B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 4

Shouldering the load:

Avoiding swimmer’s shoulder is as easy as 1…2…3.

by Mike Mejia CSCS

There’s no denying the fact that swimming is one tough sport. The early morning practices, the endless number of laps, not to mention the heavy toll a nearly year-round training schedule places on developing young bodies. In fact, it’s been reported that elite level competitive swimmer’s can log anywhere between 1500 to 4000 stoke cycles per day, or about one million strokes per year! Scale that down a bit to the high school and age group levels and you’re still probably looking at a couple of hundred thousand stroke cycles annually. Now, multiply that by the number of years a child likely puts in to reach the elite level and the math can get downright scary- specifically when you consider the amount of wear and tear this places on several key joints, with the shoulders chief among them. The question is though; are overuse injuries like the dreaded “swimmer’s shoulder” simply an inevitability given the nature of the sport, or is there actually an effective way to prevent them?

The statistics would certainly seem to suggest that there’s no fool-proof plan to guard against shoulder injuries, with an estimated over 70% of competitive swimmers reporting suffering from some type of shoulder injury at least once during their swimming careers. Is it really that cut and dried though? I mean, how many of these athletes can honestly say that from an early age they were cognizant of always employing good postural mechanics, diligently did dryland training to strengthen the muscles that increased scapular stability and worked hard at maintaing adequate mobility and flexibility of the muscles that surround the shoulder joint? Right, probably few, if any. Which once again begs the question of whether swimmer’s shoulder is in fact a when, rather than if proposition, or if there is in fact a viable plan of action that can keep it at bay.

Count me amongst those who feel that swimmer’s shoulder is eminently preventable- provided of course that kids are willing to adopt a disciplined approach at an early age. Considering that we’re talking about a group for who waking up at ungodly hours and swimming lap after endless lap presents little problem, I doubt that discipline is in short supply. Besides, if they’re essentially going to swim like it’s their job- which is what most club level swimmers do- then they have to understand early on that taking care of their bodies is a big part of that job. They can’t just work hard at practices and meets and think that’s all there is to it. If they’re really serious about not falling victim to the biggest scourge in swimming, they need to employ the following three- pronged approach.

1. Pay constant attention to your posture:  

This one is probably the toughest sell of the three. After all, everyone can appreciate the obvious benefits of improving flexibility and getting stronger, but sitting and standing up straight? How’s that going to reduce injury potential? In truth, lots. Much of the problem stems from the fact that some of major muscles used in swimming, namely the pectorals (chest), lats (latisimus dorsi) and abs, can all have adverse effects on posture when shortened due to chronic overuse. The chest and lats are both powerful internal rotators of the upper arm, meaning that when they get too tight, the swimmer typically presents with a round-shouldered posture. Not only is this visually unattractive, but it places a lot of undue stress on the muscles of the rotator cuff that play a huge role in shoulder stability. A tight abdominal wall- often the result of endless reps of crunches and sit-ups, only exacerbates the problem by  pulling the chest down towards the top of the hips.

A simple way to combat this, besides doing the right types of dryland drills, which I’ll discuss in a minute, is to regularly check your posture by doing something called a postural set on a regular basis. As often as you can throughout the day, especially when you feel yourself rounding forward, pinch your shoulder blades together and down towards your waist. As you’re doing this, lift and expand your chest and try to get the bottom of your ribcage as far away from your hips as possible. It’s important however that in getting into this position you do so in as relaxed a manner as possible. You really want to avoid hyperextending the lower back and instead work on increasing what’s known as thoracic extension. Once you’re in position, breathe normally and hold this for 30-60 seconds at a time. Don’t be surprised if your upper, middle back starts to get a little fatigued. If it does, it just means that you have your work cut out for you. After a while these should get easier and easier to do.

2. Alter your approach to dryland training: 

There’s a lot more to a good dryland training program than doing lots of push-ups. In fact, too many push-ups, along with pull-ups, lat pulldowns, band shoulder extensions and a litany of other drills that target the chest, lats and front deltoids (shoulders) can  actually increase your chances of developing a shoulder injury over time! Granted, these are some of the most important muscles responsible for propelling you through the water, so it does make at least some sense to keep them strong. However, when your strengthening program either minimizes the importance of, or completely neglects the opposing muscles that are responsible for scapular stabilization, it’s a recipe for trouble.

One of the biggest problems that swimmers face is when the muscles that stabilize the scapulae (most notably the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, teres major and serratus) become weakened and the upper trapezius muscle works too hard to compensate. This causes the shoulders to be pulled upwards near the base of the neck, thus reducing the amount of joint space and putting undue strain on the tendons and ligaments that work to help stabilize the joint. The solution to this increasingly common problem is to actively target the muscles that retract (pull back) and depress (pull down) the shoulder blades. Among the most important exercises in this regard are prone Y raises, prone T raises, reverse flys, rowing movements (specifically one’s performed with the elbows held out away from the body to de-emphasize that lats), scaptions (to strengthen the serratus anterior) and some form of external rotation. Drills such as these, especially when performed in conjunction with improving the flexibility of muscles that act on the front of the shoulder (i.e. the pectorals), as well as the often tight, overworked upper trapezius, will help restore muscular balance around the joint. Not only will will this significantly reduce one’s injury potential, but it should also lead to a noticeable improvement in swimming performance.

3. Work hard to improve both flexibility and mobility.

It might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but there’s a big difference between these two terms. Improving flexibility involves increasing a muscle’s passive range of motion- meaning that you place it in a stretched position and hold it there for a predetermined time interval to help relax and lengthen it. This is great during times when you’re not as active, like after you’ve finished training, or at the end of a long day, as it can help produce long-standing alterations in muscle tension that will improve both posture and performance, by disallowing muscles to become chronically shortened due to overuse.

Increasing mobility, on the other hand, involves actively using your muscles to increase range of motion around a joint. The main difference being that the latter has a huge strength component attached to it. Essentially, you’re counting on the strength of one muscle, to help increase the range of motion of an opposing muscle. This is an important consideration because it’s exactly the way your body works during athletic competition. In order for movement to occur, as one muscle, or a group of muscles contract, the muscles that act in opposition to them must relax. During repetitive motion activities like swimming and running this sequential contraction/ relaxation cycle happens at a very rapid pace. Not only does this keep your nervous system stimulated so that muscles don’t go into a prolonged relaxation mode while you’re actively recruiting them, but it also allows you to develop strength through the entire range of motion. Improving passive flexibility, by comparison, when done exclusively, can actually increase an athlete’s chances of injury by never subjecting the muscles to this strength stimulus. That’s why to cover all of your bases, it’s best to do both- dynamic mobility drills prior to your workouts and passive flexibility i.e. static stretching post workout, or at the end of the day.

I know what some of you are thinking…”prevention is all well and good, but what if I already do have swimmer’s shoulder?” The first step is to take some rest so that the inflammation can subside before attempting any of the stretches, or strengthening exercises outlined above. Unfortunately, this means taking some downtime from the pool as well. It makes little sense to continue with the same activity that brought the condition on in the first place. Once you’ve done that, just be sure to start back up slowly and watch your training volume as you do your best to work all three aspects of the program. And, although it is beyond the scope of this article, working with your coaches on stroke refinement would also be a tremendous help.

On their own, any of these three factors can significantly reduce your chances of developing swimmer’s shoulder. When combined however, they provide you with one the most powerful injury deterrents imaginable. I’ve seen this approach work enough times to recommend it with absolute confidence. True, it does take a little more discipline and effort than younger swimmer’s might be willing to put forth initially. But I promise you that in the end, the results will be well worth it!

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