Necks, shoulders, hips and low backs. The areas that bark out to let you know that you did 4,500 yards yesterday. How can adding more exercise possibly help them to feel better? Well, by addressing the negative affects that a lot of swimming can have on the body:
- Poor Breathing Mechanics and Core Stabilization
- Poor Joint Dissociation and Body Awareness
- Compensatory Shoulder Mechanics
- Excessive Fatigue
I’ve seen these 4 variables time and time again plague elite-level swimmers. It’s why I actually put a priority in addressing them in my programming. Here’s how I do it:
All of my athletes start off with breathing exercises, whether they’re swimmers or not. It’s mandatory and pays HUGE dividends in how the core functions and it helps to modulate their nervous system into a better state to take load.
Swimmers get an emphasis on breathing work for a few extra reasons:
- It helps to teach them how to create stiffness through their spine.
- It helps to turn off the accessory breathing muscles and keep them from affecting shoulder mechanics
- It can be used to improve thoracic and rib mechanics and address mobility restraints.
In fact, breathing work is so important for swimming that Dominic and I even made a course on it last year and it’s been spread throughout the world. We’ve had many swimmers reach out to us and note how simple of an intervention it was, yet how much time it shaved off.
Below is a video of one of my favorite drills for teaching diaphragmatic breathing to swimmers.
Once they can own a full breath, I let them practice it for a minute or two to try to really coax more rib expansion and then I move them onto this next drill to teach them how to create core stiffness.
This is incredibly important to address as many swimmers are in the habit of pulling their belly button to their spine, which has been actually proven by EMG to turn off a lot of the core musculature. Teaching them how to engage their abdominal wall and be able to maintain its tension throughout a breath cycle will lead to dramatic changes in spinal mechanics and will significantly help with alleviating stress off the low back. It also brings us into our next point….
In the early progressions of strength work with a swimmer, it will literally be like watching a fish out of water. I have found that many swimmers have a poor ability to dissociate their joints and create the proper tension to execute many traditional strength movements. I’ve always hypothesized that it’s because the water gives resistance to their movements when they swim and their body gets used to the feedback. Then, when they’re out of the water, the volume of that feedback is significantly reduced, and thus their body awareness decreases. Admittedly, there’s no research to support my theory, but I can site many other strength coaches who have run into similar issues with their aquatic athletes.
The braced breathing work helps to kick start the joint dissociation, but it needs to be expanded upon to have a major effect. The tension from the drill helps to give feedback on spinal positioning. When they can create stiffness and get that feedback, they can prevent it from moving and doing the work. I can’t understate how many times I’ve seen swimmers try to use their spine for exercises. Pushups, rows, hinge work, squats, you name it, and I've seen a spine try to do it. By creating a solid and strong base with the core tension, you can prevent this and slowly build up other movements and teach them how to more appropriately load their joints.
Now even though I just drove home how important tension is for movement feedback, there are other gaps to be filled. You also want to teach the athlete to be able to inhibit their over-recruitment strategies and simply move through specific segments. This is great for those athletes that create high-threshold strategies for simple movements (read: athletes that tense up all the time when they don’t need to). One of my favorites of these drills to drive dissociation home is primal rolling. It’s actually an exercise that was created by a famous PT, named Gray Cook, to help clean up spinal firing patterns and encourage healthy spinal mechanics, which is a added plus for me since I mainly use it to get an athlete able to focus on dissociating limbs from trunk. To perform them, you simply lay on the floor and lift one leg up in the air and use that leg to pull yourself over. Sounds easy, right? Well, try doing that while keeping THE ENTIRE REST OF YOUR BODY LIMP, ESPECIALLY THE OTHER LEG! Not as easy as it sounds. See below.
Again, keep the whole body limp except the active leg. It’s super common to see swimmers shift their hips and try to use their trunk muscles during this movement.
By progressing the appropriate joint loading strategies and increasing the internal feedback, you are essentially making an athlete that will be easier to coach and correct, as well as one that is more body aware and able to detect changes in positioning. This is why it’s so common to have swimmers a month or two into training with me start to talk about how they can actually feel their lats now when they swim. They have better awareness, which gives them better access to the muscle, and then in turn can give them better feedback on accomplishing the movement correctly. Which again, brings us to our next point:
If the Greek legend Achilles had been a swimmer, the story would have told of his weakness being his trap, not his heel. Swimmers are notorious for being trap-dominant and having poor shoulder mechanics. It is by far the number 1 complaint I get from my newer athletes.
The problem is that swimming under fatigue can really coax the shoulder into some bad positions, especially in freestyle. The athlete will often ditch using their upper back on the pull and instead try to recruit with the pecs while doing so in what we call downward rotation of the scapula. Think of this as a form of desk-posture. And it’s a pretty bad position to try to emit force from.
Good strength training should help to place more balance across the shoulder and help to cue the athlete out of these pathological movements. A well thought out program will have a high emphasis on strengthening the upper back and lats as well as promoting that healthy movement and awareness of the shoulder positioning. Below is my favorite drill to give swimmers in their warm up to help warm their shoulders up:
Notice how I cue them to first keep the core tension? The tension creates awareness and then allows them to disassociate their shoulders from their spine. It comes full circle.
Fatigue management is probably the most important aspect of injury prevention that no one talks about. It’s actually so important, that SwimBox now offers a special service for it. And yes, strength training can help. Or I should say, it can help to prepare the system to take on more stress when implemented at the right time of year.
If an athlete starts strength training at a time of year when their swim volume is low, it will allow them to build their system up and condition their joints and tissue to be able to take on more work. That is why it’s called Strength AND Conditioning. We are conditioning the body to be able to do more and better work. To be fair, if a swimmer is regularly doing an ignorant amount of yardage and their body can’t keep up, it won’t matter how much strength work has been done or how much recovery work is implemented, they’re cruising for a bruising.
The important thing to note here is that the harder and more intense strength work is done when swimming is on the lighter side. When the athlete is building large amounts of volume, that is when strength work should be manipulated to accommodate all the stress that is already on their system, not add to it.
The manipulation doesn’t have to just be in pulling back on the amount, it can actually be manipulated in such a manner that it stimulates recovery. If a swimmer is really building volume and they’re showing high signs of fatigue, a strength session can be written to facilitate recovery and give them a bit more juice to get them through their build problem-free.
How can you make a dry-land session so that it helps the athletes to recover? The answer may actually surprise you, but you will have to wait for my next post to find out!