How to Prevent Swimmer's Shoulder

August 31, 2012 | Gary Mullen

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Too often, shoulder injuries slow, interrupt or end promising swimming careers. An estimated 80 percent of swimmers suffer from shoulder pain at some point in their careers (McMaster, 1993). However, there are ways swimmers can reduce their likelihood of falling victim to this sport-specific injury.

Swimmers perform 16 times more overhead movements than other athletes (Wilk, 2008). The enormous volume of overhead motion causes stress and strain to accumulate at the swimmer’s shoulders. It is important to understand that the condition known as swimmer's shoulder does not arise from too many strokes, but from too many incorrect strokes.

Swimmer’s shoulder symptoms include pain and inflammation. In an effort to alleviate the pain, a number of muscles compensate for the injury. However, these compensations actually cause greater strain on the body, becoming the main cause of pain and impairing muscle function (Stocker 1996).

Luckily, swimmers can rectify this problem by improving muscle length, strength and timing (LST) around the shoulder.

Muscle Length

After a swimmer suffers a shoulder injury, a number of muscles begin compensating for the injury, including the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, infraspinatus and pectoralis.

As shown below, swimmers can increase the length of these muscles by performing self-myofascial release with a tennis ball. Lie on the ball in the specified location for about two minutes. A bit of discomfort is expected, but you should not feel pain.

Muscle Strength

Strengthening your shoulders is one of the best ways to prevent future shoulder injuries. Unfortunately, too many swimmers are under the false impression that simple band exercises are enough. Exercises for the rotator cuff muscles help, but it's also critical to focus on shoulder stability by strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade itself. This prevents secondary shoulder impingement, which is the most common cause of swimmer's shoulder.

Check out three shoulder exercises you can incorporate into your training to prevent injury.

Muscle Timing

Since the shoulders synchronize the neck, spine and hips, shoulder health relies on the joints working together. Reduce your risk of injury and fatigue by teaching your joints to perform their respective roles.

Remember that proper swimming technique is the best way to prevent injury. In addition, to recover from a shoulder injury, swimmers must improve muscle length, strength and timing. If you follow this plan, you'll have the strongest shoulders on any pool deck.


McMaster WC, Troup J. "A survey of interfering shoulder pain in United States competitive swimmers." Am J Sports Med. 1993; 21:67-70.

Stocker, D., Pink, M., & Jobe, F. W. "Comparison of shoulder injury in collegiate and masters level swimmers." In J. P. Troup, A. P. Hollander, D. Strasse, S. W. Trappe, J. M. Cappaert, & T. A. Trappe (Eds.), Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming VII. 1996; (pp. 90-95). London: E & FN Spon.

Wilk, KE, Reinold, MM, Andrews JR. The Athlete's Shoulder. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2008

G. John Mullen
- G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California, where he served as a clinical research assistant investigating adolescent...
G. John Mullen
- G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California, where he served as a clinical research assistant investigating adolescent...
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