By Dr. Benjamin Farmer, PT, DPT, CSCS
Aside from your form and posture, a strong deep core, shoulders, and back muscles can make a big difference in your efficiency, strength, and ability to avoid shoulder injuries while swimming.
The deep core muscles are a set of four muscles that manage much of the body’s stability:
The transverse abdominis: Sometimes referred to as the corset muscle, the transverse abdominis wraps from your stomach down around your back, contracting in anticipation of movement.
Multifidus: the multifidus muscles run on the sides of your spinal vertebrae from your low to middle back. They work doing small adjustments to stabilize your spine.
Pelvic Floor and Diaphragm: The pelvic floor sits in your pelvis and the diaphragm is located just below your ribs. They sandwich the whole of the abdomen between them, including the transverse abdominis and the multifidus, and work to give you a flexible and stable core.
The serratus anterior runs under your armpit, wrapping around the outside of your rib cage in the front to the shoulder blade in the back, and helps move your arm forward and overhead. A weak serratus anterior muscle means the rotator cuff must work harder than it should, which can lead to injury. Speaking of the rotator cuff, it is a group of four muscles that sit between the shoulder blade and the upper arm bone and that helps you lift and rotate your arm. The rotator cuff muscles are a small, which means they are more prone to injury in general, and especially when the serratus anterior muscle is weak.
Strenghtening your swimming muscles
Some of the most important areas to strengthen if you want to prevent shoulder pain are the deep core muscles, the serratus anterior muscle, and the rotator cuff.
As with all exercises, you should start where you are comfortable and gradually work up into more challenging positions or weights. Pushups and planks target all three muscle groups, and shoulder pinches can help improve your posture. More advanced exercises that involve quick and dynamic movements (like burpees and overhead ball throws) can also strengthen the shoulder. If you are having trouble with your exercises, if you have pain while swimming, or if you have any questions about this material make sure to speak to your physical therapist next.
Where to start: Rest on your forearms and knees, making your body into a straight line from shoulders to knees. Hold it for 30 seconds and repeat at least three times once a day. By the end of the third plank, you should feel like you can’t hold yourself up any longer.
When to progress
Once you get to the point where at the end of these three planks, you still have some energy left, pick your knees up off the floor, now balancing on your toes and forearms, making a straight line from shoulders to heels. Hold it for the same 30 seconds, at least three times once a day. Finally, when you start feeling like you have energy left after these three, you can lift yourself up to your hands instead of your forearms. As you get stronger, you can add more time to your planks so you’re holding them longer.
Where to start: Pushups can seem daunting. To remove the “I’m-not-strong-enough” factor, start slowly by doing pushups while standing. Stand a foot or two away from a wall. Rest both palms on the wall and bend your elbows to sink toward the wall as if are doing a pushup, keeping your body in a straight line as you do so. Do 30 pushups, twice a day.
When to progress
Once you get to the point where you still have energy after doing 30 pushups on the wall, progress to the ground. With your knees resting on the mat, bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor for a pushup. Do 15 pushups, twice a day. Progress again to being on your toes instead of your knees when you feel ready. As you get stronger, add more pushups per set, or add more sets per day.
Shoulder Blade Pinch
Activate your middle and lower trapezius muscles by pinching your shoulder blades together in the back. This can be done up to 20 times in a row a few times throughout your day to help with your posture.
Thoracic spine mobility is very important for shoulder health. To maintain this mobility, you can perform a stretch while sitting in a chair and leaning backwards over it. It is best to hold your hands behind your neck and keeping your elbows in tight to prevent over-stretching the neck instead of the upper back. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat ten times a day.
Dr. Farmer, PT, DPT, CSCS has worked with Performance Physical Therapy since October 2016 as a physical therapist. He received an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester in 2013 and a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Emory University School of Medicine in 2016. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, has been trained in dry needling, and has completed the Evidence in Motion Orthopedic Residency. Dr. Farmer serves on the Clinical Standards Committee at Performance Physical Therapy, and his research while at Emory was published in Neuroscience Letters in February 2017. Dr. Farmer specializes in sports injuries, post-operative rehabilitation, aquatic therapy, pediatrics, and treating patients who are Deaf or use American Sign Language.