How Physical Therapy Can Improve Swimming

How Physical Therapy Can Improve Your Swimming

One of the best ways to improve one’s swimming (besides spending quality time in the water) is to strengthen the shoulder joint and the core (deep trunk muscles). Much of one’s stroke power starts with a strong core, and the shoulder needs to be strong and balanced to avoid an overuse injury in the shoulder.

The shoulder is the most commonly injured joint for swimmers. Swimmers often have tight pectoralis, latissumus dorsi and anterior neck muscles with long and weak middle and lower trapezius muscles and rotator cuff muscles. This imbalance can easily lead poor alignment in the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint which can cause impingement (pinching) of the tendons that pass through the shoulder. At worst, this can sideline a swimmer temporarily and at worse can lead to tearing of cartilage or a rotator cuff muscle, which can require surgery to correct.  

Shoulder strengthening exercises should focus on the lower and middle trapezius and the rotator cuff muscle group. The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body and it gets its stability from balanced muscles working around it. When one muscle gets stronger than its opposing muscle then the alignment in the joint is affected. This is typically the cause of shoulder impingement.  If shoulder pain is felt during or following a swim workout and does not resolve with 1-2 days of rest, then it is time to have a physical therapist look at your biomechanics and give you an exercise routine that consists of stretching the tight muscles groups and strengthening the long and weak muscles.

 There are a few key exercises that can help a swimmer get a strong core. These include planks, sidelying planks, and bridges. All 3 of these exercises can start simply and then progress to complex versions for the more advanced swimmer (i.e. planks with feet on a ball).  Sidelying planks can progress with trunk rotation added, this is especially beneficial for a swimmer as trunk rotation in the water leads to a strong and efficient stroke.

Kirsten Transue, PT, OCS, COMT