Effective swimming starts with healthy shoulders. But in today’s society swimmers begin with a disadvantage if they spent lots of time sitting at a desk in front of a computer or stuck behind the steering wheel of a car. Add to that the imbalances that accrue in the shoulder joint from the repetitive overhead motion of swimming and it is no wonder that many swimmers experience the dreaded pain of “swimmer’s shoulder.”
If you suffer from a shoulder injury, see your doctor for a specific diagnosis and work with a physical therapist to rehab the injury. But it’s always better to avoid the whole injury-and-rehab-cycle in the first place through preventive strength training. Think “prehab” rather than rehab to keep your shoulders strong and healthy so you can enjoy swimming injury-free.
With prehab in mind, this article discusses the typical weaknesses swimmers face and describes several exercises you can use to maintain healthy shoulders. Two key areas swimmers need to focus on are addressing muscular imbalances in the rotator cuff and stabilizing the shoulder blades. Although the rotator cuff is often the source of the pain associated with swimmer’s shoulder, it is generally a symptom of a wider problem that also involves a lack of stability and mobility of the scapulae, or shoulder blades. You can strengthen the rotator cuff all you want but if you simultaneously neglect the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades, you’re missing an important part of the healthy shoulder equation. Let’s take a closer look at that equation.
Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Blades
The rotator cuff consists of four muscles that work together to support the shoulder as it rotates; these are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. The supraspinatus is primarily used in abduction, or moving the arm away from the body. The infraspinatus and teres minor are primarily involved in external rotation as well as transverse abduction/extension. The subscapularis is primarily involved in internal rotation.
Swimming freestyle involves lots of internal rotation of the shoulder joint. In addition to the internal rotation of the subscapularis, the bigger muscles of the chest (pectoralis major) and back (latissimus dorsi) get into the action to provide much of the propulsion of the stroke. With all this internal rotation during swimming, the subscapularis—which is already a strong rotator cuff muscle—gets strengthened even more. In addition, the internal rotators that include the subscapularis and chest often become tight.
Since any action involves an equal and opposite reaction, the strengthening and tightening of the internal rotators can leave the external rotators out of balance. The weak and overstretched external rotators contribute to the slumping forward of the shoulders commonly seen in swimmers—or, for that matter, anyone that sits for long periods at a desk or behind the wheel of a car with shoulders internally rotated. This imbalance can be addressed by strengthening the external rotators and improving flexibility and mobility of the internal rotators.
The other part of the healthy shoulder equation involves improving the stability and mobility of the shoulder blades. Slumping shoulders go hand in hand with a forward hunching of the back known as kyphosis. Again, this is not unique to swimmers; nearly everyone in today’s society has a tendency to break good posture by slouching and rolling the shoulders forward. So the exercises below for strengthening the shoulder blade stabilizers apply not just to swimmers. Runners will also greatly benefit by opening up their chest and shoulders to improve posture, a vital component of the advice to “run tall.”
As you start these exercises, begin with 1 set of 8-12 repetitions or 1 set of 20-30 seconds; you can then progress up to 2-3 sets. Start with no weight or very light resistance if using a stretch cord. If you use too much weight or resistance, you will start to recruit bigger muscles and negate the impact on the specific muscles you are trying to target. When adding weights, a soup can or full water bottle work well; or use light dumbbells up to 2-5 pounds. Keep in mind this is as much about making your muscles “smarter” as it is about making them stronger.
Although it is helpful to do a few shoulder blade stabilization movements with no weight to activate those muscles before swimming, it is better to save a full strength workout for after you’re done swimming or later that day. Remember, these exercises work muscles that fatigue easily during swimming. If you do a full strength workout targeting these muscles before swimming, the muscles will be less able to withstand the rigors of the swim workout.
This exercise targets the muscles involved in external rotation (infraspinatus and teres minor), which tend to be weak in swimmers. There are several variations of this exercise. But no matter which variation you do, start by squeezing your shoulder blades together and lowering them as if you were putting those shoulder blades in your back pockets. Maintain this posture throughout the exercise.
Variation #1. With a stretch cord in both hands, stand with arms at your side. To get into the starting position, bend your arms at your elbows to raise them to 90° in front of you. From this starting position, keep your elbows at your side (and keep your shoulder blades in your back pockets) as you rotate away from the midline of your body. This will pull the stretch cord apart. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Variation #2. This is the same movement as in #1 but you do one arm at a time with the stretch cord affixed to a stable object.
Variation #3. Like #1 and #2, this also involves the same movement but that movement is done while lying on your side. Instead of a stretch cord, use a light weight as you externally rotate.
Variation #4. This variation is truly different than the first three in that you will perform external rotation with arms abducted to 90°. Get into the same starting position as in #1 and #2, but then raise your elbows so your upper arms are horizontal; this is your starting position. From here, externally rotate so that your arms will move from a horizontal position (pointing forward) to a vertical position (pointing to the sky). Remember to squeeze your shoulder blades and keep them in that position while doing the exercise. Slowly return and repeat. Try this without weight at first; as you progress you can add a light weight or resistance with a stretch cord.
Water Bottle Raise
This exercise targets the infraspinatus, which is used in abduction. As with all exercises described here, start by putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets and keep them there throughout the exercise. Stand straight with arms to your side. Raise your arms up to the side so they are shoulder level, turn the thumbs up, and move your arms forward 1-2 feet. This is the up position. Now slowly lower the arms and repeat the raising and lowering from this position. Keep the thumbs up the whole time as if you are holding a glass of water.
Ball on Wall
This exercise targets the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades along with your internal and external rotators. Stand arm’s length away from a wall. Squeeze your shoulder blades and put them in your back pocket (yes, you should know the drill by now!). Take a tennis or lacrosse ball and push it against the wall so the palm of your hand pins it to the wall. Make a small clockwise circle for 15 seconds; then reverse direction for 15 seconds. Continue this for up to 2 minutes or until you can no longer keep your shoulder blades together or hold the ball up. Repeat with the other arm.
This exercise targets the muscles that stabilize your shoulders and your shoulder blades. Lie on the ground face down. Place your arms out to the side with thumbs up; this is your starting position. From here, squeeze together your shoulder blades as you lift your thumbs toward the ceiling. Slowly return and repeat.
Variation. A variation of the lying hitchhiker is to stand on one leg and bend forward with the other leg behind you to put yourself in a horizontal position. From this position, perform the exercise as described above.
Stretch Cord Row
This exercise targets the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades. You can do this sitting on an exercise ball or standing. Lean forward to get into the starting position. From there, keep your elbows in as you pull the stretch cord to a point between your belly button and rib cage; this is the finishing position. As you pull the cord, keep your palms up and squeeze the shoulder blades together. As you end, imagine pinching a coin between your shoulder blades to hold it in place. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Pushup “Plus” Rounded Finish
In addition to targeting your chest muscles like a regular pushup, this exercise also targets the serratus anterior, which holds the shoulder blades to the rib cage (to prevent what is termed “scapular winging”). In this exercise, you perform a regular pushup but when you get to the end you keep going. As you continue pushing past the normal end point, your shoulders will round forward a bit as you raise your back. Hold for 2 seconds; then return to the down position and repeat. To get a feel for this exercise, start by performing the pushup against a wall. Then progress to a pushup from the knees. When ready, you can do the pushup from the regular position.
Behind the Neck Stretch Cord Pull Apart
This exercise targets the lower trapezius, which plays an important role in stabilizing your shoulder blades through upward scapular rotation. The motion is similar to that of a lat pulldown. Grab a stretch cord in both hands and raise them directly over your head; remove any slack from the cord so that you start with some tension. From this starting position, lower your arms by leading with your elbows. As you lower your arms, bringing the cord behind your neck, it will feel like you are pulling the cord apart as you squeeze the shoulder blades together. At the end of the pull, hold it for 2 seconds; then return to the starting position and repeat.
Flexibility and Mobility
In addition to strengthening the rotator cuff and shoulder blade stabilizers, you may need to address tightness in the internal rotators. When using the stretches below, be careful not to overstretch. Never go to the point of pain. Given that swimmers typically have lax shoulder joints, it is often best to avoid stretching the external rotators; these tend to be too loose and certainly don’t need to be any looser. Myofascial release techniques can be used to enhance mobility in lieu of or in addition to stretching.
Chest Wall Stretch
This stretch targets your chest. Standing with your face against a wall, put one arm out to the side so it is parallel to the ground. Now bend the elbow up 10-15°. Use your opposite hand to push the other side of your body off the wall. You should feel a stretch in your chest. Hold for 30 seconds to 3 minutes; then repeat on the other side. You can also do this stretch lying on the floor in a prone position.
Subscapularis Broomstick Stretch
This stretch uses a broomstick to target your subscapularis. Grasp the broomstick with your left hand (thumb down) and place it behind your back, keeping the elbow in line with your shoulder. With your right hand, reach in front of the body and grasp the other end of the broomstick. To stretch the left subscapularis, pull forward on the broomstick with your right hand to externally rotate your left arm. Hold for 30 seconds to 3 minutes; then repeat on the other side.
Subscapularis Myofascial Release
To release tightness in your right subscapularis, place your right hand on your left shoulder. Take the thumb of your left hand and place it under your right armpit while wrapping the other fingers around your shoulder blade. With your thumb, aim to target a spot beneath the shoulder blade. Relax your shoulder and continue to breathe as you move your thumb around to look for a trigger point or sore spot. When you find that spot, massage it gently as you continue to breathe. Do this for 10-20 seconds. Once released, there should be an immediate difference in mobility of your right shoulder.
Although the rotator cuff muscles do not substantially contribute to propulsion in the water, they nevertheless play a vital role in keeping the shoulder joint stabilized as the larger muscles do their work. And just as important as the rotator cuff muscles are the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades. This is because the rotator cuff muscles attach to the shoulder blades, and stable shoulder blades allow the rotator cuff muscles to do their job properly. Remember, when it comes to improving functional strength, a little time invested pays big dividends. So work some of these strengthening exercises into your routine to keep your shoulders healthy for injury-free swimming.