Dead bugs 
  • Planks

3-4 Sets 
Bigger/Power Movements= 6 Reps 
Smaller/Less Taxing Movements= 10-20 Reps

(Source A)(Source B)(Source C)

Can I Swim and Run on The Same Day? Can I Swim After Running?

Whether you are tackling multiple sports or just like to swim and run, you may be wondering if it’s a good idea to swim and run on the same day. Or, if you should even swim after a run… at all…ever. 

Pairing swimming and running is considered to be one of the most effective cross-training exercises for athletes [in general], according to some experts. However, it should be noted that one’s specific training goals will still factor in and dictate the order of one’s swim and run workouts [for a given day] or that their swim and run workouts should be done on alternate days.  For more on this, check out our post “Is Running Good for Swimmers? How So!

When looking at incorporating multiple workouts on the same day, particularly swimming and running, or trying to determine if you can swim after running, there are a few things to consider. Things to consider include,

1- The type of workout (Swimming, Running, Cycling, Weight lifting, etc).

 Each activity/exercise causes a different degree of muscle tissue breakdown(trauma). Swimming causes the least muscle trauma while running causes the most. Cycling falls in the middle.

Avoid doing workouts of the same type on the same day (i.e. you would not want to do 2 of any one particular workout) as the second session will only cause more harm than good- it will ultimately hinder results and slow recovery. For more on this, we recommend that you check out our post Can I Run and Lift Weights Every Day? What Are Your Options !!

2- Intensity 

Typically you want to put your most intense workout at the start of the day (i.e. do that workout first) so that you are well-rested and able to perform at your peak level. However, if you’re a night owl and have more energy at night, you may opt to keep your first workout lighter/less intense and have your second workout be more intense. Whichever way is best for you and your training goals is what you will want to go with.

Also, note that doing two intense workouts on the same day can lead to subpar results/performance and will increase the needed recovery time. 

3- Experience

Every athlete, whether they be a swimmer, runner, cyclist, or another athlete, has different areas of strength and weakness. Typically one will want to put the sport they are weaker in first and train the one they are strongest in second. 

4- Fuel 

Nutrition is a key factor. Not only in general to athletic training, but especially before and after that first workout on a double workout day.  You want to be sure to eat within 30 minutes of [the end of] your first workout to properly refuel for the second workout. 

In short, swimming is beneficial for runners, and running is beneficial for swimmers. One just has to be mindful of their training goals and make [smart] decisions regarding their workouts/training schedule. 

  • Runners:  when swimming the buoyancy of the water takes the pressure off overworked joints- a benefit of swimming being low-impact- while the resistance of the water builds muscles. 
  • Swimmers: For swimmers, running increases the size and strength of the leg muscles which ultimately will result in a powerful kick. This powerful kick increases performance resulting in increased speed and power. Running should be balanced with a strong upper body workout to assure muscular balance and efficiency. (Source)

For more on this, we recommend that you check out our post Can Swimming Help In Running/Marathon Training?

Should I Swim on Rest Days?

Not only is swimming a great activity for burning fat, but swimming is a great recovery/active rest activity after an intense strength training day (i.e., a day of lifting weights). Swimming after a gym (land) workout can also help one feel rejuvenated. 

The buoyancy of the water makes for a low-impact workout. The resistance of the water allows one to build muscle. Not only is it a low-impact way to build muscle, but it also stretches the muscles in all directions. 

Another added benefit of the water is its hydrostatic pressure. One of the benefits of hydrostatic pressure is that it circulates blood flow back to the heart which in turn keeps the heart beating at 10-15 beats less per minute than when on land. 

One study, conducted by the Internation Journal of Sports Medicine, found those athletes that hit the pool (or ocean) for a moderate [swim] workout on their recovery (active rest) day were able to subsequently work out longer than those that just took it easy. 

Most fitness professionals would agree that turning at least one rest day into an active rest/a recovery day can have positive effects on one’s training and performance. Active rest/recovery helps to increase one’s recovery rate by increasing the amount of blood going to their muscles (& tissue). This increased blood flow helps to provide necessary nutrients and remove toxic waste- key components of muscle recovery/development. 

Swimming in comparison to other active rest/recovery activities is less impactful and avoids pounding stress(es) that can be found with activities such as running or hiking. Furthermore, while one could choose a light run or hike for an active rest/recovery activity, swimming burns more calories. So, if you aren’t already swimming on your “off” days/as your active rest/recovery, it would definitely be a good idea to consider incorporating it as it has many benefits- both to one’s athletic performance and overall health/well-being and fitness. (Source A)(Source B)

Is Swimming Good for Muscle Building?

The resistance of the water, one of water’s inherent properties, makes it possible to build muscle while swimming. The buoyancy of the water, another of its inherent properties, is what alleviates the stress/pressure/impact on and/or to joints (i.e. makes it low-impact/joint-friendly). One’s pulling and pushing of the water builds endurance, just as training in the gym would do, but without the same impact(stress) on the body as gym/land-based training.

So, if you are looking for a good (and efficient) way to build muscle that is low-impact (i.e. joint-friendly), swimming is a great option. 

Swimming uses nearly all major muscle groups including muscles of the legs and glutes, core-abdominals, core-chest and back, and arms and shoulders. While swimming is a whole-body workout, each stroke will work certain muscle groups/specific muscles more so than the other strokes. Thus, practicing all swimming strokes is a key to balanced muscle development- both size and strength. 

For more on this, check out our post “Why Do Swimmers Have Broad Shoulders, Flabby Arms and Big Thighs ?!

While swimming is a great way to build muscle, another key component to building muscle is nutrition. One must assure they are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet as well as properly fueling (i.e. eating properly/healthfully) before, during, and after strength training (gym workouts) in conjunction with their swim workouts (physical activity) to efficiently build muscle and sustain the results. 

It is said that roughly 80% of [one’s] health/wellness/fitness and physique results come from [their] nutrition/diet/’in the kitchen’. The remaining 20% comes from physical activity/workouts/’in the gym/pool’

While swimming is efficient (and good) for building muscle, varying things up with some land- and/or gym-based workouts (lifting weights/strength training) will be the most efficient and effective way to build muscle and sustain continued growth (or maintain). 

Put another way, swimming is great and has many benefits, muscle building being one of them, but the most effective training & workout/fitness schedules/plans for building muscle and maintaining muscle growth as well as continued muscle growth include a mixture of swimming as well as land- and gym-based workouts (lifting weights/strength training). (Source A)(Source B)

Also check out our article titled Why is Swimming and/or Hydrotherapy Often a Popular Choice for Physical Therapy?

Is It Better to Go Swimming or To the Gym?

Two of the most popular workouts are swimming and gym-based workouts (i.e., generally, lifting weights/strength training). Swimming and gym workouts both have benefits for swimmers. Many professional and/or elite swimmers incorporate strength training (gym workouts) into their training & workout/fitness schedule/plan. 

While incorporating strength training into one’s training & workout schedule/fitness plan has several benefits, particularly for athletes, for the average person just looking to stay healthy consistency is key.

Both workouts have their respective benefits and combining the workouts in your training & workout/fitness schedule/plan also has its benefits, but here it is more important and better to stick with whatever activity you enjoy and therefore, will stick to.

So, if you prefer lifting weights, you should do a gym workout. On the other hand, if you prefer something with less impact, swimming is a great option. Still, there may be some that enjoy both swimming and lifting weights. In this case, it would be best to alternate your swim and lift/strength training days. 

So, both swimming and gym workouts (lifting weights/strength training) have their benefits (and drawbacks) to one’s training/fitness, but is one workout better than the other? Ultimately, as with nearly all aspects of training/fitness, it’s a matter of your training goal(s) and preference. But, because swimming is a whole-body workout (i.e.- it helps build muscle, strength, and endurance while challenging the cardiovascular system) and as such it burns far more calories than land-based workouts such as lifting weights/strength training while being low-impact, it is the best option for most.

Both the gym and the pool can provide great results from their respective training/workouts.  As was mentioned, many competitive swimmers incorporate gym workouts (lifting weights/strength training) into their training schedule(s). On the other side of the coin, many runners incorporate swimming into their training schedule(s).  It will, ultimately, go back to what your specific training goals are as to which is better [for you]- gym or swim. 

When To Swim or To Gym ?!

While generally, swimming is the best option for most (i.e., you really can’t go wrong with swimming), there are instances where it may not be the best option. Also, as we’ve said, one’s training goals are a  factor. That said, let’s take a look at each of our goals and determine … Swim vs Gym (&, briefly, why).

1- Building Muscle

GYM. Both swimming and gym workouts are forms of resistance training. While swimming is a good means of building muscle, if your sole goal is to build muscle then the gym is the better option for you.

While water has greater resistance than air, it builds muscle slowly (though efficiently). The resistance imposed by weights used in strength training, while perhaps not providing as much resistance as water, is more stressful to muscles and joints thus causing those micro-tears and their recovery (i.e. what promotes muscle development) to occur more quickly.

This means that while one will see results from both swimming and gym workouts (with regard to building muscle), one will see results more quickly with gym workouts when it comes to building muscle.

2- Cardiovascular fitness and endurance 

SWIM. Pretty much this entire article as well as many others out there- both on our site and other sites- clearly state that swimming has both cardiovascular and strength-building components and benefits whereas lifting weights/strength training (gym workouts) really only provides strength-building components/benefits. 

3- Weight loss 

SWIM. While both swimming and lifting weights have benefits for weight loss, ultimately, one will need to create a calorie deficit (via diet/nutrition and physical activity) to lose any weight. As has been mentioned, because water is more resistant than air, swimming burns far more calories than land- or gym-based activities.

Thirty minutes of swimming freestyle (front crawl) burns roughly 255 calories (depending on one’s personal metrics and the intensity of their workout) whereas thirty minutes of lifting weights will burn only 80-130 calories (pending the same variables as swimming). 

Also find out How Far Can the Average Person Swim? 1 mile, 10 miles, 30 min & Underwater ?!

Ideally one would combine (include) both training methods in their training & workout/fitness schedule/plan. For those simply looking to maintain health/wellness and to look/feel good, simply alternate your training methods- swim one day, do a gym workout the next. If you’re an elite athlete or more advanced in your workouts/training, you could certainly combine swimming and a gym workout on the same day- just be sure to do them in an order that is optimal for your training goals and assure you refuel properly between workouts. 

So, to wrap it all up, while it does ultimately depend on one’s specific goal(s), by and large, opt to swim over gym [workouts]. Because swimming builds cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength/endurance while being low-impact it is optimal for those that simply want to be healthier, build some muscle/tone up, and feel/look good.

For more on this, check out our post titled Which Swim Stroke Is Best for Toning? Swim Tonning Guide!

For those same reasons, it’s great for athletes as well.  On the other hand, if you are one of the few that solely wants to build muscle and/or build a TON of muscle, then perhaps sticking to gym workouts (lifting weights/strength training) would be better [for you]. And, optimally, one would incorporate both workouts into their training & workout/fitness schedule/plan. (Source)

Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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