Dear Mark: Swimming Tips; High Weight, Low Reps vs High Reps, Low Weight

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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions. First up are some swimming tips for a novice swimmer who read last week’s post and wants to incorporate swimming into the schedule. What strokes to learn? What workouts to try? I also discuss the downsides of chlorinated pools. Next, a new study claims that whether you lift heavy weight for low reps or lift light for high reps has no effect on strength or size, so long as you go to failure. Is this true?

Let’s go:

Hey Mark, really liked the swimming post. Got any tips for someone without much experience in the water? I’ve also heard that chlorinated pool water is a concern…that true?

Thanks for all you do!

Learn to tread water. Treading water should be easy. It’s like standing, on land; it’s the default mode. Once you can tread for 5 minutes without freaking out or struggling, progress to actual swimming.

Start with, and maybe even stick to, basic freestyle. It’s a great stroke with strong fitness potential. You don’t ever have to progress past this if you don’t want. Take lessons, read books, or watch videos to learn; technique is really, really important here.

Butterfly is the “hardest” stroke. If you can get the technique down (it’s tricky), you really develop explosive power.

Breaststroke is the “easiest.” In fact, I make it a point to do some breaststrokes in the pool whenever I do my post workout cool-downs to stretch my muscles out.

Learn to dolphin kick. It’s an extremely powerful and empowering way to move through the water that uses the entire body, not just “the legs.”

I’ve had fun with a quick sprint workout lately. Sprint one length freestyle. Spring one length dolphin kicking on your back, keeping your head out of the water and your hands on your chest. Sprint two lengths freestyle. Done. Do 3-6 more cycles, depending on the length of a “length.” Get ready for sore hamstrings (those dolphin kicks are no joke).

Loosen up with an easy 5-10 minutes of breaststroke. This’ll really stretch out your tissues and prepare you for sleep if you can hack it toward the end of the day. Of course, if you want to go hard, breaststroke can leave your lats and triceps incredible sore.

More advanced swimmers looking to train their swimming can use a program like Swim Smooth, which I hear good things about.

Beware the “post-swim appetite.” As mentioned earlier, being in cool water forces you to burn more calories (via brown fat activation) to maintain your body temperature. This makes you hungrier than normal. As a result, swimmers tend to eat more food than other athletes, and several studies have found that swimming has little to no effect on fat loss compared to equivalent amounts of other types of training. If you can resist the massive spike in appetite many people experience after swimming, however, you’ll likely burn a little extra fat.

If swimming is your primary form of training, make sure you’re also lifting heavy things and getting plenty of magnesium. Lifting provides the impact you (and your bones) are missing, and magnesium intake is especially important for a swimmer’s bone mineral density. Supplement, eat spinach/almonds/blackstrap molasses.

What about the swimming medium—should you stick to “ancestral bodies of water” like salt water pools, lakes and rivers, and the ocean?

If you can, yes. Chlorine tends to react with various bodily fluids to form disinfection byproducts, or DBPs. Some DBPs have unpleasant health effects or are associated with unpleasant health conditions. When chlorinated pool water meets dimethylamine (found in urine and sweat), nitrosamine carcinogens form, and appear in pools at concentrations up to 500-fold higher than drinking water. These nitrosamines may be absorbed through skin. Chloramine, another DBP has been linked to asthma in pool workers and elite swimmers. All told, you can find over 100 chemical byproducts in swimming pools, many of them toxic.

But swimming in chlorinated pools is better than not swimming at all, and the people who seem to suffer the most from pool-related maladies are those who spend inordinate time in and around pools, especially enclosed ones. Elite swimmers with their 4 hour practices and lifeguards who breathe the fumes for 8 hours a day are probably most at risk. Folks swimming for pleasure and a short workout or two a few times a week, not so much.

Most of all, have fun with it. Make sure every visit to the pool is an enjoyable one. You’re a beginner and you don’t want to learn negative associations.


Curious about your thoughts on this research:

It’s a very cool study (PDF).

Here’s what happened:

Young men with at least two years of lifting experience were split into two training groups for 12 weeks. One group lifted lighter weights (30-50% of their one rep max) for 20-30 reps. The other group lifted heavier weights (75-90% of one rep max) for 8-12 reps. Both groups trained to failure, lifting until they couldn’t.

On Mondays and Thursdays, they did inclined leg press/seated row supersets, barbell bench press/hamstring curl supersets, and front planks. On Tuesdays and Fridays were machine overhead press/bicep curl supersets, tricep extension/wide-grip lat pulldown supersets, and machine knee extensions. So while they weren’t hoisting barbells and doing Olympic lifts, these were primarily compound movements.

Each session, subjects did three sets of each exercise. Researchers adjusted the weight between sets to maintain the prescribed rep ranges.

After 12 weeks of this regimen, they ran some tests on the subjects.

Both groups experienced similar gains in strength (one rep max) and hypertrophy. The only difference lay in the bench press one rep max. The subjects who lifted heavier weights for fewer reps saw larger strength increases in that lift.

Other studies  have found similar results. Neither load nor volume matter much when you compare moderate to high reps, as long as the trainees push themselves to failure. Effort seems to be the key factor.

Yet that’s not the final word. When you compare 8-12 reps at 70% of 1RM to 3-5 reps at 90% of 1RM with back squats and barbell bench presses, things change. The higher-intensity, lower-rep regimen resulted in bigger arms and a higher max bench. Max squat and leg development, which didn’t differ between rep schemes, may benefit equally from higher volume and higher intensity.

To be absolutely “safe,” you can try all three. Oscillating between low reps, heavy weight (3-5 reps, 90% 1RM); medium reps, medium weight (8-12 reps, 70% 1RM); and high reps, low weight (30-50% 1RM) may be an effective way to reap the benefits of all three regimens.

This is an interesting topic. I may revisit it in a future post.

Thanks for the questions, everyone. And thanks for reading! Be sure to chime in down below if you have anything to add—or ask!

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