How to Train Your Shoulders for Swimming

Swimming is a full-body workout — and when you’re in it for the sport, you need LOADS of training to ensure that everything is working at peak functionality.

There’s a whole lot we could cover when it comes to cross-training for swimmers… but that would make for a crazy long article (and probably a confusing one, at that).

So we’re here to focus on one of the most important and complex body parts needed for swimming: the shoulders!

Your shoulders are imperative for obvious reasons. They’re one of the staples for proper stroke form, and they have a large influence on your performance and execution. Plus, the shoulder joints and muscles are the most common area for injury with swimmers.

Without further ado, let’s dive in! (No pun intended.)

Anatomy of the Shoulder (What Swimmers Should Know)

Alright, ideally swimmers should know all the in’s and out’s of how the shoulder works — but between all the muscles, tendons, and joints, there’s a LOT to cover.

So, for the sake of brevity, we’ve narrowed it down to five important muscle groups that matter for most swimmers. (Of course, the relevance of each may vary depending on what kind of swimming you do or which stroke you specialize in… but this is a good start for most.)

Although this large muscle appears to be in the mid- to low back, its insertion point attaches to the top of your humerus (i.e., the large bone of your upper arm). This point of attachment may seem small, but it plays a big role in swimming — it helps pull your arm down and back, and it can assist with rotating your arm inwards, too. This makes it an essential structure in moving your arm for powerful swim strokes.

Moving further up the spine, we have the upper trap, which predominantly spans your upper back, shoulder, and neck. This (unsurprisingly) means that the muscle is partly responsible for movement in the shoulder and neck.

One of its primary functions is to rotate at the neck and head, which allows for easy breathing and subtle, full-body rotation to cut through the water more efficiently. It also helps with controlling the scapula (i.e., the shoulder blade bone). For most swim strokes, you need a significant amount of stability and control of the scapulae to move them upwards for the maximum amount of reach.

Your rotator cuff comprises four distinct muscles: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. (But don’t worry — you won’t be tested on these.) Each muscle has their own distinct responsibilities, but in the context of swimming, it’s more important to focus on their collective functionality.

All together, your rotator cuff helps control essential arm movements like internal and external rotation, as well as abduction (i.e., when your arm moves away from the rest of your body). It’s also the primary source of stability for your glenohumeral joint, which is the usual joint that people picture when they think of the shoulder (where your humerus meets the scapula).

The serratus anterior superior may seem small, but it’s mighty! It connects your thoracic spine to the first 8 or 9 ribs of your rib cage, and its insertion point attaches to the outermost border of your scapulae.  In combination with your upper trapezius, your serratus muscle helps stabilize your shoulder blades, particularly when bringing your arm forward into maximum extension.

Although the pectoral muscles are associated with the chest, they connect directly to your shoulder and upper arm. Most major swim strokes have to recruit the pecs to some degree — when you bring your arms forward, your pecs will often help with extension in the arm and rotation and flexion in the shoulders. Your primary goal here is to increase the length of these muscles to better recruit their contractile power when your arm back in from a stroke.

How to Make the Most of Your Shoulder Exercises

Okay, now you know what major muscle groups to focus on… Next up, is learning what to do with each of them to maximize your training.

While you do obviously need to develop strength and power in your shoulders, that’s not the only facet of training to focus on. The shoulder is highly complex and capable of a wide range of functional movements, so not every single exercise is going to truly benefit your swimming!

Before you jump into your training, give your plan a quick skim to see if you’re hitting all the bases for fluid, controlled shoulder functionality.

Include a Variety of Shoulder Movements

Most shoulder motions require some combination of functional movement, especially while swimming. After all, you rarely ever see swimmers just flexing or abducting their arms as an isolated movement… (That would make for some pretty wonky-looking swim strokes.)

So, proper shoulder training should be holistic, targeting the specific tissues needed for swimming while also encompassing a variety of movements.

Some athletes assume that, because they use specific muscles while swimming, they don’t have to work the same muscles during their cross-training. But, as with most sports, simply practicing your sport isn’t enough to maintain the necessary strength, control, and mobility.

Below are some of the most important training components for swimmers to address and maintain:

If this list seems kind of broad, it’s because these functional movements cover a wide range of movement! The purpose behind specific training for your shoulders is to ensure that you’re working all the necessary muscles consistently, and with a variety of movement patterns.

With a joint as complex as the shoulder — and with a sport as dynamic as swimming — your tissues need ample variety to ensure that they can match the demands of your sport without being constantly overworked.

Let’s dive into some exercise examples to get a better understanding of these training components in application.

Practice Swimming-Specific Exercises

There are countless exercise options that can benefit swimmers, and we obviously can’t account for them all in just one blog post.

But, we do have a selection of recommended workouts that target all the aforementioned muscle groups AND specific functional movements. (We’re all about efficient exercises.)

#1. Landmine Press

Landmine presses recruit your serratus muscle, targeting that necessary scapular stability during shoulder and arm extension. In this video demonstration, you can visibly see how the scapula (shoulder blade bone) glides upward while the arm extends.

When you first start out, make sure to focus on moving slowly and deliberately to practice that shoulder stability. Over time, you can begin progressing landmine presses to further improve your serratus strength and control. Depending on how quickly you perform them, you can even boost the power of your movements as you achieve rapid extension in your swim strokes.

#2. Lat Pull-Ups

Although this drill may appear to be strength-focused, it’s actually geared towards scapular stability again! This time, the exercise dials into your scapular stability while pulling your arm down and back in that initial “pull-up” motion.

You can almost think of this as the inverse workout of the landmine press — here, your goal is to retain shoulder stability while flexing the shoulder and arm, just as you would while pulling your arms back in from a swim stroke.

#3. Farmer’s Walks

Here’s where you’ll see a combination of the shoulder and trunk working simultaneously. The farmer’s walk (or farmer’s carry) targets your upper trapezius muscle and your obliques.

The goal with this exercise is to hold heavy weights while slowly walking forward, keeping your shoulders in the same position all throughout. While it isn’t quite as dynamic as the previous exercises, it’s an excellent test of endurance: the weights effectively act as resistance against your shoulders and core, and you have to recruit the trapezius and brace your core to hold that position through movement. Ultimately, this will challenge both stability and muscular control.

#4. External & Internal Shoulder Rotations

In theory, shoulder rotations don’t sound all that difficult… but when they’re as deliberate as this drill, they can be surprisingly challenging.

The goal is to keep your elbow in the same position as you move in and out of rotation, and you’ll typically be working against additional weight or resistance. Your rotator cuff muscles have to work extra hard during this gradual motion, recruiting strength, stability, and muscular control to hold that elbow in place. (If your elbow moves too much, you won’t be gaining the maximum benefit for those rotator cuff muscles!)

#5. Cable Fly

This classic workout focuses on building strength in your pecs! More specifically, it targets the strength of the pec muscles through your end-range of motion. (That is, you’re building strength when extending your arms forward and increasing the muscle length.)

Hitting that end-range is the key benefit for swimmers — increasing your strength with this movement targets similar mechanics as many major swim strokes. It’s especially helpful practice for stronger, more powerful movement when pulling the arms back in from a stroke.

#6. Bear Crawls

Finally, we have the bear crawl, which provides a combined benefit of working the core muscles while challenging scapular stability. Here, your goal is to practice deliberately moving your limbs without changing the position of your core, spine, or pelvis. Keep your core engaged and your alignment steady throughout these movements: this will ensure that you’re using the correct muscles for shoulder stability, rather than compensating with your neck or back muscles. Not only does this help with scapular control, but it also helps strengthen your core (a win-win workout!).

Just Keep Swimming (and Cross-Training!)

Clearly, there’s a LOT that goes into well-rounded training for the shoulder. While we hit most of the major points that make for a solid training progression, this information barely scratches the surface. (Especially when you account for the varying styles of swimming strokes!)

Be sure to speak with your swimming coach and a sports movement specialist to hone in on the best program and progression for you.

By Dr. James Liaw DPT CSCS SCS

Dr. Liaw specializes in working with athletes of all calibers, spending the early part of his career in a sports medicine residency and creating sport-specific rehabilitation programs. He later went on to serve as the team PT for the Idaho Steelheads (Boise’s minor league hockey team) and furthered his expertise in sports rehab, injury prevention, preparticipation screenings, and return-to-sport testing. During his free time, he enjoys climbing (both in the gym and outdoors), watching sports (49er faithful), mountain biking, snowboarding, learning new things, and eating good food.

1 comment

  1. I’m not a good swimmer, but swimming is part of my routine exercise. I’m glad to know that I have to consider some of these exercises to help me train and protect my shoulders.

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