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4 Fundamental Shoulder Exercises for Swimmers

Fundamental shoulder strengthening exercises for competitive swimmers

Written by Behnam Liaghat, recognized specialist by the International Federation of Sports Physical Therapy, based in Denmark at the University of Southern Denmark. Email:

Following my recent blog about identifying joint hypermobility in swimmers, in this blog I will go through some of the top shoulder exercises for the competitive or elite swimmer to develop fundamental strength and neuromuscular control of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers.

In our recent research about young competitive swimmers with joint hypermobility (Liaghat et al., 2018), we found that swimmers with inherent shoulder joint hypermobility displayed reduced internal rotation strength and a tendency to poor activation of the scapular muscles. Another interesting finding was that swimmers with joint hypermobility not only display reduced absolute internal rotation strength, but these swimmers are weaker through the entire range of shoulder rotation. The suggested dry-land exercises in this blog can be designed to be beneficial for both hypermobile and non-hypermobile swimmers with few adjustments in range of motion, i.e. by increasing shoulder rotation to be as close as possible to the individual end range.

What are the benefits?

The four exercises specifically aim at improving shoulder retraction (refers to moving the scapula towards the spine), internal rotation and external rotations strength. To avoid injuries, it is important to target muscles on both sides of the shoulder to achieve a balanced intermuscular function. This is the rationale for including exercises for both internal and external rotation movements. Adequate strength in these movements has, besides injury prevention purposes, a positive effect on swimming stroke performance.

General guidelines

Some general guidelines for these exercises include performing them without producing any pain or discomfort and slowly through the entire range (approximately 6-8 seconds per repetition) to engage all important muscles. As there are no golden standard number of repetitions, you may want your swimmers to start with 3 x 30 seconds for the first 2-4 weeks and then move on to 3 x 8-12 repetitions with heavier resistance. Depending on the load applied and experienced level of muscle soreness, the exercises can be performed 3-5 times weekly. Make sure your swimmers breathe in a relaxed manner and engage the whole kinetic chain in all exercises.

When introducing these exercises to your swimmers, be certain that they can control the shoulder so excessive movement of the tip of the shoulder in either upward (towards the ear), backward or forward directions is avoided. In principle, reducing resistance and/or decreasing the range of movement may be applied to increase quality of shoulder control.

Fig. 1. Infraspinatus muscle on the posterior side of the scapula

Active release of muscles before you start

Before instructing swimmers in performing these exercises, it is recommended to do some active release of the posterior rotator cuff muscles by standing against a wall with the arms perpendicular to the trunk and putting a pressure to the mid-point of the scapula with a lacrosse ball to target the infraspinatus area (Fig. 1). From here the swimmer can simply roll on the ball and add a shoulder external and internal rotation movement for up to two minutes to release tight and sore muscles (Fig. 2 A-C). The active self-release can be performed in supine for adding more pressure.

Fig. 2 A-C. The Danish swimmer Matilde Lerche Schrøder showing an active release of the posterior rotator cuff muscles.

Now let us move on to the top dry-land exercises for fundamental shoulder strength


Exercise 1: Prone 1-arm diagonal lift

Either lie on the floor or on a gym ball supporting with your feet and one arm. Apply resistance with an elastic band. Slightly retract and depress your shoulder before lifting your arm with a 45 degrees angle away from the trunk´s midline. While lifting the arm, a maximum external rotation is performed in the arm so the thumb points towards the ceiling.

Level down by lifting the arm perpendicular to the trunk’s midline.

Level up by adding a back extension in the movement or lifting the opposite leg.


Exercise 2: Supine internal rotation 1

Either lie on the floor or on a gym ball supporting with your feet. Apply resistance with an elastic band. Slightly retract and depress your shoulder before turning one arm at a time internally as far as possible without losing shoulder control (e.g. protracting the shoulder towards the ceiling).

Level up by adding oscillation (fast movements back and forth) through the movement.


Exercise 3: Supine internal rotation 2

Description: Either lie on the floor or on a gym ball supporting with your feet. Apply resistance with dumbbells. Slightly retract and depress your shoulder before slowly turning one arm at a time externally in cranial direction and then back to vertical position in the underarm without losing shoulder control (e.g. avoid pushing the shoulder towards the ceiling).

Level up by adding more load and increasing range of external rotation.


Exercise 4: Prone external rotation

Lie on a gym ball supporting with your feet and one arm. Apply resistance with a dumbbell. Slightly retract and depress your shoulder before externally rotation your arm with the upper arm perpendicular to the trunk.

Level up by adding more load and increasing range of external rotation.


Every swimming coach should be familiar with these top shoulder exercises and include them in some content as part of the dry-land routines for injury prevention and for enhancing swimming stroke performance.


A special thanks to the Danish swimmers Matilde Lerche Schrøder and Line Virkelyst Johansen for giving their photo consents.


Liaghat, B., Juul-Kristensen, B., Frydendal, T., Marie Larsen, C., Søgaard, K., & Ilkka Tapio Salo, A. (2018). Competitive swimmers with hypermobility have strength and fatigue deficits in shoulder medial rotation. Journal of Electromyography & Kinesiology, 39, 1-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2018.01.003

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Masters Swimming: 2014 FINA World Top-10

Take Home Message on Masters Swimming Performance:
1. The aim was to compare the performance in some of the most popular events across different master´s age-groups and elite counterparts (50, 100, 200 and 400 LCM freestyle);
2. The average race speed decreases with age in the four selected events;
3. Elite swimmers are more homogeneous than remaining age-groups. The coefficient of variation (an index of how competitive is an event within an age-group) is rather low (i.e. highly competitive) till the 65-69y for the sprints and by 50-54y and 55-59y for long-distances events;
4. The partial difference between elite and master swimmers increases with the distance. Master swimmers are able to keep a difference up to 10% of elites´ performance till their 40-44 years-old. The sharp decreases happen from this age on.

Masters swimming competitions are increasingly popular these days. It is all about racing, competitions and bonding Not your typical masters swimmerfor a lot of middle-aged people (some are former competitive swimmers and others that never were). A little bit more of belly hiding the 6 pack, not as bulky as they used to be, but the same desire to touch the wall in the first place as 2-3 decades ago. The number of competitions in US, Australia, Europe and Asia is increasing at fast-pace. For instance, in Japan (and probably in other countries) almost every weekend is held at least one master competition. Checking the times posted by people in their 40s-50s one will be surprised how fast these guys still are. I will showcase with two swimmers in the 2014 FINA Master World top-10 ranking (LCM): (i) Brent Barnes (SIN, 55-59) ranked 1st in the 50 free with 25.83s; (ii) José Freitas (POR, 50-54) ranked 2nd in the 200 free with 2:07.64s. And yes, the nationalities were not chosen randomly, you are right…

Determinants of Masters Swimming Performance

As far as research concerns, there is a major drawback. Of the papers published on masters swimming, fitness-oriented and recreational subjects are often recruited for research on performance. It is just like assessing a saloon (some countries named it as “sedan”) to learn how to improve a GT car. The GT car resembles a sedan, have similar car body design, but completely different components under the bonnet. Well, that´s my two cents. Others are entitled to their opinion and I respect them. Only a few research papers share evidence on “competitive” masters swimmers, including those that retired as competitive athletes and shift to master swim (e.g. Mejias et al., 2014). There is a lot to learn on masters swimming. Probably this is one of the most interesting topics to carry out research and only now we started to gather some insights.

As happens with elite and young counterparts, master´s performance is related to the biomechanical and energetic profiles (Ferreira et al., 2014; 2015). You can always re-cap some of these factors referring to the pieces published here on the Swimming Science by Allan Phillips #1 #2. Today, though, I will focus on the main outcome: performance. My aim is to compare the performance in some of the most popular events (men´s 50, 100, 200 and 400 LCM freestyle) across different master´s age-groups and elite counterparts. Times were retrieved from the 2014 FINA master world top-10 rankings and 2014 FINA rankings for the top-10 elite swimmers.

Analysis of Masters Swimming Top-10

As expected the average race speed decreases with increasing age in the four events (Fig 1). Comparing elite swimmers with the 25-29 age-group we can see a sharp decrease, even though both are somewhere in their 20s. In an earlier piece I reported the same findings. In sport science, there is a discussion about nature and nurture. Here we have a clue that albeit nature is important, other factors play determinant roles. Age might have a significant effect, but something else is also involved in the performance impairment over time.

The vertical lines represent the data dispersion i.e., how competitive is an event within an age-group. Narrow vertical lines represent low dispersion (hence, times are very close together being a very competitive event). Overall, it seems that as the distance increase, likewise the dispersion also increases (i.e. less competitive). However in a given event, the competitive level is not homogeneous. For example, refer to the 400 free (red line): the 35-39 and 45-49 age-groups are less competitive than the 40-44 and following ones. With that said, the main trend is to the performance dispersion increase with age (e.g. 50 free, 100 free and 200 free). At least in these three events younger master swimmers deliver more consistent performances than the older counterparts. I am confident on that all the way till the 90-94y. From this age onwards we find less than 10 swimmers per event, therefore not so sure.

Figure 1 with legend

To have a deeper insight I will report three basic statistics to quantify the changes (table 1): (i) the mean; (ii) the median – it splits the data into lower and upper half. If I report that the median income in a country is 2,000 dollars it means that at least half of the population earns that much and the other half more than 2k. Hence, if in a group of 10 swimmers the median is 2.00m/s it means that at least 5 swimmer race at that speed or faster; (iii) coefficient of variation – it is a standardized measure of dispersion. It enables us to learn how competitive the swimmers are within an age-group. The parameter ranges between 0 and 100%. If theoretically all the 10 swimmers have exactly the same time this is extremely competitive and the coefficient returns the value of 0%. So, lower the coefficient of variation, more tightly and close together are the performances (0% means very competitive; 100% not so competitive).

Now, I will explain how to interpret the data for the 45-49 age-group in the 400 free event and then you can do it yourself for the remaining events and age-groups (table 1). On average, the 2014 top-10 45-49y swimmers raced at 1.63m/s (mean), half of them at least at 1.52 m/s (median) and there is a data dispersion of 19.83% (coefficient of variation). Obviously elite swimmers are more homogeneous than remaining age-groups. The coefficient of variation is rather low till the 65-69y for the 50 and 100 free, by 50-54y and 55-59y for remaining events.

tabe 1 with legend

Another way to do the analysis is comparing the partial difference (i.e. %) instead of the absolute values (i.e. m/s). So, we must consider that elite swimmers show the best performances (100%). From here I did the calculation of how much does represent the performance at a given age-group in percentage. The top panel are the average values and the bottom is the same data after modelling it. When we read a good textbook most of the times we find nice, smooth and beautiful graphs because it is data modeled. It is easier to understand a concept having the “smoothed” data, there is little variance and random noise in the dataset. Today I am providing both ways to depict the performance change over time.

The partial difference is higher in the 400 free and lower in the 50 free. So, the partial difference increases with the distance. According to the model (Fig2, bottom) master swimmers are able to keep a difference up to 10% till the 40-44y. At 80-84 and 85-89y the swimmers deliver 50% of the elites´ performances. Between mid-20s and late 40s swimmers are able to keep a fairly stable performance (i.e. slight decrease over these 15-20 years). The sharp impairment happens from this age on; despite there is no clear inflection point. Hence, we cannot set a milestone as “this is the age when everything shifts so we must pay extra attention”.

figure 2 with legend
As shared at the beginning, energetics is a major player. For instance in one of our research projects, aerobic metabolism was the major contributor to total energy expenditure in the 200 free in both genders, albeit the partial aerobic contribution was higher in women and the partial anaerobic contribution greater in men (Ferreira et al., 2014). It is not clear if this is completely due to the gender or the performance level. Because men posted were better times than women. So it might be a gender effect, a performance effect or an interaction between gender and performance level. However, in masters swimming it is very challenging to improve the energetics if they are already in shape. To build-up further these parameters one must increase the external training load i.e., train more often or for longer to increase the training volume, intensity and elicit such energetic pathways. This is a big challenge for a masters swimmer that has to juggle work and family commitments. If one manages to train a little bit more and harder, on the flip side of the coin are the overuse injuries due to the increase in the external training load. With aging, the odds of an injury increase significantly. Another strategy might be to preserve the energetics as much as possible and concurrently improve the technique (Ferreira et al., 2015). However, at least “young” masters that were former elite swimmers showed to be able to have the same swimming efficiency (Mejias et al., 2014). In comparison to elite swimmers, these masters clearly impaired the energetics (V4, vVO2max, peakVO2, total energy expenditure), but kept the stroke length and propelling efficiency.

It seems that there are several ways to enhance the performance in masters swimming and one should tailor a solution that best fit his/her specific characteristics, background and goals. Nevertheless, we are still in an early stage of gathering knowledge on masters swimming. Research is eagerly needed so that we are in conditions to design more effective and efficient training programs to these swimmers.

1. Ferreira, M. I., Barbosa, T. M., Neiva, H. P., Vilaça-Alves, J., Costa, M. J., & Marinho, D. A. (2014). Changes of the energetic profile in masters swimmers over a season. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. Online-first.
2. Ferreira, M. I., Barbosa, T. M., Neiva, H. P., Marta, C. C., Costa, M. J., Marinho, D. A. & Bolama, R. M. D. A. (2015). The effect of gender, energetics and biomechanics on swimming masters performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research. Online-first.
3. Mejias, J. E., Bragada, J. A., Costa, M. J., Reis, V. M., Garrido, N. D., & Barbosa, T. M. (2014). “Young” masters vs. elite swimmers: comparison of performance, energetics, kinematics and efficiency: original research article. International SportMed Journal, 15(2), 165-177.

By Tiago M. Barbosa PhD degree recipient in Sport Sciences and faculty at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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