Beyond chlorine-fried hair and goggle tan lines, strong, broad shoulders are one of the most common signs you’re dealing with a swimmer!
Those shoulders aren’t just for aesthetics, though. Building strength in your shoulders can help you move through the water with more power and can prevent painful overuse injuries.
So, how do you get “swimmer shoulders?” It comes down to 5 key factors (and long-term consistency!).
1. Dynamic Stretching & Warm-Up
The first step to building shoulder strength is a proper warm-up! Loosen up your shoulders before your swim or dryland workouts with a few minutes of dynamic stretching. These stretches get your blood moving and are only held for about 5 seconds, if that. The goal here is to improve mobility without hindering your performance.
Once you dive into the pool, take the time to complete a warm-up before you start your main set. Our ideal swim warm up is as follows:
- Swim: Typically easy free.
- Kick: Try a short set of 50s kick!
- Strokes: Incorporate some moderate IM work here to engage your muscles in a different way.
- Drills: Try to choose drills that are related to what you’ll be working on during your workout.
For customized swim and dryland workouts that include a dynamic warm-up, download the MySwimPro app!
2. Drills & Technique
Whether you incorporate them into your warm up or into a pre-set before your main set, drills help fix 2 common freestyle issues:
- Arms Crossing at the Midline: Imagine that there’s an imaginary line running down the middle of your body, from your head to your toes. Through your entire pull phase, you don’t want your hands to cross over that midline — doing so reduces your stroke efficiency. Your hand should enter the water in line with your shoulder, maintaining that alignment throughout your pull.
- Pulling With a Straight Arm: If you want your shoulders to hurt, swim freestyle with a straight arm! Since you probably don’t want that, bend at the elbow and pull with an Early Vertical Forearm catch. EVF turns your forearm and hand into a large paddle, allowing you to pull more water, and reducing stress on your shoulders.
One of our favorite drills to fix these mistakes is 3 Strokes + 12 Kicks.
Start by taking 3 freestyle strokes, followed by 12 kicks on your side with your bottom arm extended. Take 3 more strokes and repeat on the other side! As you kick, keep your arm in line with your shoulder. Focus on keeping your elbow high as you take each freestyle stroke.
3. Bodyweight Dryland Training
Proper swimming technique is very important, but when it comes to building shoulder strength, you’ve got to do dryland training! Your dryland sessions should focus on building stability and mobility in your shoulders and the supporting musculature. Check out a few of our favorite exercises to build a strong foundation in your shoulders:
Start in a plank position on your knees. Sink your chest toward the ground, and then press back up, doming your upper back to the sky. Keep your shoulders down and back throughout the movement. It should be relatively small, and overexaggerating it could lead you to compensate and reduce the benefits of this exercise.
Grab a tennis ball and place it on a wall, with your palm flat. Keeping your arm straight and shoulder down, write out your alphabet on the wall. This is a great stability exercise.
Internal & External Rotations
If you’re a veteran swimmer, you’re probably familiar with these…they’re old classics! You can do these with your body weight, light dumbbells or resistance bands. Keep your elbow in tight to your body throughout each movement.
Swiss Ball Alternating Superman
This exercise helps improve shoulder flexion. You can do it with a Swiss ball under your torso, or lying on your stomach. Think about keeping your shoulder blade locked down onto your back as you lift each arm. Don’t reach forward unnecessarily!
4. Strength Training
You can build a strong foundation with bodyweight dryland workouts, but adding extra resistance via weights or resistance bands is key to maintaining your strength and making more gains.
Pull-ups, rows, bench press, lateral raises and even weighted pushups all contribute to shoulder strength (and those broad shoulders swimmers are known for!).
5. Injury Prevention
Keeping your shoulders strong, healthy and injury-free comes down to 3 factors:
- Improve Technique: As we touched on earlier, focus on proper hand entry, catch and pull.
- Focus on Recovery: Give your body adequate rest and nutrition between workouts. Don’t overdo it!
- Optimize Your Training: Consistently incorporate dryland and strength training, and watch yourself improve!
Bonus: Not Following a Structured Training Plan
At the end of the day, maintaining proper strength for swimming — and getting faster — is all about consistency. You have to stick to your routine and challenge yourself so you continue to improve.
If you’re struggling to find balance between swimming, dryland and recovery, check out the MySwimPro app! Our structured swimming and dryland training plans can be customized to your skill level to help you reach your goals, whatever they are. We help you level up your speed and technique, pushing you out of your comfort zone and safely increasing your workout intensity over time.
Start a free 30-day trial of ELITE COACH to start your training plan.