Chances are you’ve experienced shoulder pain or discomfort at some point in your swimming life. These injuries can keep you out of the pool for weeks or even months at a time and are incredibly frustrating.
Many swimmers will visit a physical therapist after an injury to manage the recovery phase, but overlook what the root cause of the pain is. Most of the time, simple adjustments in technique and a specific strength program can make all the difference in eliminating shoulder pain and lessening your risk for potential future injury.
1) Body Position
Swimming with limited rotation on the long axis of the spine causes the arms to swing from side to side and adds unnecessary stress on the shoulders. This can be a major source of shoulder joint impingement and rotator cuff issues. Focus on body roll in freestyle to ensure you’re maximizing your extension and developing an efficient pull pattern in the water.
2) Hand Entry
Entering the water middle finger first at a 45 degree angle ensures that your hand is in the most optimal position to grab the most water. If you enter the water thumb first, this can lead to excessive internal rotation which can lead to over-use injuries.
3) Swimming Posture
Improving body alignment and posture means that the power of the pull phase is dramatically improved because you are applying propulsion straight backwards rather than laterally. A proper swimming posture will make you more efficient and preventing cross-over is one of the easiest ways to mitigate risk of shoulder injury and increase efficiency.
4) Catch and Pull
Typically swimmers will pull through the water with either a dropped elbow or with a very straight arm. Doing so loads the shoulder muscles excessively as the majority of the pull through phase is spend pushing down, rather than pressing back. Developing a high-elbow catch will engage the larger more powerful muscles in the upper back rather than relying on the shoulders.
Prehabilitation focuses on strengthening supporting muscles to facilitate proper biomechanics to avoid injury. In swimming we are constantly rotating the shoulder joint, which puts stress on the muscles of the rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff is made of four small muscles: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. Focused work on these muscles is more effective for maintaining shoulder health than weights for the larger prime mover muscles in the shoulders, since most swimmers’ limitation is not brute strength, but correct motor patterns.
Stand with your back to the anchor point, the tubing in one hand out at a right angle. Push your arm straight our from your body. When extended, trace an “L” shape slowly and return to start.
Form tip: Keep shoulder blades low and tight to the back of your spine.
Reps: 12-20 times per side
Stand perpendicular to your anchor point. Pull the tubing directly across your body, keeping your elbow tight to your waist.
Form tip: Keep the scapula tight and your shoulder lowered to work the rotator cuff, not arm muscles.
Reps: 12-15 times per side
The opposite of the external rotation: Grasp the tubing in the hand closest to the anchor point and rotate the arm away from the anchor point across the body.
Form tip: Take one lateral step away to add resistance.
Reps: 12-15 times per side
Y and T Fly
Take an end of the band in each hand and step backward until the band becomes taut with your arms extended at shoulder level. Keeping your body upright and your abs contracted, pull your arms out and above your head in a “Y” shape, then return to start. Then pull your arms out into a “T” at your side. (That’s one rep.)
Form tip: This is meant to strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades, so keep your shoulders down to focus on those muscles rather than your arms.
Reps: 10, building to more.