How to do swimming as a workout for beginners with 3 expert-approved sessions

This is how to do swimming as a workout for beginners if you're new to the pool or taking your first dip in a while, according to the experts

Woman doing swimming as a workout for beginners, swimming lengths down a pool in swimsuit, goggles, and hat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Swimming workouts for beginners are one of the most popular methods of cardiovascular exercise out there - along with walking, running, and cycling. Now summer is well on the way, more of us are set to head to pools, lakes, and lidos to take advantage of all the sport has to offer. 

Unlike running and cycling, you can be a total beginner and completely new to exercise when you start swimming. Thanks to the water, which provides both natural resistance against the body and low-impact support, swimming offers everyone with access the chance to get fitter and stronger without pressure on the bones and joints.

There are so many benefits of swimming but, at least physically speaking, many of them are achieved when you gradually increase the intensity of your exercise, which is where learning how to do swimming as a workout comes in. As former swim coach Nuala Muir-Cochrane explains, "Whether you're looking to better your race time, increase your distances, or simply dedicate a few more hours a week to exercise, setting specific, measurable swimming goals will help you achieve your ambitions. Not only will it give your swimming training direction and purpose, but it will provide motivation and drive as you work to hit targets."

With this in mind, we've asked Muir-Cochrane, who is also the Swimming Product Development Manager at David Lloyd Clubs, to reveal all there is to know about swimming as a workout from the beginners' level - with three workouts you can follow to get started.

How to do swimming as a workout for beginners 

1. Start off slow

As with any new exercise, while you're learning the routines and getting comfortable in the new environment, it's important to take it at your starting pace. 

"Take it easy to begin with, slowly increasing your intensity and periods of maximum effort as you get fitter and stronger. Adapt it to suit your level of fitness and never be hesitant to take a rest when you need it," says Muir-Cochrane. That goes for rest between laps or rest days, where you stay out of the pool and/or gym. 

As part of this, she says, "Take care to warm up and cool down in order to fully prepare your muscles and help prevent injury." You can do this in the pool or before you get in, using one of the best stretching apps, for example. 

2. Think of swimming in the same way as a gym workout

When it comes to doing swimming as a workout for beginners, it's important to start seeing your sessions as repetitions and sets - like in strength training

"The key to starting to swim for fitness is to break down your workout and start thinking of 'sets'," says Muir-Cochrane. For example, in the workouts below, the coach has separated each of the sets into warm-up, main set, and cool-down, lasting in total for about 30 minutes. This doesn't mean you swim for the full 30 minutes though. 

Also, she notes, incorporate sessions using different strokes, levels of intensity, and distances, just as you would break up weight training sessions to target different parts of the body or techniques. "This will keep your workout interesting and your body guessing." 

Tops of two women's bodies swimming outdoors

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Set realistic goals

No matter your aim in starting swimming, you have to be realistic with what you want to achieve and the time you want to achieve it. This is essential to avoid disappointment and injury, which can happen if you push yourself physically without enough training. While swimming is a low-impact sport, the water still offers some significant resistance against the body when you're moving.

"For instance, if you're relatively new to swimming [but looking to compete], don't aim to win your first competition. Rather focus on beating your own personal best, improving your times and distances," suggests the coach. 

4. Swim little and often

Speaking of building up your fitness and strength, the best way to approach swimming workouts as a beginner is little and often. For example, swimming for 30 minutes every few days should be more than enough. 

"Up to three times per week in the pool will maintain your swimming fitness," says Muir-Cochrane. 

5. Try out new environments

If you only have access to one type of water, that's totally fine - sticking to a pool, lido, sea, lake, and so on won't affect your fitness, provided you do the workout. However, if you're looking to change things up and challenge your body in new ways during your workout, explore other waters. 

For example, there are plenty of benefits of cold water swimming that you won't find in an indoor pool. As research from S-VYASA University found, cold water and wild swimming has the potential to boost immunity over several weeks of exposure, help with pain management, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. For those feeling even braver with colder temperatures, ice swimming has these benefits and then some.

Woman laughing and smiling in the swimming pool, about to do swimming as a workout for beginners

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Swimming workouts for beginners 

1. For increasing your stamina and strength

Distance: 850m/approx. 34 lengths in a 25m pool. 

Time: 30-minutes (with breaks between sets)

  • Warm-up: 200m
    1 x 100m Front crawl
    2 x 50m Backstroke
  • Main set: 450m
    1 x 50m Front crawl
    2 x 50m Breaststroke
    1 x 50m Front crawl
    2 x 50m Breaststroke
    3 x 50m Front crawl
  • Cool down: 200m
    1 x 100m Backstroke
    1 x 100m Front crawl

2. For building up your core and strength

Distance: 900m/approx. 36 lengths in a 25m pool

Time: 30-minutes (with breaks between sets)

  • Warm up: 200m
    1 x 100m Front crawl
    2 x 50m Breaststroke
  • Main set: 500m
    4 x 50m Front crawl
    2 x 50m Front crawl with a kick. Hold a kickboard or float vertically in front of you, using only your legs.
    2 x 50m Backstroke with a kick. Hold a kickboard or float vertically in front of you, using only your legs.
    1 x 100m Front crawl. Go as fast as you can here.
  • Cool down: 200m
    1 x 100m Breaststroke
    1 x 100m Front crawl

3. For focusing on pace, helping you build endurance and swim longer distances

Distance: 1,000m approx. 40 lengths in a 25m pool

Time: 30-minutes (with breaks between sets)

  • Warm up: 100m of any stroke you prefer.
  • Main set: 8 x 100 at a consistently challenging pace for you i.e. 2 minutes for every 100m. Try to hold the same pace for each 100m, resting for less than 10 second between each set.
  • Cool down: 100m of any stoke you prefer.

Is swimming a good workout for weight loss? 

Yes, swimming is a great workout if you're looking to lose weight healthily and sustainably. As research by Pusan National University explains, swimming of any kind is a full-body workout, which means it utilizes all the major muscles in the body at the same time. Generally, the more parts of the body you use during exercise, the more effective it will be at burning calories, which is what you need to get into a calorie deficit to lose weight

As for how many calories swimming burns, according to a report by Harvard University, swimming laps round a pool is one of the best exercises you can do. It burns more calories per 30 minutes than yoga, walking, kayaking, and downhill skiing, beaten only by higher-intensity activities like running, cycling, and tennis. 

However, the rate at which each person burns calories is different depending on numerous factors - including current weight, height, gender, and activity level - so if you want more specific guidance, consider investing in one of the best Fitbits or other fitness trackers for beginners. 

Alternatively, incorporating some light swimming during any trips abroad where you might have time to spend in the sea or in the pool can be a great way to incorporate some movement into your schedule and help you to lose weight without exercise specifically. 

Tips for the pool 

  • Wear a swimsuit that fits well: You know the saying, if you look good, you'll feel good. That confidence will come partially from what you wear to the pool, so make sure you have a suit that is comfortable. If you want to get into the pool sooner rather than later, take a look at our guide on the best swimsuits on Amazon as many of these are available with next-day delivery. 
  • Invest in goggles and a swim hat: The importance of goggles when it comes to swimming is clear but a latex swim hat is also essential. As well as keeping the pool free of loose hairs, a hat will protect your hair and scalp from damaging chlorine water.
  • Complement your swimming with other workouts: Alongside swimming, it may be beneficial to do some higher-impact exercises like walking as a workout. Yoga or Pilates could also be beneficial to help with flexibility. If you need help, contact your local gym. They "will be able to help set you a program to build upper body strength and develop your core, which will transfer into your swimming sessions, helping you to build an efficient and strong stroke technique."
  • Familiarize yourself with the water's timetable: Every pool, swimming lake, and lido will have a timetable with each of the available sessions. To an hour that works for you - like one where you can avoid spending an hour in the pool with kids or find an hour when you can go in the pool with your kids, make sure you check this out.
Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.