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How to avoid and fix swimming shoulder injury

four simple tips which will fix 9 out of 10 swimming related shoulder injuries

Shoulder Injury

strong swimmer
Stay injury free and kick some ass in the water.

Chances are you've experienced shoulder pain or discomfort at some point in your swimming life. If this has ever prevented you from swimming, you will appreciate just how frustrating this can be. Many people spend a lot of money every year visiting a physiotherapist in an effort to manage a shoulder injury but overlook what is actually causing that pain in the first place. 9 times out of 10, this will be your stroke technique.

Correcting your technique is not actually that difficult, but you do need to know what to look out for and, just as importantly, work diligently to improve in these areas. If available to you, video analysis is a great tool for this because it really helps you identify what you personally need to work on. We recommend you get some if you possibly can.

The following four simple tips will ensure you avoid developing a shoulder injury from your swimming:

strong swimmer
A flat body position.

1. Body Rotation
Developing a good, symmetrical body rotation through the development of an efficient bilateral breathing pattern is key to removing shoulder injury.

Swimming with a flat body in the water with limited rotation along the long axis of the spine causes the arms to swing around the side during the recovery phase.

strong swimmer
Good body rotation.

This swinging action results in large amounts of internal rotation at the shoulder joint which is the major source of impingement and rotator cuff issues. By using several key technique drills this can be easily addressed and fixed.

For more information on rotation see our article on body roll in freestyle.

strong swimmer
Avoid thumb first entry.

2. Hand Placement into Water
A hand pitch outwards with a thumb first entry into the water leads to excessive internal rotation which, from approx 3200 strokes per hour, can eventually lead to acute pain in the shoulder as an 'over‐use' injury. Instead of entering thumb first, change your technique to enter with a flat hand, finger tip first.

strong swimmer
Enter the water with a flat hand facing the bottom of the pool.
straight pull
Crossing the centre line in front of the head is a leading cause of shoulder injury.

3. Swimming Posture / Crossover

Many swimmers don't give due attention to their upper body posture when swimming. If you inherit poor posture from your daily working life it can really affect how your muscles work when in the pool or ocean.

Poor posture can lead to impingement, often through a severe cross over at the front of the stroke.

This can easily be improved by working on flexibility in the muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest. Doing this together with improved stabilisation of the muscles at the back of the shoulder improves posture and removes cross-over at the front of the stroke.

To start to introduce better posture while you swim, think "shoulders back, chest forward".

Improved alignment and posture means that the power of the pull phase is dramatically improved because you are now applying propulsion straight backwards, the direction that will send you forward as efficiently as possible - great technique!

the ytwl
The YTWL exercise is great for tuning into better posture.

4. Catch and Pull Through

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Paul Newsome demonstrates a high elbow catch and pull technique.

Without the use of video analysis, many swimmers are unaware of how they pull through under the water.

Typically swimmers will pull through with either a dropped elbow or with a very straight arm. Doing so loads the shoulder muscles excessively as the majority of the pull through phase is spent pushing down, rather than pressing back.

Working to develop a high elbow catch technique with enhanced swimming posture will really help you utilise the larger, more powerful muscle groups of your chest and upper back, rather than rely upon the shoulders.


A good swimming technique will have the following factors in place, consistently:

1. Bilateral breathing for at least 80% of your training sessions. There are many times (especially in the open water) when unilateral breathing is the better option, but for a healthy, balanced freestyle stroke technique, bilateral breathing is the way to go in training.

2. Good, symmetrical body rotation. This can be worked upon through a range of different body rotation drills, often employing fins for support. See our DVD Boxset for all the detail on how to do this.

3. Hand entry into the water is finger tip first, not thumb first despite what you may have been taught when you learnt to swim!

4. Avoiding midline cross over at the front of the stroke.

5. Developing and maintaining of good upper body posture.

6. Targeting a high elbow (bent arm) catch and pull through.

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