The shoulder is the only joint in the body that’s solely stabilized by muscles and is therefore your body’s most mobile joint; but freedom of movement often comes at the expense of stability. The shoulder is extremely fragile to pain and injury and needs particular attention when it comes to extreme overuse, as is the case for swimmers and triathletes.
Causes for Shoulder Injury
A 2012 review of competitive swimmer injuries found that the main cause of these injuries is muscle fatigue of the rotator cuff, upper back, and pectoral muscles. Due to repetitive movement and destabilization of the humeral head (i.e., the ball at the top of your upper arm bone that fits into your shoulder socket), microtrauma at the shoulder ensues.
In addition to swimming-related injuries, triathletes must also consider how cycling may affect their bodies. The triathlon specific position on the bike — narrow arms, internally rotated shoulders, head back, and chin low — puts strain on your cervical spine and shoulder girdle, which can cause severe pain.
It all comes down to stabilizing the humerus within the glenoid cavity (i.e., your upper arm bone within your shoulder socket) during all movements, simultaneously enabling your rotator cuff muscles to work so that they glide smoothly and freely. That can only be achieved by learning the perfect technique for your individual shoulder constitution and, most importantly, by strengthening the muscles in that area.
Below is a sample strengthening program that aims to stabilize and strengthen the shoulder muscles and surrounding tissue in order to prevent injury and increase performance. The program can be performed as one block or split, depending on the rest of your training program.
|Half Kneeling Rope Pulldown||Rope||3||12||50% 1RM||1:1|
|Cuban Press||Resistance Band||3||12||Resistance Band Force||1:1|
|Military Press||Barbell||4||6||60% of 50% 1RM Bench||1:3|
|Barbell Row||Barbell||6||6-4-26-4-2||70-72.5-75% 1RM||1:5|
|Barbell Bench Press||Barbell||6||6-4-26-4-2||70-72.5-75% 1RM||1:5|
|JM Dumbbell Press||Dumbbell||3||12||65% 1RM||1:3|
WRR: work-to-rest ratio
It’s important to note that this plan is only suitable for experienced, healthy adult athletes. Sets, reps, weight, and the work-to-rest ratio should ideally be set by your coach according to your fitness and race calendar. But no matter how you modify these exercises, the important thing is to focus on proper technique and to maintain a neutral spine. With a neutral spine (i.e., maintaining a natural curve), you’re perfectly balanced and able to pull and push weight without causing unhealthy stress on tissue like vertebrae. Further, your shoulder joint muscles can move freely.
Mobility, flexibility, and strength are the three pillars of any healthy athlete. No muscle can ever work to its full range if the corresponding joints aren’t mobile. Below are examples of mobility exercises that target your shoulders, shoulder blades, and thoracic spine for improved range of motion. You can also use run or swim warm-ups for a decent mobility session if time is scarce. Remember to perform all exercises with your full range of motion.
|Quadruped Thoracic Rotation||None||2||10||1:0|
|Alternating Deep Squat Thoracic Rotation||None||2||10||1:0|
|Thoracic Spine Mobility with Foam Roller||Foam Roller||2||10||1:0|
|Shoulder Elevation & Depression (up and down)*||None||2||10||1:0|
|Shoulder Protraction and Retraction (forward and backward)*||None||2||10||1:0|
|External Rotation (Video Exercise 1)||Resistance Band||2||10||1:1|
|Internal Rotation||Resistance Band||2||10||1:1|
|Horizontal Adduction (Video Exercise 2)||Resistance Band||3||10”||1:1|
|Cheerleader (Video Exercise 3)||Resistance Band||3||10”||1:1|
WRR: work-to-rest ratio
*Perform with your arms fully stretched out in front, palms facing toward each other
Pain is a good indicator that your movement patterns should be reviewed by a strength and conditioning coach or physiotherapist in the pool and in the gym. Seemingly small hindrances, like a wetsuit that doesn’t fit right, can make a big difference when it comes to movement errors. It can be a tremendous help to send your coach videos of your workouts to identify weak spots.
Remember that every single repetition, no matter if you’re performing a forward bend barbell row or a crawl stroke, should be as close to your perfect movement as possible. By incorporating these strength training exercises into your training plan — especially in the off-season — you can spare yourself pain and injury while boosting your performance.
Elitefts. (2020, November 4). The Official JM Press Tutorial. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOCW9cE-GJg
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Joshrenkens. (2010, May 12). Thoracic Spine Mobilizations with Foam Roller. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxQkVD0UQNg
Livestrong.com. (2009, July 1). How to Do a Barbell Bench Press. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUjh50tLlBo
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