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Are Your Shoulders Ready For Swimming?

Many triathletes were forced to take an extended break from swimming due to COVID-19. Dryland workouts and upper body strength work may help close the gap of nearly two months out of the pool, but easing back into the water will be key in keeping your shoulders healthy. A sustainable shoulder strength and mobility routine will not only be helpful now in these special circumstances, but also year-round to ensure you aren’t sidelined by injury. Keep reading for my go-to exercises to prevent shoulder injuries and improve performance- no chlorine required. 

1. Side plank external Rotation 

This exercise is fantastic because it incorporates both shoulders, abdominals, and the hips. The key with this exercise is to keep your body as straight as possible throughout. Make sure that your elbow remains tucked into your side so that you rotate as much as possible through the shoulder.

2. Serratus roll

The shoulder joint is heavily dependent upon muscular pull so that the humerus (arm bone) and shoulder blade to move together and avoid “pinching” of the structures located within the small space of the shoulder joint.The Serratus anterior is an important muscle for allowing the scapula to rotate upwardly, and therefore can help to prevent this pinching, typically referred to as “impingement”. This exercise trains both the serratus anterior and rotator cuff to work properly as the swimmer reaches overhead.

3. Plank w/ theraband 

While this exercise works very similarly to the one above, I like it because it is a simple modification of an exercise that many athletes do already. Adding in the theraband (not shown) to the forearms (and pushing out against the band) increases the activation of the rotator cuff. Focus on wrapping the shoulder blades outward and “puffing” up your upper back slightly. This is similar to the “push up plus” exercise, and brings the serratus anterior to the party. 

4. Lat stretch/thoracic extension 

Good overhead mobility is important for preventing shoulder impingement. One’s ability to reach overhead depends on a number of factors, however here we are focusing on flexibility of the latissimus dorsi muscles (frequently abbreviated to “lats”) and of the upper back, or thoracic spine. If an athlete is unable to extend through the thoracic spine, more range of motion must be borrowed from the shoulder- which can become problematic over the thousands of strokes taken during a swim session. This exercise captures both factors in one fell swoop. 

5. “Y”

The job of the lower trapezius muscle is to provide a downward force on the shoulder blade- again, an important action to prevent impingement with overhead movements. This exercise requires significant concentration to avoid over-using the upper trapezius, or the muscle that “shrugs” the shoulder up. Keep the shoulder blades as low as you can, focus on that lower portion of your upper back. 

6. Thoracic Rotation

Many of the muscles described here have attachments on the upper back, or thoracic spine. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the joints of the thoracic spine can move in all directions so that those muscles can work properly and efficiently. This exercise helps to improve rotation, which is reminiscent of the movement your boy must make to breathe. Focus on keeping your neck in line with your upper back and rotating through the spine instead of the neck. 

As you return to the water, consider adding in plenty of backstroke to help counteract the common muscular pattern used in freestyle swimming. Breast stroke can be helpful, too. Keep track of your yardage and avoid big jumps from week to week as you work back to your previous swimming volume. 

Enjoy your return to the pool!

Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT


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