How can I strengthen my shoulders for swimming front crawl?

Strengthening the shoulders is important for improving front crawl performance, but it should also complement your swim training and not put you at greater risk of injury, says physiotherapist Daniel Phillpot

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Strengthening the shoulders is important in improving front crawl performance, but it is also important to make sure your strengthening is complementing your swim training and not putting you at greater risk of injury.

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Shoulder injuries are far and away the most frequent injuries in swimmers, accounting for up to 90% of all swim-related injuries. This is unsurprising when you consider elite swimmers perform 1-2 million front crawl strokes each year. Even someone swimming 3km three times a week, will do around 350,000 strokes a year.  Dry-land training can not only help to improve our endurance to deal with such high repetitions, but also help to address imbalances that may develop as a result.

Shoulder injuries in swimming tend to be attributed to a combination of:

  1. Poor stroke biomechanics
  2. Muscle fatigue
  3. Shoulder joint laxity

While stroke biomechanics can be addressed with good coaching, the impacts of muscle fatigue and joint laxity can be minimised by appropriate strength and conditioning.

Strength training for front crawl should involve a focus on developing latissimus dorsi, triceps and pectorals. This will help improve stroke power generation, and assist to delay the onset of fatigue.

However, there are three other key elements that will further assist speed, while also minimising injury risk:

  1. Trunk stability (controlling rotation and extension)
  2. Rotator cuff balance
  3. Scapula stabiliser function

These elements need to be given a more endurance focus. It is also best to perform exercises for a period of time rather than counting repetitions. Aim for 3 sets of 1-2 minutes depending on difficulty.

1.Trunk stability

Our body needs to rotate to keep us streamlined in the water, and to best position our hands for entry. Without good rotation control, there is a tendency for our hips to sway side-to -side. This creates more drag, slows you down and creates more work for your shoulders. Four-point kneeling exercises with alternate arm and leg movements are useful for helping with rotation control. In this position you can also facilitate the catch of the stroke by pulling down on a band in front of you.

Back injuries are not uncommon in swimmers and are usually related to poor extension control (overarching your back). This is often apparent when doing lots of open water training due to the sighting involved. Exercises such as dead bugs, or performing flutter kicks while lying on your back are good for working on controlling extension.

For these, endeavour to keep your lower back flat on the floor while performing the leg movements. Progress by also raising your arms overhead, then adding in small weights.

2. Rotator cuff balance:

As swimming is very internal rotator dominant, one of the most common exercises given to swimmers is external rotation with a band. While often justified, this does tend to be overprescribed. We now know that much of “swimmer’s shoulder” is related to instability at the front of the shoulder joint. Subscapularis helps to stabilise the front of the shoulder joint, so banded internal rotation exercises are recommended.

Another common issue is that rotator cuff exercises are often only done with the arm by the side, which does not translate into the swimming stroke very well. To be more functional, the internal rotation exercise should be done with the arm at 90° with the band tied behind you. When doing these exercises the elbow should not move, as the movement should be a pure rotation at the shoulder joint.

The band will also want to pull you backwards and into a twist, so maintaining a stable body position will also help your trunk control.

3. Scapula stabiliser function:

As the link between your shoulder and trunk, the controlled motion of your scapula is important for optimal transmission of force, and safely positioning your shoulder joint throughout the stroke. Lower trapezius is an important muscle to work on, however, the “shoulders down and back” paradigm is one that should be avoided as we don’t want to encourage locking the scapulae in place.

Reverse flyes are useful in helping scapula stability. It is important, however, to allow a slight shrug of the shoulders. Don’t lift your shoulders up towards your ears, but imagine the bottom angles of each scapula pointing out to the side, and squeeze just the top corners of your scapulae together when performing the movement.

This rotation is needed to give your shoulder joint enough room to move for your hand to enter the water in an ideal position. You can get used to this movement first by practicing small shrugs with your arm 30° out to the side. Progress by adding a small weight.

Reverse flyes can be progressed by tying the band higher so that your arms are around 135° to the side.

There are many strengthening programs out there. It is important to keep up rotator cuff exercises, particularly if you are on the more flexible end of the spectrum. While the above-mentioned exercises can help with trunk control and scapula control, it is important to carry the key points across to your other exercises.

Allow your shoulder blades to move and don’t let your lower ribs flare with overhead exercises, and to try and keep your hips level with any single arm or leg exercises.

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