Shoulder dysfunction in swimming

What is Swimmers Shoulder?

‘Swimmer’s shoulder’ can simply be defined as “pain in the shoulder, due to load in swimming”. In recent studies, most shoulder pain in elite swimmers is due to volume-induced overload of one of the rotator cuff muscles.

In a single week an elite swimmer will complete approximately 15-20,000 individual arm elevations. Due to the repetitive nature of the sport, over-training, fatigue, tightness, weakness, poor stroke technique and even mental stress can lead to shoulder overload.

The shoulder joint is a relatively mobile “ball and socket” joint, that achieves stability through the surrounding muscles, ligaments, cartilage and shoulder capsule. There are four key muscles that surround the shoulder called the rotator cuff and these assist in maintaining its neutral position in the socket. Swimmers can develop an imbalance of these muscles due to the repetitive nature of swimming. We need to ensure that swimmers have strong but mobile shoulders to enhance performance and avoid injury.

Our top two exercises:

1. Pectoral stretch

Standing in the doorway elbow and shoulder at 90° and leaning forward.

30+ seconds

Both sides

Every training

Stretching muscles improves performance and can minimise injuries.  Particularly as a junior it is important to stretch because as you grow taller, your bones increase their length at a much faster rate than your muscles, so you have to stretch your muscles to catch up to your bony length. The most important time to stretch is on the cool down.


2.  ‘W’ arms – 8-12 repetitions holding each W for 3 seconds

Lie face down on an exercise mat with your arms in a "W" position so that the upper arms are aligned alongside the trunk with your elbows bent and your hands facing forward at the same level as your shoulders.  Keep your head slightly elevated with chin tucked in.  Your hands should be facing palms down with your fingers extended. Now straighten arms in front then bring them back down squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Finally, with all injuries, it is important to work with your coach to identify technical flaws that are contributing to the injury. This may include lack of body rotation, crossing the midline, poor hand placement in the water or dropped elbow catch and pull phase.  So listen closely to your coach and work hard at perfect practice.