Let’s start with a synchronized swimming lesson. If you’ve seen synchronized swimming, you’ve seen moments when legs are flying out of the water and maybe you’ve thought “how the heck?” Forbidden from using the bottom of the pool, synchronized swimmers have to create the propulsion required to keep their legs above the water. The technique used for this is called “support scull” and obviously, it requires a lot of strength and tremendous range of motion in the shoulder.
This series will help us understand the mechanics of support scull and identify a key and often overlooked player, the Teres Major. We’ll start in Tune Up Tadasana. The Legs are fired up, the spine is long and a Tubular Core is locked in. Now, externally rotate the shoulders as much as possible (Pin the Arms on the Yogi) and then flex your elbows so that your forearms are raised parallel to the floor with your palms up. Now, imagine you are dusting underneath a glass table. Internally rotate your shoulders, keeping the elbows flexed at 90 degrees and then externally rotate. Your fingertips point in and then out. Now, imagine that the table’s legs collapse and you have to hold the glass top up. This is the pressure needed to create grab on the water. Keep that pressure as you speed up your internal and external rotation. That is how you stay above the water as demonstrated in the images below.
This dynamic movement switches quickly from activation of the internal rotators (Deltoid, Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major, Subcapularis and Pectoralis Major) to activation of the external rotators (Deltoid, Infraspinatus and Teres Minor).
It is very common for swimmers to have overly developed chests and very tight Pectoralis muscles. Many shoulder injuries and poor alignment patterning result from this imbalance. In addition, many young athletes have poor proprioception of the back of their bodies. In synchronized swimmers, this leads to many shoulder impingement injuries and improper and ineffective support scull technique. Many of my young athletes depend almost solely on their Pectoralis for internal rotation. To counter this, it is important to focus on the role of the Latissimus Dorsi and the Teres Major.
The Teres Major is a small, strappy muscle that originates at the bottom lateral edge of the scapula and inserts on the upper humerus, below the shoulder. The Teres Minor is a medial rotator, meaning it assists in internal rotation. It also adducts the arm and brings the arm into a small degree of extension. Importantly, the Teres Major also helps to stabilize the head of the humerus in the glenoid cavity. The Teres Major acts as the “Lat’s Little Helper.” The Teres Major in synergy with the Lats, allows for maximum range of motion, maximum stabilization and maximum recruitment of larger shoulder muscles. This not only creates healthier alignment, but also helps to minimize fatigue and maximize performance.
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Great descriptions of movement. I could picture all movements described. I enjoy learning more about the shoulders DOMs. Thank you.
Great to hear about sport specific strengths and weaknesses.
Thanks for sharing this post. Although, I do not deal with synchronized swimmers, I do teach swimming. This information can be beneficial for the swimmers I encounter. I have done quite a few dissections and can definitely see how the teres major can get fascially adhered to the latissimus dorsi. That being said, there is not much differentiation between the two in cadavers until we take the scalpel and make our own terms major. They are definitely partners. Again, great information on this blog for those who train/coach swimmers.
I was a synchronized swimmer myself and I always felt like the coaches were doing with us what their coaches had been doing with them (I don’t blame them, because I know what a complex sport this is and at least at that time there was not much research on it). So keep on going an picking the movements apart to better understand and help your swimmers, so they can improve in their sport as well as stay healthy!
I love how swimming strengthens the shoulders and chest for internal rotation however, I’m always searching for some magical new swim technique to strengthen external rotators and balance the front and back side of the shoulder and body. I work with clients that use swimming as their main form of cardio exercise but often experience pinching biceps tendonitis pain. I like the variety of internal AND external rotation this “support skull” creates. I may have fun with this movement this week in 100 degree weather.
I think the last paragraph has a typo “The Teres Minor is a medial rotator, meaning it assists in internal rotation”…Teres Major?
Thank you for this incredibly descriptive post on support scull. I teach yoga to so many traditional style swimmers and the synchronized group is new to me. None have been able to describe their movements as clearly as you have. This provides incredible insight to what specifically to work on with them in terns of strengthening, stretching and creating awareness to.
I have always admired the grace and dynamacism of synchronized swimmers ~ cleary, a functioning and well balanced shoulder girdle is necessary to successfully complete such strong routines! I enjoyed the interactive nature of this article in how to propiocept the teres major and the visual imagery cues as wel – thank you!
This was amazing. I love the fact that you are a swimmer and were able to relate this to the imbalances athletes have. As an ex swimmer myself, and something I did competitively for over 10 years. Although I was not synchro and primarily used my internal rotators, I found this article very enlightening. Thank you
I have a few synchronized swimmers as clients. It’s amazing how therapeutic the sculling movement was for one of them to balance the tone of the forearms to help her heal her wrist pain. Now I have a better understanding of sculling relative to the shoulder and teres major. Thank you.
Hi Kendra, awesome post! I knew synchronized swimming was intense, but had no idea it requires so much internal and external rotation of the shoulder. Not very often do I hear examples of where internal and external rotation of the shoulder need to be balanced, so this was quite enlightening! thanks!
Hi, Thanks for sharing this. I love the way you instructed and guided the pose to understand the movement. Swimming is one of my favorites sports to practice and believe me, I tried to do the “Supported scull” and it was imposible for me to bring my legs up, let alone maintain the pose. I Know you need a lot of strenght ( and a lot of practice) to keep you upside down in the water, but at least now I understand the movement and How we can use many Yoga Tune Up® poses to stretch the pectoralis muscles.
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Thanks for that very clear and concise explanation of just how those beautiful synchro poses are achieved! So much happening all at once, involving so many muscles, joints and tissues – it’s certainly easy to understand that injuries and strains would not be uncommon. Every sport or activity involving repetitive movement leaves the participant open to misalignment injuries, or strains due to incorrect muscle usage/compensations. I see this as where Yoga Tune Up® comes to the rescue! I’m sure the swimmers you are coaching are benefiting greatly from the YTU poses you incorporate into their training!
Kendra, this is so clear and it connects so many pieces of the puzzle of the human body that’s being built in my head right now..lol
Your directives and guidance to help us mimic how to be a synchronized swimmer couldn’t have been better explained. Awsome job!
Aha! Finally, I know how they do that! Thank you for your really interesting post. I appreciate all the clear, precise information.
SO interesting! It’s like the hands, in synergy with the shoulder muscles and arms of course act as a propeller like on a motor boat. I did not know how swimmers accomplished this amazing acrobatic feat! Thanks for you blog.
This is SO interesting. I just did this version of Pin the Arms on the Yogi and let me tell you…WOW…it wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t even under water, upside down trying to keep half of my body above water. With proper alignment though, this can be a great dynamic pose to practice.
I met a water athlete this year who joked that she was a D1 athlete in college but had no coordination on land. Do you think there are specific asanas in yoga that will increase proprioception on land?