Q: Yoga and Pilates are such popular forms of exercise, but I prefer swimming. I don't read much about it as a good overall...
Q: Yoga and Pilates are such popular forms of exercise, but I prefer swimming. I don’t read much about it as a good overall form of exercise. Wouldn’t swimming also provide “core training” and strengthening of the abs? When swimming, aren’t you doing some of the stretching and lengthening Pilates does? Is swimming as beneficial as yoga or Pilates for the over-40 group for maintaining strength and flexibility?
A: Comparing exercises is hard to do, but every one, when done correctly, activates and works, to some extent, the core muscles.
The reader is right, though; swimming traditionally gets cut out of the core hoopla. I asked help from Mary Meyer, a Seattle personal trainer who specializes in swimming and triathlon training (www.marymeyerlifefitness.com).
Meyer acknowledges that swimming isn’t generally considered in the same league as Pilates and yoga when it comes to core work, but that is largely, in her mind, because you don’t have an instructor standing over you and harping about activating those muscles while you’re swimming. She also acknowledges that swimmers typically carry a bit more body weight for the sake of buoyancy and insulation, but looks can be deceiving.
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“I have a hard time when a client comes in and says I want the six-pack or the eight-pack or whatever,” she says. “I tell them then maybe swimming isn’t the way to go.”
Swimming works true core muscles — the functional ones behind the abs façade. The sport builds strength and flexibility, focusing mostly on the upper body. In fact, the power of the body from the hips or upper thigh to the shoulders is the most important factor in effective swimming, she says.
Is Pilates also a good calorie-burning workout? A recent study by the nonprofit American Council on Exercise says: sort of.
The study concluded that the cardiovascular benefits of Pilates appear to be limited. Even though participants think they’re working hard — and from a muscular standpoint, they are — they are not achieving significant aerobic or calorie-burning benefits.
“Pilates has a long list of benefits including improved body mechanics, balance, coordination, strength and flexibility,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the council. “While the ACE study shows that a Pilates session burns a relatively small amount of calories, it is still a valuable addition to any exercise routine.
Swimming is also one of the few activities in which you can safely hyperextend your legs (such as when you kick down on the crawl stroke and butterfly). Meyer suggests varying strokes to increase the benefits.
While swimming is good for any age, it’s especially good for the over-40 group, she says, “considering it is a non-weight-bearing, low-impact sport that uses most of the muscles in the body.”
But it must be done correctly. For best results, be sure you rotate, power through and finish each stroke rather than swimming flat and cutting your stroke short. Establish as efficient an aquatic line as possible, swimming with head, shoulders, hips and feet in the same line on/to the surface of the water, and holding a straight line from side to side like a spear.
Good swimmers don’t overload their arms and hands. The arm-stroke pattern is effectively a catch and throw, with about 70 percent of the propulsion coming off the throw when combined with a hip-driven core rotation. This is similar to throwing and hitting baseballs.
The kick also stabilizes the lower torso front and back. It initiates from the diaphragm, as though the legs join there instead of at the hips.
Central to form and endurance is proper breathing, which is also essential in yoga and Pilates. Breathing in the water isn’t as natural as on land, and many beginning, even intermediate swimmers do not do it efficiently enough to reap the most benefits from the movement. Rhythm, concentration and flow make the difference. Once you are comfortable with swimming technique and breathing, swimming can be less taxing on lungs than running, because arms, with their smaller muscles, don’t require as much oxygen as legs do. (You can, however, build a lower-body workout by using kickboards and fins.)
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.