When it comes to upper-body endurance, competitive swimmers tend to be in better shape than most.
Where most land athletes use the ground to help generate force for the upper body, swimmers do not have this luxury. They must continually pull their entire body through the water using their arms. The shoulders are the focal points of this action. With this being said, it is not a surprise that many swimmers end up with chronic shoulder pain.
The pain can be caused by overuse and over-training, or it could be a biomechanical issue relating to posture. The biomechanical issues can be the hardest to overcome without the proper education. If you are a swimmer with shoulder pain, learning how to improve your posture can be a worthy investment. Posture should be looked at even if you don’t have any shoulder pain.
For the last few years, I have been adamant about posture, as have many others in my field. Swimming posture is no different.
Upper-cross syndrome is one of the most common postural problems that can plague a swimmer. Upper-cross syndrome occurs when the muscles around the upper chest and back become unbalanced, causing the shoulders to rise and slump forward. Over time, this can become a permanent problem as the body adapts to this position.
While in this position, your shoulders will not work at full capacity. They cannot obtain full range of motion, which is essential when swimming. Someone with upper-cross syndrome is “stuck” in this position, and they will have trouble reaching overhead, or in the case of a swimmer, reaching for each stroke. Attempting to reach this way while having upper-cross syndrome can cause irritation and eventually inflammation around the shoulder joint.
To help prevent this postural problem, it is a good idea to learn how to open up the chest and strengthen the upper-back muscles, as they squeeze the shoulder blades back and together. You can begin to accomplish this task just by standing with your back against a wall and squeezing your shoulder blades together. While against the wall, raise your arms into the “hold up” position, keeping your elbows at 90 degrees, your palms facing forward and your forearms parallel to the wall behind you.
From this position, slowly raise your arms up while at the same time squeezing your shoulder blades together. From the side, the wrists, elbows and shoulders should all be in a straight vertical line. Your forearms should be pointing straight up. You may feel a stretch in your chest while doing this. Most importantly, remember to squeeze the shoulder blades back and keep the shoulders down. Repeat the exercise 10 times several times a day at a slow pace.
A simple stretch can also help this syndrome. All you need is a Swiss ball. Though this will not activate the muscles of the shoulder blades very well, it will begin to release the likely tight muscles around the chest.
To begin this stretch, lie on the Swiss ball with both your feet on the ground and your upper back on the ball. The ball should be supporting the back of your head and shoulders while your hips will be in the air. Your torso should be parallel with the floor, and your knees should be at 90 degrees. You may need to separate your feet a little wider if you feel unbalanced.
While in this position, extend your arms straight out to the sides making a “T,” and let them hang. You should feel a stretch in your chest while doing this. If not, try to squeeze and hold your shoulder blades together just like in the previous exercise. This stretch will open up the chest so that you will be able to get more range of motion out of your shoulders later on. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and do three times per day if needed.
As we age, this trend tends to get worse. As usual, I recommend consulting with your doctor if you feel that your posture is not up to par or if you have shoulder pain in general. There could be a more serious issue going on, such as osteopenia, osteoporosis or arthritis.
If the problem is purely muscular, these tips can help prevent shoulder pain when swimming and can be a wonderful complement to any swimming program.