Swimmers’ Shoulder – Part II

Why posture is so important for swimming.

Written submission by: Carrie Viola, MPT

Much of what you do outside the water has an impact on your swim technique and shoulder health.

Think about a typical day in your life. How much of your day involves sitting and slouching at a computer or smartphone, on a sofa watching TV, or hunched over the steering wheel driving the car? Unfortunately the average person spends a lot of time in these poor postural situations.

Our bodies are designed for movement, and long hours of inactivity can create problems in our posture. Unless you are careful, the posture you adopt at the office can end up hurting your swim technique.

Poor postural habits can stem from many sources, such as:

  • repetitive movements (especially without frequent breaks)
  • chronic muscle tension and stress
  • previous and/or current physical injuries

As mentioned in the previous post Anatomy of Swimmers Shoulder and Impingement poor posture is a risk factor for shoulder injury in swimmers. Considering all the potential contributors to swimmers shoulder, the physical profile of a swimmer is the most easily modifiable.

The typical postural profile of a swimmer and modern day ‘desk jockey’ are very similar: forward head position (hyperextension of the cervical spine), rounded shoulders and a hunched back (increased thoracic kyphosis). When you maintain this position over an extended period of time, your body maladapts to this shape making your mind think this is a normal position.

Specifically, the muscles in the front of the shoulder (the pectoralis major and minor) and neck (upper trapezius and levator scapulae ) become tighter, while the deeper neck muscles and back muscles (serratus anterior and middle/lower trapezius ) become weak. This posture can change the position of the shoulder blade (scapula) and decrease the ability of the scapula to upwardly rotate, which is a common finding in those with shoulder impingement as the tighter pectorals tilt the top of the scapula forward against the weaker middle trapezius muscles. As the arm moves through the swim stroke, the forward tilt of the scapula decreases the space under the acromion, increasing the risk for impingement of the rotator cuff muscles.

So why is it important to have good posture with respect to your swimming? Good posture allows you to maintain a more horizontal position to move smoothly across the water. Postural mal-alignments that cause you to lift your head too high in the water will end up making you swim slower than you are capable of and cause you to expend more energy – sinking your hips, creating more drag (also refer to a previous blog post, 6 Ways to Stop Swimming Like Gollum – Updated by Peter Scott ). A straighter position will also help avoid the hand crossing the midline during the pull phase, which could lead to shoulder impingement.

Working to strengthen the muscles in the back of your shoulder (middle and lower trapezius and rhomboids) and neck, along with stretching muscles through the front of your shoulder (pectorals) will help you develop an efficient stroke technique along with aid in the prevention of shoulder impingement.

The old parent/teacher adage of ‘stop slouching’ or ‘head up shoulders back’ is great advice for all ages. If you have developed bad habits with your posture over the years, adhering to those simple words of wisdom and incorporating it into your daily routine as much as possible will pay dividends to your swim stroke and shoulder health in the long run.

The next post will discuss tips to prevent and treat shoulder pain and in my final article, I’ll discuss a detailed dry-land training program.

(The original version of this blog post was written for the SeaHiker blog)

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