Did watching Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky swim in the Olympics inspire you or someone in your family to begin or resume a swimming program? If so, there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid injury – specifically to the shoulder.

As many as 87% of the 100 million U.S. swimmers report some sort of shoulder pain throughout their swimming career. High-level swimmers may take up to 1 million strokes per arm per year, which can put an incredible stress on the joint and the muscles surrounding the shoulder.

When looking at other overhead sports that place high demands on the shoulder, there are often limitations set in place. Baseball and softball pitchers are an excellent example. There are pitch count restrictions that limit the number of pitches allowed per week to protect the shoulder from too much stress. Swimmers don’t have restrictions like this. As a former competitive swimmer for 15 years, I understand the difficulty of placing specific restrictions on swimmers due to the wide variety of strokes and distances for which swimmers must train. As a physical therapist, however, I see the importance of proactively training shoulder muscles to decrease risk of overuse injury.

Swimmers require a difficult balance between flexibility and strength. It is important to have a large range of shoulder motion, but it becomes a problem when muscles surrounding the joint can’t maintain control. When this imbalance occurs, shoulder impingement may cause excessive wear and tear, pain and limit performance. This alters the biomechanics of how the shoulder moves and how the swimmer performs their stroke. When the stroke is performed incorrectly, it increases pain and the vicious cycle continues. To counteract this, here are a few of the main muscles to focus on for shoulder stabilization:

  1. Scapular stabilizers, specifically the serratus anterior, lower/middle trapezius and rhomboids
    • Examples include scapular protraction and push-ups with a “plus”, seated and low rows
  2. Rotator cuff muscles, specifically the subscapularis, supraspinatus, teres minor and infraspinatus
    • Examples include internal and external rotation

If you are interested in starting a swimming program, or if you are already a swimmer, consider a visit with one of the experts at Freedom. Beginning a shoulder strengthening program before swimming becomes painful will help to prolong and drastically improve your swimming experience and career.