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.
Fascinating! We often think of swimming as a great, low-impact workout, conflating low-impact with low risk of injury. What a great way to explain how, even in the water, postural integrity matters.
Excelente artículo, es muy común las lesiones de hombros en nadadores y en general, sólo se tiende a fortalecer los hombros, pero no se pone foco en la movilidad y en el rango de movimiento, poder conectar el trabajo de los brazos con la musculatura del tronco, especialmente el dorsal ancho, para una brazada más eficiente .Gracias por escribirlo!
This is great advice…I see lots of swimmers having too much spinal rotation along with significant internal rotation in the shoulder extension following the catch or crossing the midline of the body prior to catching the water. Swimming has full-body involvement from how you rotate your neck to breath to engaging the core to control the side roll of the body during the stroke. Good read….
Very interesting and I think the idea of tailoring the swim stroke to the person’s mobility applies to other sports are well, thinking golf for sure, even yoga. Taking a look at shoulder mobility applies to a lot of different areas and it’s important to work in our own ranges.
I swam competitive for very long time and I never heard from anyone talking about ROM or flexibility or someone to adapt their stroke according to their mobility. At that time everybody had to look the same way. Very interesting information, I’ll keep it in mind from now on.
I am an intermediate swimer and this article has great tips on improving my swim technique.
Thanks for the information ?
After my first experience of using therapy ball to release the muscle tension in shoulders, I was fascinated by the work. I used to regularly swim and I loved it so much.
Thank you for the inspiring article, I’d come back to be in the water.
Thanks for the detailed analysis of shoulder flexion. look forward to reading how we improve the flexion and ROM?
I really appreciate the idea of …tailor your swim stroke to your body’s own mobility.” I would apply this concept to other body movements as well, so that I or a student are paying attention to my/their own range of motion and then tailoring rolling and poses to “… gradually improve your available range of motion.”
It’s great to witness others who have greater range of motion that myself, yet I want to achieve ROM that is suited to my body.
It was interesting to learn about this. I’d never thought of shoulder flexion limiting your swimming, I’d only thought of circumduction.
Excellent advice. thanks
Thank you for this post. It is very useful information and I will try this text with my clients to see how much shoulder flexion there is and retested a few months later.
I especially think about the extension stroke in swimming and how the shoulder needs to depress and then pull back. I can see how the protraction and depression of the shoulder can really fire up pec minor. Great exercise suggestion 🙂
Such a great way to find where your entry point should be in the water! Knowing your limitations is a must in preventing injury and I’m happy you are shedding light on that. My niece swims and I noticed when I saw her over Christmas how poor her shoulder mobility was. I got her on the YTU balls to address some of her poor posture habits and she was amazed by the difference in her range after. Looking forward to reading your article and learning more ways of increasing shoulder mobility!
Such a great way to find where your entry point should be in the water! Knowing your limitations is a must in preventing injury and I’m happy you are shedding light on that! Looking forward to reading your article about addressing those limitations and increasing shoulder mobility!
Thanks for this, Mandy. As a Triathlete, I am always looking at working on my swim technique. I never really thought about ROM of the shoulder testing my flexion using my YTU knowledge and my swim stroke together. I’m not sure why because it makes perfect sense. With the tips in this article, I’m looking forward to my next swim.
Interesting article. Although I am not a swimmer, the perspective is valuable and wise. Love the succinct but informative video too!
Mandy, I am enjoying your swimming articles. I especially like the self test you recommend out of the water. What a great idea. Evaluate first and then add water.
This YTU pose, I find is so useful when finding attempting to find balance in your upper arms strength and ability. Shoulder Flexion is something not common to me so when I did try it out, I could feel the tension and release pressure points. Which became useful in rolling the ball later in the day.
Shoulder flrxtuon is a must , I have a injured shoulder and with doing this self flextion helps brings awareness to what you can work on to increase you range ,so glad to have seen this to help me in my optimal health journey.
Mandy, I really like the shoulder test for mobility. Your comment about recognizing your limitations and hone in on your efficiency from there really resonates for me
Love the Shoulder Mobility test and recommendation for taking more accountability in one’s chosen movement endeavors.
Shoulder flexibility is a must for all of us! It’s all about taking a step back to regress and then we can move forward to progress. Less is often more and I have found in my own body stepping back and doing simpler movements is more effective in the long term game.
Great insights into applying the YTU approach to freestyle. I especially resonated with “efforts would be better spent making adjustments for your individual biomechanics and flexibility. Recognize your limitations and hone your efficiency from there” Also, I’ll be forwarding your article to my tightly shouldered swimmer husband. thank you!
I love this article. One of my clients swims 2-3 times a week. This helped me to understand the dynamics of the front crawl stroke so I can better help my client. Thank you.
Thanks,Mandy, for explaining the biomechanics of the swim stroke and how it affects the spine and legs. I teach yoga but, I have a couple of strong swimmers whose upper bodies have different strengths and weaknesses than the non-swimmers. This article gave me some insight into what they deal with!
I love to swim in our river, i’m not a “swimmer” (per say), although i could swim before i could walk!
This is so interesting, never thought about it before -thanks for the very helpful check in. can translate to downward dog too!
Play with the shoulder flexion test right after reading this article and resolve the seesawing under the water with free style when I was younger.