Whether you’re freestyle swimming with your friends or treading lightly in the beach waves, time in the water calls for serious built-in resistance. From your arms to your core, the warm-weather activity can help you build lung power, muscular strength, and endurance all while lessening your chances of exercise injury.

However, before you make swimming your go-to summer workout, learning the basic swimming strokes and safety rules that come with the sport is important. Here, Fayette Mong, a swim instructor with a focus on water safety, shows you how to condition your body from head to toe as you swim your way to a stronger self.

A hand saving a drowning person in open water
Kevin Carden

Important Safety Tips So You Can Swim with Confidence

Putting safety first is key when it comes to swimming. Mong shares her top safety tips so you can get the most out of your water workout.

Never Swim Alone—Ever

“No workout, caloric deficit, muscular challenge, or endurance build is worth drowning,” says Mong, who explains drowning occurs in quick, silent increments of loss of breath. “Even the most skilled swimmers have muscle cramps, muscle spasms, appendix ruptures, and slips and falls.” Swim with a buddy, at a minimum.  There should be a lifeguard on duty, but if not, Mong recommends CPR education. “Open and dark water is exponentially more dangerous than a controlled environment.”

Time Your Meals

If one is adamant about swimming alone, Mong encourages you not to eat within two hours of swimming. Also, “Bring a loud whistle attached to your suit, in-tact gear is important (goggles, cap, etc.).”

Remember the Back Float

Float first. “Always remember that back floating, rather than treading, is the safest way to rest and gather one’s wits and bearings.”

Wear the Right Life Jacket in Open Water

If one swims in dark and open water for recreation or leisurely exercise, Mong recommends wearing a Coast Guard-approved life jacket that is specifically rated for one’s weight (all Coast-approved life jackets state their certification and ratings in bold letters on the life jacket).

Take Swim Lessons

Swim lessons save lives. “If learn-to-swim lessons are too much of an investment, every person near the water should at least know how to back float independently.” You’re never too old to take lessons.

Now that you have your gear and safety rules in check, it’s time to take your workout to the water.

Swimming goggles on a towel next to a pool
Artsaba Family

Must-Have Swimming Gear

If you’re looking to make swimming a part of your workout routine, having the right gear is key. Mong outlines swim essentials that will help you get the best out of your swim sessions.

1. A snug-fitting swimsuit: Extra material on your swimsuit creates drag and distractions. Training suits should fit more snugly than recreational and leisure swimsuits. While suit style can be based on preference, larger-chested individuals may want to err on the side of a onesie, as they lend the best support. For those wearing only trunks, jammers are advisable to decrease chafing and streamline fabric.

2. Goggles: Goggles that fit snugly around the eyes (and only the eyes), with two adjustable straps that do not roll or slide up and down the head.

3. Swim cap: A silicone swim cap that fits very tightly around the entire head and hair (hair should be pulled back and tucked all the way into the cap), so that the goggles adhere to the cap without slipping off.

Tip: (For those sensitive to constriction around the scalp, nylon caps are useful, but do not retain body heat as well as silicone.) If you run cold, double cap with silicone caps.

4. Not necessary, but great extras: A kickboard, underwater earbuds, waterproof watch for tracking workouts.

Tip: Mong recommends wearing bright-colored suits to avoid blending in with water. If you happen to need rescuing, this will make you more visible.

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How To Do The 5 Most Common Swimming Strokes and Styles

Even basic swim strokes can provide an intense workout in the right sequence. As you learn these swim strokes, you’ll be increasing your safety levels while working on your strength endurance.

We will go over the following swimming strokes: Float, Flutter, Freestyle, Backstroke, and Breaststroke.

How To Back Float (For Beginners)

This important swim move can not only save your life but is a great “rest” in between swim sets. (Ear plugs come in handy for this one). Practice with a buddy to up your safety level.

  1. Start by practicing kicking while on your back: using 2 hands to hold the wall, squat so that your shoulders are just below the surface.
  2. Eyes are constantly looking up (not too far back and not looking forward). Arms are under the surface and can be in a T position or by your side.
  3. Your neck should be neutral and not flexed.
  4. Gently kick off the wall and feel your body naturally glide backward, while parallel to the surface of the water and slightly submerged. It is normal for the head to be submerged just past the ears (face above the surface), and chest + belly above the surface.
  5. As you feel your lower body sink, gently kick straight legs, alternating up and down. (Feet may be slightly below the surface).
  6. As you slowly glide with gentle kicks, practice relaxing into this parallel posture.
  7. Repeat this kick off the wall, into a glide until it feels normal.
  8. Then step away from the wall and try to glide backward without kicking off the wall – squat and lean back.

Over time, you will be able to decrease kicks into a static float.

The How To Flutter Kick:

  1. Continuously alternate an up-and-down motion of the legs hinging from the hips,
  2. With the feet in a plantar flex (toes pointed downward), and a slightly bent knee.

The How To Do the Freestyle Stroke:

  1. Start with a submerged face, eyes looking down. Hands start in a streamlined float (straight arms and elbows extended so that the biceps hug the ears; one hand on top of the other and palms facing down) or flutter kick while holding the bottom of a kickboard.
  2. Right arm first: imagine the right hand’s role is to grab an imaginary baseball from in front of the head and bring it toward the floor, to place it next to the right hip. A slightly bent elbow should exit the water first, then reach the same hand back up to the kickboard to grab on, to resume streamline. Repeat this step with the right hand only, until it feels routine. The left arm and hand remain in streamline throughout the entire exercise.
  3. Repeat Step 1 with the left hand only, while the right arm and hand remain in a streamline the entire time. Repeat until it feels routine.
  4. Alternate each hand, taking turns. The left hand should remain on the kickboard until the right-hand returns to the kickboard. Then the right hand holds the kickboard while the left arm repeats the task. Flutter kicks should be constant.

How to Do The Backstroke:

  1. The flutter kick is maintained the entire length of the pool.
  2. Eyes should be looking up; try to keep the belly up on top of the water.
  3. Arms alternate. Right palm facing the hip, thumb exits the water first, reaching to the sky, straight elbow, with the bicep grazing the right ear, rotating the wrist slightly so that the right pinky enters the water first.
  4. Pull the water to the right hip with a slightly bent elbow.
  5. Arms alternate like a windmill so that one hand exits as the other hand enters.
  6. Breathing should be paced and constant.

Tip: Mouth breathing can help prevent water from entering the nose. Some prefer to inhale as the arm passes the ear and exhale when the opposite arm passes the opposite ear.

How To Do The Breaststroke

The stroke is said to be the most popular of the strokes. If you can remember to pull, breathe, kick, glide, you’ll be all set.

  1. Start in a streamline and turn your palms slightly outward (so your thumbs point slightly downward) and, keeping your arms straight, sweep your arms out to your sides until they form a “Y” shape with your body. Pulling to a “Y” pulls your mouth up to inhale quickly.
  2. Bend your elbows and move your forearms down and back toward the armpits as you pull your hands together in front of your chest in a praying position.
  3. Shoot praying hands back into the streamline position as your eyes fall back under the surface to look down. This is the glide phase.
  4. A.k.a. the “Froggie kick,” starts in a streamline. Dorsiflex your toes (toes point toward shins) and bring heels up to your butt cheeks. Point toes outward and use the soles of the feet to kick outward and into a streamline again.
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The Full-Body Swimming Workouts For a Summer Body

Now that you’ve learned important swim strokes and know how to stay safe in the water, it’s time for a calorie-burning workout you can do all summer long.

Before Your Workout: If it’s been a while since you’ve been in the water, Mong says it’s important to practice the sensation of buoyancy and water resistance before tackling a full workout. “Go for a recreational swim with a buddy to water-walk, and practice efficient arm, leg, and foot movements. Rekindle your trust in floating, and calm breathing. Help each other get into proper float and stroke formations,” she says.

Workout 1: Endurance workout with mid-level difficulty:

Warm up with a 50-yard backstroke on the back. (1 length of a standard pool is 25 yards.)

Workout: perform 300 free, 50 breast, 250 back, 50 breast, 250 free.

Warm down with 50 yards kicking on back. Take little to no breaks, or only occasional 30-second breaks. It’s better to slow the swim, rather than break.

Workout 2: Interval workout with middle to high difficulty:

Warm up with 50 breaststrokes and 50 free.

Workout: All sprints: 100 free swim, rest 20 seconds. 100 free swim, rest 20 seconds, 100 free, rest 30 seconds, 100 back, rest 30 seconds, 100 free.

Warm down with 50 kicking on the back and 50 breaststrokes.