How to Avoid Swimmer’s Shoulder

How to Avoid Swimmer’s Shoulder by Lily McCann

The term ‘Swimmer’s shoulder’ strikes fear into the heart of any dedicated open water swimmer. To suffer from it will inevitably mean a lengthy period of recovery during which swimming has to be avoided and the muscles rested. Over a third of top level swimmers suffer from it.

It is an overuse injury caused by repeated trauma as opposed to a single incident, so it often tends to get ignored until the pain is unbearable. The good news is that there are exercises that can be done to minimise the risk of suffering from swimmer’s shoulder.

How does it work?

Obviously the best avoidance is good technique, and a good overall level of health and fitness, something that every swimmer strives for anyway. However, to truly understand the ways in which the injury can be avoided an understanding of what the injury consists of is needed.


Swimmer’s shoulder is effectively an imbalance in the shoulder muscles. The term covers a wide range of shoulder overuse injuries, and due to the complex nature of the shoulder joint the pain can range from local pain within the shoulder joint, to a pain that spreads up into your neck, shoulders or down into an arm.


The shoulder is a ball and socket synovial joint held in place by cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons. The muscles which affect the joint stability are called the rotator cuff. Four muscles make up the rotator cuff and they work together to keep your shoulder securely in the socket. These are the supraspinatus muscle, infraspinatus muscle, teres minor muscle and subscapularis muscle.

Regular swimmers can find these rotator cuff muscles become overworked and the ball and socket joint becomes imbalanced. This can lead to a number of shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff impingement and tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, bursitis, capsule and ligament damage or cartilage damage.

Any one of these injuries is a cause for immediate concern for swimmers as it means they need to rest the muscles so have to take a break from swimming. Incorrect long-term recovery can lead to reduced mobility of the shoulder.

The rotator cuff helps the ball joint move within the socket to allow full shoulder movement. This means the way in which the injury is repaired could mean the difference between regaining full strength and mobility again or having a permanently decreased levels, which for a serious swimmer could mean a drop in performance levels.

All in all, swimmer’s shoulder is something that every swimmer wants to avoid. There are exercises you can do yourself to help the affected muscles and encourage balanced muscle development in your shoulder joint.

Opening and closing a coat

Imagine you are wearing a coat and you are ‘flashing’ the coat open and closing it again. Hold your arms out in front of your bent at the elbow with your elbows at your hips. During the opening motion pull your arms back as far as they will go, keeping your elbows pinned to your side. This will stretch the muscles at the back of the shoulder and increase the range of motion. You should be able to feel your back muscles working.

You can repeat this motion using a stretchy exercise/resistance band (available from physiotherapist or sports shops) to strengthen the weak muscles. Hold the band in your hands, hip width apart, with your elbows pulled in, and pull your hands outwards as far as you can and hold the stretch for a few seconds. Repeat this in three sets of ten.

Stick shoulder rotation

Hold a stick in one hand above your head as though you were going to scratch your back with it. Then hold the other end of the stick with your other hand from below. Pull down on the stick using your lower hand to rotate your upper arm shoulder backwards. This again stretches the tight muscles in your shoulder.

Single arm rotation

To build strength in the external rotators use the stretchy exercise band again. Tie one end of the band to a door handle. Stand side-on to the door, hold the end of the stretchy band in the hand furthest away from the door. Keep your elbow tucked to your side, and again pretend you are opening a coat. When you reach the full stretch hold that position for a few seconds. Again repeat this in three sets of ten.

Throwing a spear

This exercise uses the exercise band attached to the door handle again. Stand with your back to the door, holding the band in one hand. Hold your arm out at shoulder height, in line with your head and shoulders, with your elbow bent at a right angle. Slowly rotate your arm forward, as though you are throwing a spear, maintaining control the whole time, moving slowly back to the starting position. Again do three sets of ten of this exercise. This builds up the muscles at the back of the shoulder to achieve a more stable shoulder joint.

Injury-free swimming

Ensuring the muscles supporting your shoulder joint are all balanced is the best way to avoid swimmer’s shoulder, meaning you can enjoy open water swimming year-round….if you can brave the colder months!