Swimmer Body vs Gym Body: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 28, 2022

Just as the various forms of exercise are performed in different manners, so too are the end-result bodies of such activities, with the sort of body developed from swimming being quite different from that achieved by regularly being at the gym.

In this article, we will discuss what makes a body a swimmer or gym body, as well as the advantages of having such a body - alongside an overview of how to go about reaching these goals, if that is something you have in mind.

To put it in a nutshell, the swimmer’s body is characterized by being lean and relatively lithe in form, with little in the form of additional muscle mass or body fat. 

In comparison, the ideal “gym body” is most often depicted as an individual of significantly denser muscle mass, with broad shoulders and a “V-taper” shaped by having a small waist in comparison to their larger upper body.

What is the Swimmer Body?

The swimmer’s body is considered to be both the end-result and the ideal physical form of a high level athletic swimmer, usually characterized by impressive mid-back muscle width, long and lean limbs, and a low level of body fat.

swimmer body

The swimmer’s body is most often described as “toned” or “slim” while still clearly possessing some level of athletic ability, usually with the swimmer’s body fat composition being sufficiently low enough to make their abdominal muscles visible. 

Some individuals are more predisposed to developing a swimmer’s body than others, as one of the other key characteristics of a swimmer’s body is having a lanky or long build - meaning that individuals who are naturally tall and thin are more likely to end up with a swimmer’s body than others.

Advantages of a Swimmer's Body

The main advantage of the swimmer’s body, surprisingly enough, is that it is excellent for swimming and similar sports. A low level of body fat equates to a summarily low body weight, making every movement more energy efficient and maximizing physical endurance.

Furthermore, the swimmer’s body is far lower maintenance than other kinds of athletic bodies, as the musculature of a swimmer’s body is usually kept at a minimum level that does not require significant training stimulus to maintain.

Disadvantages of a Swimmer's Body

As one may guess, the swimmer’s body is not as conducive to gross physical strength as more bulky athletic bodies, and is otherwise less accustomed to performing resistance exercise or other types of weightlifting movements.

In addition, the ideal swimmer’s body is considered to be low body fat, something that many may struggle with as doing so will require individuals to control their caloric intake, otherwise meaning that a controlled diet is needed in order to achieve such a body.

Purpose of a Swimmer's Body

swimmer upper back

The purpose of the swimmer’s body is to reduce total body weight as much as possible while still retaining a level of muscularity that enables fast and efficient swimming movements, with the aforementioned long-limb and wide back characteristics also aiding in such a purpose.

What is the Gym Body?

The gym body is considered to be the classic bodybuilder’s body, wherein the exerciser will have significant skeletal muscle mass throughout their entire body, usually with so-called “show” muscles being the most impressive in terms of pure mass.

gym body

The gym body is characterized by a broad upper torso, significant arm musculature and a thin waist to accentuate both of these characteristics. The legs are often well muscled as well, with significant muscle mass in the posterior chain and the quadriceps femoris (or thigh) muscles.

In terms of body fat, the ideal gym body may be approximately the same as the swimmer’s body, if not slightly more depending on the goals of the exerciser.

While there is no particular “starting type” of body that is predisposed to developing a gym body, individuals with a naturally thin waist and broad clavicles will see faster results when training for this particular body type.

gym body back

Advantages of a Gym Body

The main advantage of the gym body is in its pure strength capacity, wherein the constant resistance exercise that the body is put through allows the muscles to adapt both in size and strength, resulting in the exerciser being stronger than most other athletic body types.

Furthermore, many individuals seeking out the gym body do so because of the inherent aesthetic appeal associated with its appearance, with many individuals finding it to be physically attractive and a bodily appearance that they wish to have.

Disadvantages of a Gym Body

The main disadvantage to the gym body is the pure effort and time needed to achieve it naturally, as an exerciser’s training program, diet, and lifestyle must be in check - a deviation or inefficiency in one of these three factors can easily lead to the exerciser being unable to achieve the gym body.

Furthermore, the gym body is also quite specialized in its purpose, and the sort of methods used to achieve it do not carry over well to other forms of athletic activity. 

This means that, while bodybuilders and gym-goers are physically large and likely quite strong, they will rarely have the same endurance, dexterity or other sports-specific skills that other types of athletes may have - that is, unless they also train for such purposes as well.

In addition to this, regular gym goers are also more prone to injuries than regular swimmers, a simple consequence of the stresses placed on the body by regular resistance exercise.

Purpose of a Gym Body

The purpose of the gym body is quite simple; pure muscular effectiveness, both in terms of size and strength. 

Many individuals striving for such a body also do so for its psychological effects, with the majority of gym goers reporting improved self-confidence and outlook as a result of having a better body.

Largest Muscle Groups of the Swimmer Body and the Gym Body

The swimmer body and the gym body place emphasis on drastically different muscle groups, with these muscles often being the most visually prominent when viewing either body from an external point of view. This is a natural development due to the involvement of such muscles in their particular sport.

As such, athletes with these kinds of bodies will also place greater training focus on these muscles, furthering their relative size in comparison to other muscles around the body.

Despite this, it is important to remember that all muscle groups must be trained when striving for either of these body types, and the fact that the following muscles are larger is simply a consequence of the type of training these athletes undergo.

The Swimmer Body - Latissimus Dorsi, Triceps Brachii and Abdominal Muscles

The latissimus dorsi, triceps brachii and abdominal muscles are all recruited to a significant extent during swimming, regardless of what swimming form is used. 

In particular, the latissimus dorsi is recruited throughout every swimming motion due to its scapula-extending biomechanic, allowing swimmers to perform movements like the breast stroke or butterfly stroke without relying entirely on their deltoids and pectoral muscles.

This further contributes to the “long and lean” appearance of the swimmer body, where muscle groups that normally lend width to the body are otherwise smaller in comparison to those that are less prominent in such a fashion.

The Gym Body -  Pectoral Muscles, Biceps Brachii, Deltoids and Trapezius

The pectoral or chest muscles, the biceps, as well as the deltoids and trapezius muscles are among the most visually distinctive muscles of the upper body - each of which lend both width and thickness to the exerciser’s torso, regardless of what angle it is viewed from.

These muscles are also frequently involved in practically every compound exercise, with movements like the bench press, military press or the row all recruiting some if not all of these muscle groups in a dynamic fashion.

As such, it is these parts of the upper body that receive the most stimulus, and thereby also develop the most - especially in regards to the deltoids, of which will often receive the most training stimulus, isometric or otherwise.

Defining Differences of the Swimmer Body and the Gym Body

Apart from the largest and most noticeable muscles of either body, there are also certain other characteristics that define the swimmer body and the gym body.

Body Fat Percentage

Though both the ideal swimmer body and the ideal gym body feature relatively low body fat composition, the swimmer’s body takes it somewhat further due to the requirement of having a lower body weight during competitive swimming events. 

In most cases, individuals with a swimmer body will have a body fat percentage between 10-16%.

On the other hand, competitive bodybuilders or gym-goers participating in such competitions will often drop their body fat levels to sub-10 percentages, something that is otherwise unsustainable in the long run. 

Apart from these cases, most individuals with a gym body will hover somewhere between 11-18%.

Relative Strength

Bodyweight and muscular adaptation are two major factors that go into how much an individual is capable of lifting, both of which are less present throughout the course of a swimmer’s training. 

This equates to the gym body being better for developing physical strength, especially in a competitive environment like powerlifting or strongman events.

Athletic Endurance

Much like physical strength, the relative endurance of a body will depend on the sort of training stimulus it receives. While this is indeed present in regular resistance training, it is likely less intense than what the average swimmer will encounter throughout the course of their training.

As such, it is the swimmer body that beats out the gym body in this particular aspect, both in terms of muscular endurance and in terms of cardiovascular endurance.

Time Table to Achieve

Due to the rate at which muscle develops, the gym body will take significantly longer and far more effort to achieve than the swimmer body - especially at the upper levels of muscular development, wherein natural lifters will likely be unable to progress much further than a pound of muscle mass development within a given month.

This is not as much of a problem when training for the swimmer body, as the relatively small amount of muscle mass needed to achieve such a physique is not as affected by the diminishing returns of increasing muscle mass.

To Conclude

As we’ve outlined, the swimmer body and the gym body are two different athletic physiques that are achieved with entirely separate manners of training. 

While the gym body is stronger and bulkier, the swimmer body is leaner and lighter - presenting benefits for their respective sports.

Whether it be for optimal performance in your sport, or if you just like the look of either body, it is likely that proper training and an adequate diet are enough for you to reach these ideal physiques.

References

1. Dopsaj M, Zuoziene IJ, Milić R, Cherepov E, Erlikh V, Masiulis N, di Nino A, Vodičar J. Body Composition in International Sprint Swimmers: Are There Any Relations with Performance? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Dec 17;17(24):9464. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249464. PMID: 33348744; PMCID: PMC7766121.

2. Cavedon V, Milanese C, Marchi A, Zancanaro C (2020) Different amount of training affects body composition and performance in High-Intensity Functional Training participants. PLOS ONE 15(8): e0237887. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237887

3. Thomas MH, Burns SP. Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016 Apr 1;9(2):159-167. PMID: 27182422; PMCID: PMC4836564.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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