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: bliaghat@health.sdu.dk

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 http://c1healthcentre.co.uk/one-of-our-top-5-reasons-you-have-arm-pain-infraspinatus-muscle-problems/

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.

Resource:

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

Download link: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1WU8g3kurobLDS

SSWIMT: Swimming Research

WHAT IS… SSWIMT?

Research on swimming is broad and essential for the evolution of the sport. The level of swimming related scientific research is very advanced, as is the level of coaching. However, as both fields are very demanding, their connection, in terms of knowledge and experience diffusion, is difficult.

In-depth reading of scientific papers is needed for a thorough interpretation of their results. However, this is usually time consuming and difficult for non-accustomed readers. The short display (shorter than their abstract) of interesting articles in a simple manner, without meddling, for someone to figure out if an article is helpful (and then go on with full-text reading), is our main intention. Additionally, useful notes from the coaching practice that are based on testing will be posted. The purpose is to assist swimming coaches and relevant sport scientists to keep up with the swimming research progress.

So sswimt comes to accelerate the dissemination of information and updates on swimming testing and research with a focus on physiology, biochemistry, metabolism, nutrition and training!  Our goal is to set off the abundant information provided by eminent sports scientists and swimming coaches, thanks to whom swimming is evolving constantly. Hope you will enjoy it! More interesting things are on the way…

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5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

As a take home message:

  1. Some of the hot topics for elite swimmers are shared in this piece
  2. I will elaborate on what Science tell us on those topics and what we have yet to learn
  3. For further reading, I will share a few papers and interviews with leading researchers

We are on the road to two major international competitions: Kazan 2015 and Rio 2016. Everybody is looking forward for both competitions. Those that work on the backstage, such as analysts and researchers, hopefully are experienced, as hot topics can diverge training plans, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.

Here you will find five selected hot topics, based on my personal opinion, that several coaches and elite swimmers have been seeking advice. You are most welcome to add more topics on the bottom of this piece. Please, be my guest.

The piece is structured in a not-too-wordy FAQ style:

  1. What do we know so far? I.e., what is the solid scientific knowledge on the topic and the take home message;
  2. What we don’t know yet? I.e., what are the gaps that we still find in the Science, the grey zone, or the limitations reported by the researchers;
  3. Where do I find more details on this? You can have deeper insight on these topics referring to selected research papers or interviews with leading researchers.

And without further ado, the selected topics are……

5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

  1. High-intensity (interval) training & Ultra-short race-pace training

What do we know so far?

We do know that for low-tier swimmers, any training program is effective. Can be HI(I)T or any other program, including MICE (acronym

High Intensity Swimming Training

for “moderate-intensity continuous exercise”).

HI(I)T is on one end of the spectrum (High-intensity; low-volume) and MICE on the opposite end (Low-intensity; high-volume). USRPT is considered by some people as an extension of HI(I)T although including some extra features. We also find “mixed” programs with different Hi-Lo combinations of volume and intensity.

Mid-tier swimmers show the same performance enhancement regardless of the program being HI(I)T or MICE. Hence, HI(I)T can be considered as more efficient because they get the same outcome with lower physical and psychological stress.

What we don’t know yet?

We find anecdotal reports and claims that a few elite swimmers showed improvements or delivered good performances after a HI(I)T/USRPT program.

We don’t have solid scientific evidence that HI(I)T/USRPT is more or less effective in high-performance swimmers though. I.e., there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue HI(I)T/USRPT in elite swimmers.

Nevertheless, I am wondering if world-class coaches, at some point of the periodization program, include in their training sessions some of the HI(I)T concepts.

Where do I find more details on this?

Interviews to leading researchers on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Altitude

What do we know so far?

An altitude training camp should take roughly 4 weeks. The best times are posted 2-4 weeks after returning to sea level.

On the first week at sea level, performance might even impair. So re-acclimatization is a good moment for tapering before major competitions.

The duration of this recovery seems to be dependent on the event to be raced and individual characteristics of the swimmer.

Altitude training is related to the hypoxia effect, but also the fact of swimmers and coaches are completely focused on the training round the clock, with no need to juggle between different commitments.

Most of the times these camps are held at venues where swimmers can easily approach support staff (e.g., biomechanists, physiologists, Mireia Belmonte VO2 swimming test Altitude Trainingnutritionists, physical therapists, etc.) to be monitored, seeking their advice and thoughts (seems to improve performance at least by 3%).

What we don’t know yet?

There is an individual response to altitude, hence swimmers that are low-responders should be flagged beforehand.

The effect of intermediate- v high-altitude training is still a little bit controversial. I.e., what is the minimum altitude needed?

A lot of research will be done on the different combinations of Hi and Lo regimens.

The nocebo and placebo effects of being part on this kind of training camps is still to be studied.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Warm-up

What do we know so far?

Active warm-up has a positive effect on the swimmer’s performance. Bigger effects were found notably for middle- and long-distance (i.e. 200m onwards) than for sprint events.

Pre-race dry-land stretching drills are a common practice as a complement to the in-water warm-up; despite no effects preventing injuries or enhancing the performance. Clarification: I’m talking about stretching before the race and not about a well-designed program over time to enhance flexibility to an optimal range of motion.

The in-water warm-up should last for 15–25 min, including a moderate-intensity set, another of specific drills focusing also on the stroke efficiency, a set with reps at the race pace, starts and turns.

For the time-lag between the in-water warm-up and the race, passive warm-up should be considered.

What we don’t know yet?

The optimal design (e.g., duration, volume, intensity, type of drills and recovery period) according to the event to be raced is not yet fully understood.

Little is known on the effect of different passive warm-up strategies, although none should rise the body temperature above 39 degrees Celsius, otherwise performance might impair.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic: still to come. Stay tuned.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Strength & conditioning

What do we know so far?

A S&C program concurrent to the in-water training helps to prevent injuries and enhance the performance.

A S&C coach should also monitor anthropometric features and sometimes a preliminary assessment of the body posture and limbs’ alignments. However, physiotherapists can run more comprehensive clinical tests.

The program must be coupled with a proper diet according to the goals to be achieved (i.e. swimmer should refer to a nutritionist).12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) - Day Three

S&C can help when the swimmer pushes solid bodies (i.e. block-start; wall-turns) being explosive power a major determinant.

Performance can also be improved while he pulls a fluid body (i.e. water-swim strokes).

Dryland S&C does not have a direct effect on the performance. The earlier one will have an influence on specific in-water parameters and the later on the performance.

As rule of thumb, routines should change every 3-4 weeks (i.e., mesocycle or block) and training loads adjusted to remain effective and avoid injuries.

What we don’t know yet?

The challenge though is the transfer of dry-land strength & power to water and make the best use of it swimming, turning and starting.

More reliable in-water measuring techniques could be developed in the new future. E.g., handgrip testing is not specific enough and tethered swim has some hydrodynamic limitations. Obviously, these tests also have some pros, but I won’t elaborate on that today.

One concern that we cannot rule out is how to build-up power (that is based on maximal strength) avoiding the significant increase of body surface area and weight that affects drag force, buoyancy and underwater torque.

Should the S&C session be before or after the in-water training?

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here and here.

  1. Starts & turns

What do we know so far?Doha 2014 Dive

Starts plus turns can account up to 50% in a sprint.

Turns can represent up to 30% of the race time in middle- and long-distance events.

Streamline gliding and dolphin kicks are important phases in both race moments.

Over the start, underwater phase (i.e. gliding and dolphin kick) depends upon above-water phases (i.e., take-off horizontal velocity and optimal flight trajectory).

What we don’t know yet?

The body of knowledge on the start seems to be more solid and consistent than for the turns.

The big challenge for the swimmer is to understand when to stop gliding and begin the dolphin kicks, stop the kicking and start or resume the swim stroke.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

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

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Strongman Training for Swimming Dryland Workouts: Part II

Take Home Points
1) Recent evidence suggests strongman training during swimming dryland workouts may improve certain dryland performance measures
2) Strongman training has several benefits not specifically noted by the literature
3) Coaches carefully decide if and where strongman training fits into a dryland program

In a previous post, we addressed strongman training, which has been made popular in the swimming world by Ryan Lochte’s well publicized Ryan Lochte and his strongman dryland swimming workoutsswimming dryland workouts. Along with Lochte, this form of training has become more popular throughout the swimming world. Though there is relatively little evidence on the effectiveness of strongman training as a supplementary training mode, recent evidence has shown it compares favorably to traditional training. But, before getting into that evidence, it is useful to have a general review of strongman training for swimmers.

Strongman training can be beneficial for several reasons. First, it can create a very motivating, team-building environment. There’s no doubt that throwing heavy objects around can be lots of fun and can get swimmers excited for swimming dryland workouts. Strongman exercises also incorporate full-body, multi-joint movements, leading some to consider this training more “functional” than other approaches. Though we don’t have any specific evidence to back it up, strongman does seem to enhance grip strength. Additionally, because many strongman events are designed for maximal or near-maximal lifts, this type of training can help get swimmers away from the all-too-common high rep “met-con” circuit training approach.

One recent study (for a complete review on this study and others, subscribe to the Swimming Science Research Review!) compared strongman training with traditional training for effects on athletic performance. In sum, both approaches showed improvements with strongman producing higher gains compared to traditional training in muscle mass, acceleration performance, 1 repetition maximum (1RM) bent over row strength. The study also found “[s]mall to moderate positive changes in 1RM squat and deadlift strength, horizontal jump, COD turning ability, and sled push performance were associated with traditional compared with strongman training.” (Winwood 2015)

 

Despite these results, caution is still required, as we described in the first installment. In addition to the reasons covered in Part I (overtraining, fatigue) also consider that evidence has shown anthropometrics may predict strongman performance (Winwood 2012). Now, you could also say that most traditional exercises function differently for different body types. But most traditional exercise modes are more easily adjustable for the individual user than the often unforgiving implements used in strongman training. Further, while many strength and conditioning experts are available to coach traditional lifts, there are far fewer true experts in strongman training for swimming dryland workouts. And there are even fewer strongman training experts with any experience dealing with swimming (Why Your Team Needs a Strength Coach).

Strongman Training for Swimming Dryland Workouts Conclusion

As with anything, consider individual responses when incorporating alternative training formats. While it is certainly a positive development when coaches think outside-the-box, we must also examine whether new approaches fit into the overall training plan. Even if an approach like strongman training produces favorable dryland results, we must also ask “at what cost?” That question does not only apply to strongman training, but to any form of training. However, with social media creating a “can you top this” mentality among many teams and athletes in their swimming dryland workouts, it is important to remain focused on the athlete’s ability to adapt to the stress when performing strongman exercises.

References

  1. Winwood PW1, Cronin JB, Posthumus LR, Finlayson SJ, Gill ND, Keogh JW. Strongman vs. Traditional Resistance Training Effects on Muscular Function and Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Feb;29(2):429-39. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000629.
  2. Winwood PW1, Keogh JW, Harris NK. Interrelationships between strength, anthropometrics, and strongman performance in novice strongman athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):513-22. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318220db1a.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

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Pull-Up Progressions and Regressions, Part II

Take Home Points
1) “Own” the bottom position of the pull up to provide the best chance for success.
2) Retain core engagement that the swimmer practiced in planks and inverted rows.
3) Spotting and alternate grip pull ups are both viable assistance methods for those very close to performing regular pull-ups.

One of our most popular dryland posts on the site has been discussing Progressions and Regressions for Pull Ups. Yet despite this popularity, there are several ways to refine this application, particularly for those struggling to achieve their first pull up or to perform a pull up more consistently (For an excellent tutorial on how to perform pull ups see, How to Safely Perform Pull Ups).

This post will focus on the transition into regular strict pull-up progressions. Those experienced with the pull up will surely note that the progression laid out in the first installment is hardly linear. In fact, for many the degree of difficulty increases enormously once on the bar, despite demonstrating pull strength in other exercises.

Pull-up Progressions Cue

The first key is not a different exercise, but instead a cue to master the start position. As Dr. John wrote in his recent Swimming World piece, “Retract your shoulder blades, ensuring stability. This is important, as uncontrolled bar hanging or lowering can increase instability and damage at the shoulder.” Too many people forget this component and struggle with the pull up. Even if you do not perform pull ups, this can be a valuable shoulder stability exercise in itself.

Pull-up Progressions Core

Another related key is the core. Many people get on the bar and go into a significant anterior pelvic tilt, losing valuable stability they practiced on the ground, whether through planks or inverted rows. Now, one nice key is that when you lock into the bar as Dr. John described above, core engagement seems to occur more easily. But this movement does not happen automatically for everyone, meaning some swimmers must be cued. One simple way to cue this is by providing resistance onto the feet, whether via a light kettlebell or manually. Note, the goal for beginners is not to attempt a pull up, but instead to gain stability in the bottom position.

One thing I have changed over the years has been to de-emphasize assisted pull ups with a band. While this technique may be helpful for some by providing speed and developing familiarity over the bar, it also can hide strength leakages if performed too often (note: I have nothing to back that up other than with opinion). Yet, one alternate way to achieve these same benefits is with proper spotting. A correct spot offers assistance in the low/mid back and follows the same vector as the motion…not by yanking the legs upward!

Another approach, particularly for those very near a strict pull up, is to perform alternate grip pull ups or chin ups. Some individuals may struggle with one grip but can perform another. Though this may seem to violate the principle of specificity, alternate grip can help bust through plateaus by giving the individual more comfort over the bar. Further, having the ability to perform multiple grips may help prevent overuse.

CONCLUSION
Translating pulling strength into pull ups is a challenge for many, but doable with proper technique and progression. Achieving pull ups not only opens an entire world of dryland opportunities, it also psychologically empowers swimmers who may have struggled with the move in the past. Even if you don’t include pull ups or find them too draining for novices, practicing shoulder stability and core engagement on the bar are both potentially useful exercises within a dryland routine.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

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