Is treading water a good workout?

Treading water is a classic swimming exercise that involves keeping yourself afloat vertically in the water by making small leg and arm movements. It engages many major muscle groups and can be done almost anywhere there is a body of water deep enough to submerge yourself. But is treading water actually an effective workout? Let’s take a closer look at the exercise and its benefits and limitations.

Quick Answers

Here are quick answers to some common questions about using treading water as a workout:

  • Treading water does qualify as a workout – it engages your core, leg, and arm muscles to keep you stabilized and afloat.
  • However, it is not necessarily a complete cardio and strength routine on its own.
  • The difficulty and benefits depend heavily on your technique and intensity – actively treading hard engages more muscles than passively floating.
  • It can be a good supplemental or warmup exercise but should usually be combined with swimming laps or other moves for a comprehensive routine.
  • On average, treading water burns 200-400 calories per hour depending on your body weight and effort level.
  • It works many muscle groups including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, abs, shoulders, biceps and triceps.
  • Proper form is important to get the most out of the exercise and avoid straining your lower back.
  • Use short, alternating scissor kicks and short arm strokes near your sides to efficiently tread vertical.
  • Adding arm and leg extensions or using a designed workout fin can increase the intensity.
  • Start with short 5-10 minute sessions and work up from there based on your fitness level.

Muscle Groups Worked

One of the biggest benefits of treading water is that it engages multiple major muscle groups at once to keep your head above the surface and your body stabilized. Here are some of the major areas focused on:

  • Core – Your abdominal muscles have to contract constantly to keep your upper body vertical and stable as your legs and arms move independently below the surface. This isometric contraction strengthens the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis.
  • Glutes – The large, powerful gluteal muscles have to contract and extend your hips to provide most of the vertical support as you “tread water.”
  • Quads – Your quadriceps also contract to extend your knees and provide leg kicks upward.
  • Hamstrings – The hamstrings assist the hip extension motion along with the glutes.
  • Calves – The calf muscles plantarflex your feet and ankles on each kick.
  • Shoulders – The deltoids contribute to the arm strokes and shoulder rotation involved in staying balanced.
  • Biceps/triceps – These opposing arm muscles contract to flex and extend your elbows during arm strokes.

As you can see, treading water works areas like the legs, hips, core, and upper body together at the same time. Proper technique prevents over-reliance on any one muscle group. This makes it a useful full-body workout.

Calories Burned Treading Water

The number of calories you can burn treading water will depend on:

  • Your body weight – Heavier people burn more calories.
  • Intensity – Treading vigorously burns more calories than passively floating.
  • Duration – Longer sessions mean more calories used.

Some averages for calories burned per hour based on a person’s weight:

Weight Calories Burned Per Hour
100 lbs 200-300
150 lbs 300-400
200 lbs 400-500

These are rough estimates that can vary based on individual factors. But it gives you an idea that an hour-long treading water workout can burn at minimum 200 calories for a smaller person and up to 500 calories for a larger, more active individual.

Cardio Benefits

Treading water provides a useful cardio workout due to the constant motion required. To stay afloat, you must repeatedly kick your legs and stroke your arms. This near-continuous activity elevates your heart rate and keeps large muscle groups engaged. The glutes, quads, hamstrings, shoulders and other areas get strengthened through these repetitive movements.

That said, it generally does not provide as intense of a cardio workout as swimming laps at a fast pace. The motion needed to tread water is localized and slower. So while it qualifies as a cardio activity, it may not replace high intensity swimming, running, or other workouts for cardiovascular training.

Strength and Resistance Benefits

In addition to cardio, treading water also provides some strength and resistance training effects. Having to constantly stabilize and support your body weight against the water’s resistance recruits your core, legs, shoulders and other muscle groups. This isometric contraction tones these larger areas.

However, the effects are still generally less than you would get from resistance exercises like weight lifting. The water does not provide heavy loading on the muscles to maximally challenge their strength. So you may need to supplement with other strength training if that is a goal.

Technique and Form

Having proper form when treading water can help you get the most out of it as a workout and avoid injury. Here are some tips for effective technique:

  • Keep your head stable and looking forward, with your upper body vertical. Avoid tilting too far forward or backward.
  • Make scissor kick movements with your legs, alternating them to provide continuous propulsion.
  • Bring each leg up high with the knee bent to get full hip and glute activation.
  • Keep your kicks narrow to avoid splaying your legs too far apart, which can strain the hips and groin.
  • Use short arm strokes near your sides pointed slightly downward to propel you.
  • Time leg kicks and arm strokes smoothly together so you maintain balance.
  • Avoid arching your lower back excessively. Tighten your core to stabilize.

Intensity Boosters

There are some ways you can enhance the intensity of treading water to burn more calories and get a more rigorous workout:

  • Use extended arm and leg movements to engage muscles through a fuller range of motion.
  • Add resistance equipment like foam dumbbells or a workout fin designed for treading.
  • Tread in deep water where you can’t touch the bottom for greater stability challenge.
  • Vary your pace with intervals of faster and slower treading motions.
  • Rotate through side-to-side and forward-backward movements.
  • Do crossover arm strokes across your body for added difficulty.

Boosting the intensity in these ways can help take treading water from a warmup activity to a challenging cardio and strength training workout on its own.

Benefits for Other Water Sports

Even if treading water alone may not provide a comprehensive workout, it still has great value as cross-training for other aquatic sports and activities like:

  • Surfing – Helps build stamina for paddling and catching waves.
  • Scuba diving – Improves air consumption by increasing lung capacity.
  • Water polo – Develops leg power for treading during matches.
  • Lifeguard training – Teaches lifesaving techniques like staying afloat in emergencies.
  • Swim workouts – Serves as a challenging drill or warmup exercise.
  • Naval/military training – Prepares for aquatic operations and survival.

Even frequent swimmers can benefit from the unique stability and coordination challenges that treading water provides. It remains an invaluable skill across many sports and activities.

Beginner Recommendations

If you are new to treading water, start with short 5-10 minute sessions 1-2 times per week to get accustomed to the motions before increasing duration. Use walls or ledges for support at first if needed. Other tips for beginners include:

  • Wearing a flotation device to help you maintain proper positioning.
  • Trying a scissor kick with legs only while holding the wall to focus on leg form.
  • Starting in waist-deep water before progressing to deeper spots.
  • Using aquatic shoes to help tread if you have difficulty pointing your toes.
  • Doing belly-up drills for extended arm and leg reaching patterns.

As you get comfortable, slowly increase your treading time while removing aids like flotation devices. Maintain good form and take breaks as needed. With practice, you’ll gain efficiency and stamina.

Safety Precautions

While generally low-impact, treading water still carries some safety considerations, including:

  • Tread only in pools or open water with proper supervision and/or lifeguards.
  • Avoid hyperventilating by breathing steadily as you tread.
  • Stay hydrated and refuel properly after longer sessions.
  • Listen to your body and rest if you start cramping or feeling fatigued.
  • Stop right away if you feel any pain in your neck, back, hips, or other joints.
  • Don’t overdo duration as a beginner until your technique and endurance improves.

With proper precautions, almost anyone can perform this exercise safely. Those with medical conditions or concerns should consult a doctor first.


Treading water engages your core, arms, and legs to keep you stabilized vertically in the water. While not necessarily equivalent to swimming laps or other cardio, it qualifies as a full-body workout when done with proper form and intensity. The unilateral leg movements and arm strokes provide moderate cardio conditioning. Your core and major muscle groups also get a strength training effect from stabilizing against the water’s resistance.

For most people, treading water works best as a supplemental exercise to swimming and dryland workouts. It helps build aquatic endurance and provides a different stability challenge. Start with brief sessions to master the technique before increasing duration. Vary your arm and leg patterns for an added challenge. Stay safe, and treading water can be an enjoyable, low-impact yet effective addition to your routine.

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