Feeling inspired lately to jump in the pool and see how many laps you can do?
Logging laps in the pool can help you get slim and strong — think the swimmer’s “V,” defined by broad shoulders, a long torso, a narrow waist, and lean legs. It’s also a fat-blasting workout that involves your entire body, and yet it’s low-impact and meditative (unless you’re doing negative-split intervals!)
Depending on your routine and intensity, however, swimming can also lead to shoulder aches and pains because of its inherent repetitive physical movements.
Shoulders Are Your Most Flexible Joints
Research published in the journal Sports Health found that the typical competitive swimmer’s workout requires thousands of strokes, or revolutions. So it should come as no surprise that the most common injuries in the pool involve the shoulders, according to a survey conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. “It has seven degrees of freedom and it’s our most mobile joint, but it’s also very unstable,” says shoulder specialist Armin Tehrany, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in New York and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care.
One of the most common injuries is known as swimmer’s shoulder, shoulder impingement syndrome, or — if you prefer dead languages — supraspinatus tendinopathy.
It occurs when the tendon of one of the rotator cuff muscles (atop the shoulder blade) is injured. The tendon attaches to the top of the upper arm bone; and it’s usually this overpass area that gets compressed.
Stroke after stroke, lap after lap, the wear-and-tear adds up, and those are exacerbated if you use bad form or have genetic structural abnormalities. But there are things you can do so you can dive in and still protect your most vulnerable joints. Follow these tips and get ready to post your best times yet.
4 Ways to Avoid Swimmer’s Shoulder
1. Have your pain checked out by a professional
If you’re already experiencing shoulder pain, see an orthopedic specialist and find out what’s causing the problem. Depending on the extent of the injury, you’ll usually get exercises to help balance your muscles. If you have a swim coach, ask him or her to eyeball your form so you can nix any bad pool habits and avoid future injuries.
2. Warm up before you get in the pool
Instead of swinging your arms around (the old way of warming up before hitting the pool), which can strain the small stabilizing muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff, do 2–3 sets of each exercise below:
Shoulder rotation: Stand with your arms bent 90 degrees, elbows at your sides, and forearms in front of you and parallel to the floor and each other. Keeping your upper arms at your sides, rotate your arms out to your sides, then bring them back to center. Do 15 reps.
Goal post: Next, raise your arms out to shoulder height, elbows still bent 90 degrees, palms facing down. Keeping upper arms level with ground, rotate your forearms up into “goal post” position pointing up toward the ceiling. Lower them and repeat. Do 15 reps, and try not to hunch your shoulders.
3. Lift Weights to Avoid Shoulder Injuries
Strength exercises target areas that are commonly weak in swimmers; the rotator cuff, which helps stabilize the shoulder, and the serratus anterior, which keeps your shoulder blade protectively pulled down, along with other functions. Try the following exercises to strengthen your shoulders:
Weighted Superman: Lie facedown on the floor (optional: place a towel under your forehead for comfort) in a T-position (arms straight out at your sides) and hold a 2- or 3-pound weight in each hand, palms down. Keeping your head and chest on the floor, squeeze shoulder blades together, and lift the weights three inches off the floor. Do 15 reps.
Scapular retraction: Come to full push-up position on hands and toes, with wrists under shoulders and abs tight so your body is in a straight line from head to heels (do this with knees on the floor if you need to). Keeping arms and torso straight, press into the floor with your hands, and consciously draw your shoulder blades as far apart as you can using shoulders and back muscles. Return to the starting position, then repeat. Do 10–15 reps.
4. Stretch Your Upper Body Regularly
While many swimmers are hyper-mobile — this is part of what makes them good swimmers — this Gumby-like quality also increases shoulder instability, says Tehrany. Key muscles to stretch after any pool workout are your “workhorse” muscles, which include your chest and back (the pecs and lats). Just save your stretching for post-workout or your off days, not right before a pool session when your muscles are cold and more prone to injury. Try the stretches below to stay loose:
Lat stretch: Kneel facing a stability ball and place your hands on top of it, palms facing each other. Keeping your arms straight, roll the ball forward until your body is straight from hands to knees. You should feel a stretch along the sides of your body, below the armpits. Hold for 30 seconds then release; repeat three times total.
Pec stretch: Stand in a doorway with your right arm bent 90 degrees and placed against the wall on the inside of the door jamb. Step forward slightly until you feel a stretch in your chest (don’t overstretch the front of your shoulder by stepping too far forward or extending your arm behind you; a little goes a long way here). Hold for 30 seconds, then switch arms and repeat.