Shoulder injuries and shoulder joint pain are both very common in swimming and triathlon.  More often than not, these shoulder injuries are a result of a flaw in stroke mechanics.  It is for this very reason that I have decided to write about this topic for you.  Every swimmer and triathlete wants to have a long career.  The only way to last in these sports is to remain injury free and that is why this is such an important topic for swimmers and triathletes of all levels.  My goal is to explain to you the common flaws that I have seen in swimmers who end up with shoulder injuries in the recovery and entry portion of the freestyle stroke.  I will then go on to explain the technique you want to shoot for and give you some drills on how to go about achieving that safe and speedy stroke!  There is a lot of information here and I do not want to make your brain explode and ooze out your ears, so I have decided to split this up over 3 posts.  Over the next week, I am going to post a common error that I see in the recovery and entry of the freestyle and then I will explain how to correct it.  In today’s post you will also be getting a little anatomy lesson on the rotator cuff to help give you a better understand about why shoulder injuries occur in swimming.  I hope that you find this informative and useful in protecting your shoulders from preventable injuries in your quest for a long and successful swim and triathlon career!

When swimming with good technique, the goal for any swimmer is to use the Latissimus Dorsi muscle.  Unfortunately, the reality is that most swimmers end up using shoulder stabilizers instead, especially self-taught swimmers.  The shoulder stabilizers include the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and the Subscapularis.  These muscles are also known as your SITS muscles.  The goal of the SITS muscles is rotator cuff stabilization, hence the term “shoulder stabilizers”.  These muscles are small and are not designed for repetitive endurance activity such as swimming.  It is important to understand the function of these muscles in order to discuss rotator cuff pain and prevention.  The main function of the SITS muscles is to keep the ball and socket joint (your shoulder) together.  All these muscles used over and over again to propel the body through the water can cause inflammation in the rotator cuff which can lead to rotator cuff tendonitis if the stroke mechanics are not corrected.  There are a few reasons why the latissimus dorsi is a better muscle to use when swimming.  One major reason is that it is a much larger muscle compared to the SITS muscles.  It has the ability to create much more power, which is what you want when trying to tear through the water.  Another reason the lats are better for swimming is because its point of attachment is not near the shoulder.  This means that it will not cause shoulder pain!  Finally the lats are fatigue resistant, which means you can swim longer and faster without getting tired!  This is exactly why swimmers try to use the lats more than the SITS muscles and why they tend to have huge lats.  The pictures below will help you to see the major differences between the SITS and Lats:

Now that we are done with our brief anatomy lesson and are experts on the shoulder joint, we can move on to the good stuff. The common flaw that I am going to go over today is proper hand position during entry.  Many of the flaws that I will be explaining over the next week are hard to catch and that is why it is always important for swimmers of all levels, but especially beginners, to work with a coach.  A good coach will be able to spot these key flaws immediately and will help you to correct them in an effort to prevent any shoulder injuries.

During the entry there are a couple of places that can create shoulder pain.  The main focus of today’s post is hand position.  We will be covering the other points later this week, so be sure to check back in a few days.  When entering the water, it is important for a swimmer to enter the water with his or her finger tips first.  The common mistake that I see over and over again is swimmers entering the water thumb first.  The problem with a thumb first entry is that it sets up an improper pull.  This is where inefficiency in the stroke as well as a possibility for injury can occur.  When a swimmer enters the water thumb first, the first motion that usually occurs once the hand is in the water is a sweeping motion.  This sweeping motion happens because a thumb first entry causes the palm to face away from the body, so the first thing that the hand has to do to start the pull is push out to the side before grabbing any water.  This is inefficient because it is not helping the swimmer move forward.  All this does is push water off to the side which really does nothing for you but waste energy.  The really important issue is how this can cause an injury.  When a swimmer enters the water with the thumb down and sweeps out to the side, this is the SITS muscles at work.  This sweeping motion puts a great deal of pressure on the shoulder joint at the top of the deltoid, which covers the SITS muscles.  It is the repetition of this unnatural pressure on the shoulder that can cause inflammation in the joint leading to tendonitis or worse.  If this thumb first entry happens a few times it is not a big deal.  However, if this is a habit for a swimmer this is occurring about 18 times per 25 yards (9 strokes for each arm).  So if this person practices 3 times a week and does 3000 yards at each workout then he or she is putting this unnatural pressure on the shoulder joint approximately 3240 times per shoulder (6480 strokes divided by 2 shoulders).  Take these numbers and then throw intensity into the mix.  The faster one tries to swim, the greater the pressure on the shoulder becomes.  This adds up quickly and it is no surprise that entering thumb first and sweeping the palm out to the side to start the pull can cause shoulder pain or even injury if not corrected.

The proper hand position to help prevent injury is a finger tip first entry.  When a swimmer enters the water finger tips first, it allows them to bypass the activation of many of the SITS muscles.  This entry means that your finger tips will enter first so that your palm faces the bottom of the pool rather than the side of the pool.  Now a swimmer is more efficient because he or she can go right into grabbing water rather than pushing it out-of-the-way.  This will create a faster pull and the opportunity to grab more water to pull with each stroke.  An easy way to remember the proper position is this:  if you are entering the water thumb first, then you are giving yourself a thumbs down!

Now that we have gone over the goal hand position, we just have figure out how to do it!  Changing the orientation of one’s hand can be difficult to fix in a sport where all the limbs and torso are moving at the same time.  There a few drills that will allow you to slow down the stroke to focus on the hands as they enter the water.  The first drill that can be done is the stop-stop-switch drill.  This is a complicated drill, so if you have a weak kick it is in your best interest to do this drill with fins so that you can focus on the hands rather than focus on staying afloat.  This drill can be used to work on several parts of the stroke because it allows you to slow down each piece of the recovery including hand position and entry.  In this drill you will start kicking on your side with your head looking at the line at the bottom of the pool.  Keep your neck as relaxed as possible!  Your bottom arm will be out in front of you, palm down, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with your shoulder.  The first stop in this drill is when you roll your head to breathe while kicking on the side.  Place the head back in-line with the spine looking back at the line at the bottom of the pool.  The second stop is when you lift the elbow of the top arm up to the ceiling.  Keep the forearm relaxed, so that the hand swings forward with the knuckles facing the end of the pool that you are swimming to.  This will make a shark fin with the top arm and that is the second stop.  You want to pause in this position for a couple of kicks.  The switch occurs when you swing your hand and forearm from the shark fin position forward so that the finger tips enter the water and you take a stroke to switch sides.  Then you will repeat this stop-stop switch drill on the other side.  It allows you to pick apart your stroke and work on each segment of the recovery.  This lets you focus on keeping the knuckles forward so that the entering hand can go in finger tips first.  To get a better understanding of the drill please check out the video below:

The second drill to work on this is much less complicated but will really take a lot of focus to see if you are entering finger tips first and not thumb first.  This is the catch-up drill.  This is basically a slowed down version of swimming.  In this drill, start on your stomach with both arms out in front of you, palms down, and shoulder width apart.  In this drill, you will take a full stroke with one arm while keeping the other arm out in front of you in-line with the shoulder.  The key for this drill is to really watch your hand as it enters the water.  Do you see your finger tips enter first or your thumb?  This will tell you if you are fixing the problem or not.  After the hand enters the water and is back to its starting position so the arms are shoulder width apart, you will then take a stroke with the other arm.  Continue following this pattern and watching your hands enter to see if you are entering thumb first or finger tip first.  To watch this drill in action, check out the video below:

Both of these drills will allow you to slow down the stroke and focus on how the hand enters the water.  Correcting hand position is difficult because of the fine motor movements involved but it will make you more efficient and will help to prevent shoulder injuries in the long run.  If you are not sure if you are doing this properly, every once in a while when you are swimming look forward and watch your hands enter.  You will see clearly if you enter thumb first and sweep to the side or if you enter finger tips first.  That concludes the first part of this 3 part post.  Check back in a couple of days for the second part in which we will be going over the proper location of entry.  If you have any questions or need more clarification on the topics discussed in this post please feel free to comment and I will do my best to answer your questions.

I also want to thank Franco Zuccoli, the swimmer you saw and will be seeing in the videos posted today and over the next week.  He did a fantastic job  showing you how to do the drills properly!  He is our program strength coach and I have been working with him for quite some time now.  For more information on his work check out:  In the next few weeks, Franco and I will be collaborating on a post that will provide you with a strength training program that will help protect your shoulders and will make you a stronger swimmer!  Thanks Franco!

Stay tuned for more technique tips and earn that easy speed by increasing your stroke efficiency through technique!