Shoulder Exercises for Swimmers: Increase Mobility and Reduce Injury

Shoulder Exercises for Swimmers: Increase Mobility and Reduce Injury

These must-do shoulder activation exercises will help you take a proactive approach to mobility and injury prevention.

When it comes to your shoulders, it isn’t enough to just be powerful. Imagine putting a Formula 1 race car engine in a Ford Fiesta — the sheer torque generated by several hundred horsepower would rattle the Fiesta’s frame at first and eventually begin to break it apart. If you’re going for shoulder strength, you’ll also need to ensure that the small muscles in your rotator cuff, around the scapula, and in your thoracic spine are supple, stable, and activating properly before you jump in the pool to commence your in-water training. 

To this end, you’ll need to include some shoulder prehab exercises in your gym routine and your pre-pool training warmup. This could involve exercises like Ys, Ts, and Ws (detailed later in this article), which will all help develop muscle control and mobility on your posterior side. This is often ignored because most swimmers notice how sore they get in the big muscles on the anterior side, like their pec minor. So you might work on developing these big muscles in the gym, while your small stabilizing muscles on the other side of your body remain weak. This can lead to you making movement compensations that can compromise your power production and efficiency in the water and eventually lead to injury. To avoid this, you’ll need to build a nice, strong shoulder girdle. It’s not all about the rotator cuffs, but also the other assisting muscles in this area, like the serratus. 

A big piece of athletic swimming is reach. You’ll often hear a swim coach talk about “getting longer,” but it needs to be functional reach that’s initiated by your shoulder blades (scapulae) because if you stretch out too far without engaging your stabilizing muscles, it’ll affect your catch and make you over-rotate in the hips and neck. In turn, this can cause you to become unstable as you move through the water. My own coach shared the following analogy to help me better understand the concept of functional reach: 

Imagine that you are standing in the aisle of a school bus. To move down toward the driver, you have to reach over and grab the seat in front of you and to the right. Then you do the same with the seat on your left, all while keeping your legs in the aisle. Picture holding your hips down and pulling hard with your whole arm to generate the momentum you need to move down the aisle. 

Connecting Stable Shoulders, Core, and Hips

After sharing this analogy, my swim coach told me that applying a similar principle in the pool would give me a larger profile in the water, which would increase my buoyancy. I have a lot of muscle mass and a very low body fat percentage, which means I’m already more likely to sink. Given this natural disadvantage (which is situational — my body composition is beneficial in the gym and on my mountain bike), I can’t make my in-water profile too small by over-rotating my hips or I’ll start sinking and will have to fight hard to stay afloat. To be able to keep my hips flat like he was telling me, I needed to get more mobile (see this previous TrainingPeaks article) and stronger in my core and shoulders. To check off the latter, I started adding the exercises that I’ll share in a moment to my routine.

When you are in the pool, your hips should be flat and you need to be initiating the rotation of your upper body from your thoracic spine while trying to avoid overemphasizing hip rotation or relying on over-activation of your trapezius. Your obliques, serratus, and transverse abdominus should all be working as stabilizers that enable the powerful muscles in your pecs and lats to be the ones that are generating most of the power to propel you across the pool. 

We often forget the role of those stabilizers in holding you in place when you’re in the water. Forgive me for using another motor-based analogy, but here goes: Imagine having a speedboat engine with a lot of horsepower. If the base of the boat was thin and tippy like a canoe or rowing shell, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of that torque in the water and might even capsize. That’s what I used to be like before I got connected with Coach Cody from Front Pack Swim, who taught me the importance of shoulder and core stability, activation, and engaging my stabilizing muscles. 

2 Must-Do Shoulder Activation Exercises for Swimmers

  1. Eric Cressey’s Sturdy Shoulder program is brilliant and has helped improve the way I coach my clients, particularly those who are swimmers and triathletes. One of Cressey’s staple exercises is what he calls forearm wall slides. To do it:
  • Stand in front of a wall and place both arms above your head, with your forearms touching the flat surface
  • Make sure you have your arms at or close to 45 degrees (depending on your shoulder and t-spine mobility)
  • Keep your elbows straight and pull the shoulder blades (scapula) down to engage the muscles around them
  • Continue sliding your forearms down the wall until your arms form a position that mimics the letter W (see from 3:19 on in this video – this is the “Ws” warmup exercise I mentioned earlier)

Learning how to glide your shoulders in this way helps you avoid over-activating your traps, which is one of the reasons I was having technique issues in the pool. You can use the Ws exercise in the gym to warm up before an upper body workout, and also in the locker room or pool area prior to getting in the water to train. 

  1. Another of the exercises that I borrowed from Eric is what he calls the Wall Slide w/Upward Rotation & Lift-off to Swimmer Hover. This builds on the previous exercise detailed above by adding some arms-behind-the-head mobility into the equation. To do it:
  • Stand in front of a wall, lift both arms above your head, and rotate your shoulders inward so your palms are facing each other
  • Retract your shoulder blades (scapula), and then bend at the elbows behind your head, like you were a medieval soldier reaching to retrieve a shield that was strapped to your back 
  • Touch the back of your traps, and then slide both arms back up overhead until they’re in the start position 
  • Next, repeat the final portion of the previous exercise by sliding your forearms down the wall until you achieve a “W” position

Adding these exercises into your warmup/muscle activation routine might not be a magic bullet that instantly fixes all of your shoulder mobility or stability issues. But they’re certainly going to help you improve in both of these areas and might also reduce your risk of getting or exacerbating a shoulder injury. 

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