One of my favorite things about Yoga Tune Up® is its emphasis on getting familiar with your own body and your own strengths and weaknesses. You are encouraged to move and explore, find your own limits, and be aware that forcing yourself into a position to match the “ideal” is not always healthy. This certainly applies to yoga poses, but I find it to be just very good general advice, with widespread relevance.For today, we are going to take this mindset to swimming. Even if you are not into swimming, I hope you will hear me out through some swim talk, because this all comes back around to some helpful strategies for assessing and improving basic range of motion at the shoulders.

Elite swimmers can have staggering levels of flexibility in their upper backs and shoulders that you may not have (cue analogous reference to the super bendy person in your yoga class or on Instagram). Maybe you shouldn’t be trying to make yourself look like them with efforts to emulate their form exactly. Maybe your efforts would be better spent making adjustments for your individual biomechanics and flexibility. Recognize your limitations and hone your efficiency from there. Let’s take a look at the freestyle swim stroke.

Mobility limitations can have an important impact on what is referred to as the “catch” phase of the freestyle swim stroke. The “catch” describes the action at the very front of your arm stroke, after your hand enters the water, when you begin to grip the water and move your hand and arm backward. Having a good catch means you are efficient in pressing backward on the water to propel yourself forward. This is critical for overall success in swimming because if you fail to get a good hold of the water at the front of your stroke, you lose most of your propulsion through the rest of it.

We get caught up in the idea that the elbow needs to be super high under the water for the most efficient catch and the most ideal, beautiful-looking stroke. Yet achieving this position requires having a very optimal range of motion at the shoulder joint. While elite athletes have most likely worked hard to develop and maintain superb mobility and stability for their sport, most “regular” swimmers probably do not have such great biomechanics.

Try this simple self-test to assess the degree of flexion that you can comfortably access at your shoulders:

Shoulder Flexion. Stand with your back against a wall. Try to keep your upper back and your butt as well as the back of your head all in contact with the wall. A gentle curve in your lower back is okay, but try not to arch here. Keep your spine neutral. Relax your arms down by the sides of your body, and check that the palms of your hands are facing the sides of your legs. This is a good indication that you are not overly internally or externally rotating your arms at your shoulders as they hang relaxed. Now begin to raise your arms together, keeping them roughly shoulder width apart as you reach above your head to get your thumbs as close to the wall behind you as possible. Be careful not to strain too much. You may feel your back arch, and if you do, relax back to a point where your spine is again neutral and your shoulders feel relaxed. Take note of what kind of angle your arms make with the wall behind you.

Here is a video demonstration of this shoulder flexion test on someone with pretty optimal mechanics for athletic shoulder motions. If you don’t look like this in your self-assessment, don’t beat yourself up! Just recognize your own current range of comfortable shoulder flexion. Find your own limits.

To bring this back to swimming, this shoulder flexion test will give you a good indication of the angle at which you should spear your arm into the water at the front of your freestyle swim stroke. In a full swim stroke you’ll be partially rotated onto your side with some internal rotation at your shoulder as you extend forward, but you will still get a very good idea of your range of motion in this neutral front facing position.

Trying to hit a position in the water that you do not have the shoulder mobility to achieve can cause problems on at least a couple levels: it can put you at risk for injury, and it can severely harm the efficiency of your stroke. For example, if you end up straining and arching your back in your attempt to extend forward underwater with a high elbow, you put tension on your lower spine. This will cause your legs to sink as the pressure transfers down your spine to your pelvis. Sinky legs create drag in swimming (efficiency problems), and if you swim in a wetsuit that is working in the opposite direction to keep your legs buoyant, this can put a lot of pressure on your lower back (pain problems).
Instead, tailor your swim stroke to your body’s own mobility. Think about your hand entering the water to reach forward and down a bit more below the surface, and then initiate your catch and press the water backward from there. This may shorten your stroke and feel a little strange at first, but the goal is to find the right trade off so you are swimming at your most efficient point.

Modifying your freestyle stroke to swim within your current level of shoulder mobility can have immediate benefits, but you should also work to gradually improve your available range of motion. Join me next time to go through some helpful techniques for working on shoulder mobility.

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