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

Swimming - An Essential Primal Skill FinalFor 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!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Swimming Tips; High Weight, Low Reps vs High Reps, Low Weight”

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  1. I can’t believe Mark left out the backstroke! It’s the best one for those of us who hunch over a computer all day — really opens the chest. And for newbies who have trouble with the front crawl breathing, backstroke eliminates that issue.

  2. Pity that they didn’t compare against lifters who didn’t train to failure. I guess the advice of the strongest people in the world counts for less than “science”.

  3. It’s kinda hard to find safe, non-chlorinated bodies of water when you live in the city, which is unfortunate. I love to swim, but chlorine definitely affects my eyes and skin, so I have to weigh out the benefits and drawbacks every time I go.

  4. A friend of mine told me about a scissor kick exercise he had to master in order to pass his lifeguard test. Basically, you tread water in such a way that you don’t need your arms to keep your head above water. As part of the test, you have to keep your arms and head above water while you keep yourself buoyant with your legs for 60 seconds. I tried it a couple of times and it’s no joke! Talk about a brief/intense workout. Hahah

    1. Ah yes – the old water polo “eggbeater” kick. Simply move your legs as if they were one of those old hand-powered mixers – you can choose to either rotate both in the same clockwise/counterclockwise rotation or spin them in opposite directions (depending on your coordination) with no real difference. With a little practice you can keep your head above water hands-free with very little effort, and then by cranking up the RPMs and adding a big scissors kick can launch yourself quite a ways up out of the water. That’s how you crank up for a standard overhead water polo shot.

      It’s tricky to see on TV but if you’ve ever watched a water polo game in person you can see how much power players generate with the above technique. It’s an incredible burn, and water polo shifts tend to be pretty short!

  5. That’s one way to save money on exercise equipment: simply buy the cheaper, lighter weights and keep pumping until failure. Although, if you go with five pounders, your workouts may take a while…

  6. “Kids, no making carcinogens in the pool!” That should be the new admonishment for summer campers all over the country.

  7. My results after having done superslow and light to complete failure for the past several years largely confirms this (at least for me). However, I did find that doing SS pulldowns using a machine to failure, does not transfer well to chinups or pullups. I think it is a mostly an issue of CNS training required for heavier lifts that you miss.

  8. I am in the process of recovering from a fractured sternum and first rib at T-1. I started treading water for 15 minutes at a time as my first exercise other than walking. At two weeks I started breast stroke 3 100 meter intervals. At 3 weeks I’m doing 250 meter intervals of alternating breast stroke and crawl. I think alternating breaststroke and crawl is a great way to use all your muscles in the pool without over doing it. When I started, I could not lift my arm above my head without severe pain but I could do the same motion in the water with breast stroke. Breast stroke also enabled me to step up to full shoulder mobility necessary for crawl. I’m blessed to have access to an adult only pool.

  9. I have heard that Vitamin C can help counteract the effects of chlorine. I know just a pinch of ascorbic acid powder (which is super cheap on amazon) is supposed to neutralize the chlorine in your bath water. Not sure how it would apply to a pool. I love the water and think it is therapeutic just to spend time in water, even if you are not swimming laps. But I can only tolerate outdoor pools. The chlorine smell from indoor ones is too overwhelming for me.

  10. If you do follow up on this, it would be great to address the issue of lifting to failure. I recently started doing the stronglifts5x5 program after reading one of your posts. Mehdi (at 5×5) is pretty adamant about not lifting to failure. So far in the first couple weeks of my experience I’m appreciating this because, as he says, I don’t get sore muscles and excessive fatigue which is keeping me pretty motivated.

    But then again, I’m curious what “lifting to failure” implies. Even with the 5×5, eventually you can’t get 5×5 at your current weight and must “fail” and then work that weight until you advance. So maybe more clarity on this issue would be great.

    1. Usually ‘to failure’ is your last rep should look like your first then u r ready to add more weight. Grinders don’t count but you gotta try and go for it sometimes.

  11. Mark,

    I know that swimming is a great form of cardio and a good way to burn fat, but I’ve never been a strong swimmer. I have always wanted to jump in the pool and get a good workout in, but I feel as though my weaknesses in swimming are so severe that any kind of workout won’t be successful. I can tread water for more than 5 minutes without panic but it’s basically everything else that I struggle with. I do like the suggestions you made. Are there any other swim techniques that you would recommend?

    1. swimming fresstyle/front crawl is fun if you master the art of breathing to the side while you swim, you can go on for a long time, butterfly is the best workout swimm for strength and calorie burn, just g=have to master the technique, its a rhythm stroke. not so hard :-/0

  12. Mark,
    I have a question about athletes on season and off. What is the difference in nutrition and exercise? I’m 15 years old and I find my self being worn out. I’m currently off season and i thought I could take it easy with working out but I find it difficult because I’m use to pushing myself to my limit during season. Being scared of loosing progress I keep working intensively and being real strict with my foods. This has cause my health to decline and am not enjoying myself like I use to. What can I start doing to fix my nutrition and over all health? I do basketball and soccer and are on my high school varsity team. My goal is optimal performance without hurting my health. Please help.

    1. Hi Karla – it sounds like you take your sport(s) seriously, and no one’s answered your question, so here’s my two cents as a former elite international-level athlete (and current Masters athlete) with a lot of training experience across endurance, sprinting and weightlifting:

      NB – if you’re only 15, make sure you’re having fun, not overdoing it so you can stay in it for the long haul! Serious training only starts at 17, 18 when athletes start to mature. Remember, Michael Jordan wasn’t even on his varsity team at your age…

      1) Try eat well and balanced, but EAT LOTS. Primal is a great place to start, but don’t be *too* strict with your foods if it prevents you eating enough to fuel your body…. as an athlete when you’re training hard you need much more food than other people just for fuel and rebuilding – let alone continued growth at your age.

      If you’re training hard extra protein, and significantly more carbohydrates than other people on a Primal diet would. I think there’s a ‘Primal for Athletes’ post on here somewhere by Mark… Protein is obviously very important for recovery, and you need more carbs in your case to refuel your glycogen for the repeated sprints you have in your sports and training. Consider taking a good multi vitamin supplement, even if you just take one every two days to make up for potential deficiencies.

      2) Recovery: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and have at least 1-2 rest days a week with no training, and at *minimum* one serious 3-4 week ‘mental break’ rest period at the end of the season where you don’t ‘train’ or do your main sports, but just keep active and do fun, active stuff. And stretch well after workouts 😉

      3) Get a coach. A good one. Ideally join your local track (running) club for the “off” season and work with their sprint coach, to match the demands of your sport. Good track coaches tend to know what they’re doing in getting athletes in shape (without injuring them). As a sprinter, and for most ball sports the golden rule is “do a little bit of everything all the time” Which means each week you do your speed/sprints one day, some strength/starts/hill sprints/gym one or two days, and your general technique drills/practice.

      And try to have fun! The biggest reason for young athletes not succeeding and going on to high level competition is because they drop out, and simply don’t keep doing their sport long enough to realise their potential. Good luck!

  13. A good way to use both heavy weight/low reps and lighter weight/high reps is to go heavy on the “big lifts” (squat, bench, deadlift, press) and go “light” on supplemental exercises (dumbbell variations, rows, chin-ups, etc.).

  14. I get in the pool a few times a week, but I use it as a weight and sprint replacement to save on the joints. I was doing sprints 2x/week. Weights (k-bells) 2x/week, walks (at least 5 miles) the other days.

    Changed it up this summer after the heat and sprints got to be too much for the joints and tendons and decided to get in the pool.

    I don’t do traditional stroke laps. I’ve modified it where I take a 20-30lb medicine ball and dive and retrieve. Also, I do a half mile of laps where I move the ball underwater via swimming (bumping and pushing it along the bottom as I grip it and frog kick) and running a few steps to launch into the next few swimming strokes. I’m burning fat like crazy combined with a good diet.

  15. Great advice Mark I agree with you. It’s essential to swim and lift. I’m a swimmer, I love swimming but I find that weight lifting complements by routine greatly. I also like the flexibility that I have when working out, just being able to switch gyms from time to time to explore new pools and new settings. At least that’s something I can do here in the U.K. I missed doing that when I was in the States.

    Thank you for another great article.

  16. I use negative reps and drop sets and have for years. I find that my strength greatly improves, along with muscle density but the size does not build significantly. I am careful to manage my recovery time to avoid over training. Work smarter, not harder. Pushing to failure is absolutely the key but recovery is where the gains are. Love this blog.

  17. 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. dothis if you want to experience injuries, Never use breaststroke to warm up, !!!what are you thinking,.

  18. Dear Mark,
    We invested in an ECO-Smarte pool that uses Copper/titanium to purify/cleanse the water. It is basically what is used in the Space Station and Shuttle (when there was one). The Water is LIKE BOTTLED water. Can even drink it. Saved one child’s life because he drowned, was revised AND the Doctors said he, of course, Had NO chlorine burn in his lungs….because there was NO chlorine in the water. I LOVE THIS POOL!!