A Case Study of Corrective Exercise for Front Crawl Swimmers
Shoulder pain, or “Swimmer’s Shoulder” is the most frequent pain symptom reported in swimming populations, including young swimmers. Studies have revealed a high prevalence of shoulder pain in front crawl swimmers, in particular. One such study, which investigated 100 collegiate and 100 master swim teams, revealed that ~50% of subjects experienced shoulder pain lasting three weeks or more.
Analysis of these same subjects showed “no association between shoulder pain and perceived level of flexibility, hand paddle usage, or breathing side,” and that “strengthening the muscles of the shoulder, specifically those shown to have a propensity to fatigue, provides a strong defense against injury” (Stoker, DJ). I propose two simple methods for front crawl swimmers, the technique most commonly chosen among swimmers, to help defend against injury . These two methods have been successful for the 10+ swimmers whom I’ve worked with personally over the past 18 months.
Front crawl swimming involves two major motions: pulling downward, and pushing downward. The movement of the upper arm initiates with a pull down, and finishes with a push down towards the center of the body. In the gym, these motions resemble both a pull up (a downward pull) and a dip (a downward push). What is not featured in the front crawl, or in any other technique for that matter, is either upward pulling or upward pushing. Fortunately, for swimmers experiencing shoulder pain, there are specific exercises that can be performed in the gym to supplement a swimming routine for healthy shoulders.
An upward pull is a high pull exercise or “upright row”, which can be performed either one-armed, with either a kettlebell or dumbbell, or two-armed with a barbell. The upward push is a “shoulder press” exercise—this too can be performed either one-armed or two armed (I've hyperlinked video demonstration for these exercises).
The swimmers that I have worked with featured strength and balance between their pull ups and dips, meaning that most were capable of equal weight and repetitions in both exercises because they were practicing similar-type motions with their front crawl technique.
If one cannot yet perform bodyweight pull ups or dips that is OK! Almost every globo gym in America has a Gravitron machine that provides assistance by lessening how much of one’s bodyweight is necessary to complete the repetition.
This leads me to method one of improving shoulder health for front crawl swimmers…
Method 1: Perform upright rows and shoulder presses to balance the repetitive downward pull and downward push of the crawl, and train these exercises to be capable of the same weight and repetitions. Additionally, if the pull up and dip are not balanced in weight and repetitions, I encourage that one train the weaker of the two. I also encourage that swimmers train these exercises for 15-20 reps beginning with 1-2 sets per exercise, gradually increasing weight and sets over time. Higher number of reps are less likely to illicit unwanted technique alterations than mid rep (8-12) ranges. This is because higher rep ranges do not enact the same amount of hypertrophic change (increase in muscle size).
Method 2 (and this is the simpler one): Perform a variety of swim techniques to avoid overuse. If the front crawl is causing pain, experiment with either the backstroke or breaststroke and, if one or both causes less pain, cycle these different strokes into training until the front crawl is less painful.
Stoker, DJ. Comparison of shoulder injury in collegiate- and master's-level swimmers. Clinic Journal of Sports Med, 1995.