Does Stretching Really Help Swimmer’s Shoulder?
If you do a quick google on how to fix your Swimmer's Shoulder, you’ll see endless exercises. Some of these exercises include stretches for your neck and shoulder. But are those stretches really effective for getting rid of your nagging Swimmer's Shoulder?
This is exactly what Maggie, an avid recreational swimmer, asked me the other day. Maggie had come down with a pretty frustrating case of Swimmer’s Shoulder. Her pain had been going on for months, but the pain wasn’t bad enough to stop her from swimming. When trying to find what would help her shoulder, she came across an article that had what she thought would be helpful stretches.
Maggie was extremely diligent in completing those stretches. However after a week of doing them, she noticed her shoulder was actually feeling a little worse. She thought “How could this be possible?!” It was at that point, Maggie came into the clinic to figure out the root cause of her Swimmer's Shoulder and why stretching wasn’t helping.
Why Did Those Stretches Make Maggie Feel Worse?
While stretching has been thought to be helpful in getting rid of pain and preventing injuries, this isn’t what the latest research has shown. With Swimmer's Shoulder, stretching may actually exacerbate your pain.
Let’s dive into this more.
#1 Angry Muscle’s Don’t Like Tension
Imagine you are walking around the block, you trip and scrape your knee. Your knee develops a scab. The last thing you want to do is pick at the scab, as the healing process would have to restart and the scab would have to form again.
Stretching an inflamed muscle or tendon is like picking at a scab. It is irritating the muscle further and can delay its healing. When you stretch a muscle, you are essentially placing a tension stress on it. While some tension can be beneficial for promoting flexibility, too much tension can actually make matters worse. This is especially true for an irritated or inflamed muscle or tendon, which is already under stress.
This isn’t to say all stretches are bad but, for example, stretching your already painful shoulder too aggressively can cause further irritation and lead to increased pain and discomfort.
#2 A Tight Muscle Is a Weak Muscle
If a muscle feels tight all the time, even if you frequently stretch it, it is probably weak. The muscle tightens as a protective response. In the case of Swimmer’s Shoulder your brain might send signals to the weak muscles to contract more than usual in an attempt to provide additional stability and help protect your shoulder. This increased muscle activity can lead to a sensation of tightness.
Other times, your shoulder may feel tight due to a muscle imbalance. If one of your shoulder muscles is weak, the muscles around the weak muscle have to work overtime to stabilize the shoulder. This can increase the tension in your shoulder, leading to a feeling of tightness.
In both scenarios, stretching will decrease the stability of your shoulder, as the tightness is a result of your body providing stability to that area. Decreasing your shoulder stability can increase your risk of Swimmer’s Shoulder. This can help explain why Maggie’s shoulder felt worse after stretching.
What Should Maggie Do instead?
Maggie only needed to stretch if there was a true muscle length issue, which she did not have. Instead of stretching Maggie needed to start a strengthening regime that focused on the shoulder and shoulder blade.
Here are three exercises that Maggie completed, and are some of my favorites for Swimmer's Shoulder.
#1 Scap Push Ups
Scap push ups are great for strengthening a muscle called the serratus anterior. The serratus anterior is one of the most important muscles for swimmer’s as it is active for the entire swimming stroke. The serratus is inhibited in swimmer’s with shoulder pain, making it weaker than normal. Therefore it is super important to complete exercises that focus on the serratus anterior. Especially if you are dealing with a Swimmer's Shoulder.
How to perform:
· Start in a high plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line.
· While keeping your core engaged, push through your hands and protract your shoulder blades by rounding your upper back slightly.
· Hold this protracted position for 1-2 seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat for the desired repetitions
#2 Three-Way Banded Pull Apart
The Three -Way Banded Pull Apart is a great exercise as it targets and strengthens the muscles of the upper back, specifically the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and rotator cuff muscles. These muscles are crucial for maintaining proper posture and shoulder stability during swimming strokes.
How to perform:
· Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a resistance band in front of you with a shoulder-width grip.
· Keep your arms extended and begin by pulling the band apart horizontally squeezing your shoulder blades together.
· Return to the starting position and then repeat the motion by pulling the band apart diagonally upward and downward.
· Repeat again with the opposite arms pulling diagonally upward and downward
#3 Face Pull Row
The exercise is great for all of the same reasons as the Three -Way Banded Pull Apart but is more specific for the recovery part of your freestyle stroke. By recruiting the muscles around the upper back and scapula as you bring your elbow back, you increase the stability of your shoulder in a position that is similar to the recovery of freestyle.
How to perform:
· Attach a resistance band or rope to a sturdy anchor at chest height. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the band or rope with an overhand grip.
· Pull the band or rope towards your face, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your elbows high, then slowly return to the starting position.
· Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, focusing on engaging the muscles of the upper back and shoulders.
The Final Touch:
I explained to Maggie that stretching can be a useful tool to overcome Swimmer's Shoulder if you have a muscle that is truly stiff or inflexible. In her case, as with most swimmers, stretching is not the answer and in some cases stretching can make your shoulder feel worse. Instead, strengthening the muscles around the shoulder and shoulder blade proved to be the answer Maggie needed to successfully eliminate her Swimmer's Shoulder.
Written by Alex Ewart, DPT, CSCS, is a physical therapist with extensive experience treating swimming and triathlon injuries. As a former competitive swimmer and current multiport athlete, Alex brings a unique understanding of the demands and challenges faced by these athletes. His specialized knowledge and personalized approach have helped countless swimmers and triathletes overcome injuries and regain their confidence in the water.