Scapular Stability for Swimmers: How to Bulletproof Your Shoulders

Strong scaps, strong swimmer. Here’s how better scapular stability will help you swim faster and avoid injury.

We expect a lot from our shoulders over the course of our swim career. We push, rotate and pull with them for hours on end each day, week after week, for years on end.

To perform these kajillions of overhead arm motions that are required to kick chlorinated butt-butt in the pool our shoulder joint and scapula (your shoulder blade) move together.

If you are like most swimmers, at some point you have experienced shoulder pain. Actually, if you are a swimmer at all you have almost certainly dealt with shoulder pain. (One study of USA Swimming national-level swimmers found that 26% of them were presently experiencing shoulder pain.)

While the causes of swimmer’s shoulder are often attributed to general fatigue, poor technique, and muscle imbalances, one thing you can and should be doing regularly to help prevent this injury is strengthening and stabilizing your scaps.

Here’s why.

What Happens to Our Shoulders with Weak Scapular Stability

In the course of Googling while dealing with previous shoulder injuries you almost certainly came across articles promoting the importance of strong rotator cuffs.

This was always the focus of attention when I was an age-grouper—if our shoulders got sore out of the water we got, and using a stretch band we dutifully performed our internal and external rotations.

Over the past few years, however, more attention has shifted to the influence that the scapula has on how our shoulders perform.

Here’s some of the not-so-awesome stuff that happens when our scaps are weak [1]:

  • Weak scaps mean more pressure and load on the anterior capsule of the shoulder;
  • Increased likelihood of rotator cuff compression;
  • Neuromuscular performance of the shoulder goes down.

Okay, so having scaps that aren’t terribly strong can end up leaving a lot of performance on the table, while also leaving us more vulnerable to shoulder injuries.

Double un-whammy.

So what’s the next step?

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

I reached out recently to Jason Dierking, the strength and conditioning coach for the swim team at the University of Louisville, for his favorite scapular stability exercises for swimmers.

Here they are with Jason’s pointers for doing them properly:

1. 1/2 Kneeling Stability Ball Punch

  • Get into a 1/2 kneeling position with good posture (core activated, slight posterior hip tilt, and neutral spine).
  • Get arm’s length from the stability ball and make a fist, holding the ball against the wall with light pressure.
  • With the shoulder blade in a neutral position, push the fist into the ball by protracting the shoulder, and return to the starting position.
  • The movement should be smooth and controlled, trying to prevent the ball from rolling around on the wall.
  • Repeat for 10-20 reps on each side.

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

 

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

2. Bow & Arrow

  • Assume a parallel standing position with the handles of a light resistance cord in each hand.
  • Maintaining a tall vertical posture, rotate and pull one arm back to full retraction, finishing with the hand by the shoulder while keeping the opposite arm straight.
  • Alternate sides for 10-15 reps each side.

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

3. Prone Arm Slide with “W”

  • Assume a prone position with arms extended overhead.
  • Pull the arms down into a “W” position (downward rotation of the scaps) and then elevate the elbows down and back, trying to maintain shoulder contact with the floor.
  • Perform 10-20 reps.

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

4. Scap Elbow Bridge

  • Maintaining a neutral elbow bridge position, protract and retract the shoulder blades with a slow and smooth tempo.
  • Try to keep the elbows in under the shoulders with the forearms parallel to each other.
  • Perform 10-20 reps.

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

5. Prone 1-Arm “Y”

  • Lie in a prone position on the edge of a bench, box, or table.
  • Keeping the shoulder in contact with the surface, elevate the arm at a 45-degree angle with the thumb up to shoulder level.
  • Try to keep the shoulder blade pulled down and back throughout the movement.
  • It’s beneficial to perform these shoulder movements both bilaterally and unilaterally due to the nature of the long axis strokes.

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

Scapular Stability Exercises for Swimmers

A big thank you to Jason for taking the time to send over these scapular stability exercises.

Give them a go before your next practice and swim on with healthier, stronger shoulders.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and the author of the books YourSwimBook and Conquer the Pool. He writes all things high-performance swimming, and his articles were read over 3 million times last year. His work has appeared on USA Swimming, ZwemZa, SwimSwam, STACK, NBC Universal, and more. He’s also kinda tall and can be found on Twitter.

 

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