Today is the final part of this series on preventing shoulder pain through proper recovery and entry technique.  The final portion of the recovery and entry that can help prevent a shoulder issue is the entry depth.  The goal depth for a swimmer to shoot for is 8 to 10 inches deep.  If the entry depth is shallower than this,  it can create a shoulder problem later on.  If the entry depth is deeper than 10 inches, it will lead to inefficiency in the stroke and pull.  We are going to focus on entering to shallow since this can cause damage in the long run and because it is an extremely common problem in swimmers.  A brief side note, entering deeper than 10 inches is not likely to cause injury to a swimmer but it will create inefficiency because the swimmer will grab and pull less water.  Now on to the fun stuff!

Why do swimmers want to enter 8 to 10 inches deep?  Entering 8 to 10 inches deep is the perfect depth is because the latissimus dorsi is activated and the SITS muscles are bypassed at the start of the pull.  When a swimmer enters shallower than 8 inches, he or she is using the SITS muscles to initiate the pull rather than the lats.  This will put a great deal of pressure on the SITS muscles which can lead to tendonitis or impingement in the long run.  This is also inefficient because starting the pull from less than 8 inches is not a linear motion.  This is more of a pressing down motion, which results in lifting the body up not forward.  This shallow entry depth is the major problem that is seen in many swimmers.  If a swimmer has the proper body position, this upward motion is unnecessary and a waste of energy because the swimmer is already as high as he or she can be in the water.

To illustrate the pressure on the shoulder of entering the water less than 8 inches, try this small exercise.  Next time you are at the pool go to the shallow end.  Put your arms on the wall with your palms down, and squat down so your shoulders and hands are in line with each other.  Now press down with the palm as you would if you were swimming.  You will feel your shoulder muscles doing all the work and none of the lats.  You can even do this sitting at your desk reading this blog right now.  This simulates the muscles working when you enter the water and start your pull from a depth less than 8 inches.  Now imagine sprinting and really putting a great deal of pressure as you pull, that is a lot of pressure that you put on your shoulder.   You can now simulate doing it the right way by standing up a little and angling the arm so that your hand is about 8 inches lower than your shoulder, turn your elbow up slightly, and then put pressure on it.  The lat should activate and there will be little to no SITS muscle activation.  That is what you want it to feel like when you pull.  There are a few reasons why this is the goal feeling when swimming.  As we discussed earlier, pulling with the lats is safer because there is less chance of injury.  It is also faster because the lats are more powerful muscles and they are fatigue resistant.  In this case it is also better because now the swimmer eliminates the downward press that lifts you.  With the proper entry depth the swimmer can from 8 inches deep immediately into your grab and pull.  Now you are no longer wasting energy and everything you do is moving you forward rather than up and then forward.  Swimming is a linear sport and everything moves from front to back and back to front.  Any time a part of a swimmer’s stroke is not linear, then he or she is introducing inefficiency and a higher risk for injury into the stroke.  In this case, if a swimmer enters too shallow then he or she is pressing down.  This is not a front to back motion so it is inefficient and creates and opportunity to get hurt.  A good way to tell if you are entering at the proper depth is to be aware of what muscles you feel working.  Depending on where you feel the tension in the body, you can get a general idea of your entry depth.  If you enter too far out front and are 1 to 2 inches deep, then you will feel the pressure in your deltoid.  If you are entering 2 to 4 inches deep, then you will feel the tension more in the triceps and a little in the armpit.  If you are 4-6 inches deep, then you will feel the tension in the arm pit.  Finally, if you are 8 to 10 inches deep then you will feel the lats doing all the work.  So based on this you can get a general idea of how deep you are actually starting your pull.  Check out the video below.   Franco (the swimmer in the video) is demonstrating the proper pull depth and the proper grabbing of water.  This should help give you an idea of what you are shooting for with your stroke!

The best drill to work on this is the stop-stop switch drill which is explained in part I and II of this series.  This entry depth is associated with keeping the elbow nice and high as you enter the water and entering the water half way between your head and full extension.  To get an idea of where this entry point is stand up and lean over as if you were in a pool.  Now take one arm and extend it in front of you in line with your shoulder and roll slightly as if you were swimming.  Now look up and observe where your elbow of the extended arm is.  This is the point that you want your finger tips to enter as you are swimming.  This will help you to bypass that depth less than 8 inches and it will put your hand right where you want to be as you extend the arm down and out.  Another neat little trick that can help figure this placement out is to aim your fingers for the bottom of the T on the wall that you are swimming toward as your finger tips enter the water.  This will put your hand roughly at the proper depth.  Another common flaw related to this is when a swimmer enters perfectly but then relaxes the wrist and lets the hand drift back up to the surface.  This is just as bad for the shoulder as entering to shallow because the swimmer is still starting his or her pull from the surface rather than 8 inches deep.  This is causing the swimmer to put more pressure than  wanted on the SITS muscles as he or she pulls.  Below is the video of the stop-stop-switch drill.  This drill is used to correct many different problems and that is why you are seeing it so many times throughout this series on recovery and entry technique:

Another good drill to do is shark fin with a touch.  This drill is when you start on your side kicking with one arm extended in-line with the shoulder, palm down, with the hand 8 to 10 inches deep.  With the top arm you will lift the elbow to the ceiling and let the forearm and hand relax so that they end up next to your shoulder roughly 4-6 inches from the body.  Hold this shark fin position for a couple of kicks, then when you are ready you will swing your hand and forearm forward keeping your elbow nice and high and touch the water with your finger tips where your goal entry position is and hold it for a few kicks.  Then when you finish this, bring the arm back into shark fin and then bring it down back by your side.  You will repeat this several times and then you switch arms and do the same thing with the opposite arm.  When doing this drill make sure you are not breathing when the elbow is up, only breathe when your top arm is relaxed resting on your side.  This drill really allows you to zone in on where you want to enter.


The last drill to work on this is catch-up drill with finger tip drag.  This drill will allow you to work on the high elbows and the entry at a tempo closer to normal swimming.  With this drill you will do regular catch-up drill and with every stroke you want to drag your finger tips across the water keeping the elbow nice and high.  The focus should be on driving the hand, finger tips first, into the water half-way between your head and full extension to get to that entry depth of 8 to 10 inches deep.  Your goal should be on keeping the elbow high as you enter the water and then extend out and down.  All these drills explained above should help you come closer to achieving the goal of keeping the elbow up and entering 8 to 10 inches deep which sets you up for a safe and efficient pull!

The goal for any level swimmer, especially in the off-season, should be to really zone in on technique so when the season does start and the volume starts to increase the technique happens naturally.  This type of training will make you much faster as a swimmer and it will help to protect your shoulders and help to reduce the risk of shoulder injury through your swimming and/or triathlon career.  Many swimmers do not enjoy doing drills and beating the technique into their heads, but it makes life much easier in the long run.  Even though this type of training can be very tedious, it will really help to give you the muscle memory necessary to keep those shoulders safe and it will help your mental training as well.  These drills can be difficult and they take a lot of focus, so doing these drills after a hard set is always a good idea.  Normally in a hard speed set the first thing to go out the window is technique.  By doing these drills as recovery from a hard set, you are reminding your body of what it should be doing.  This will help your body remember the technique more effectively and it will train you to keep your mental focus even when you are tired and are suffering.  The common technical flaws described are not necessarily things that all people do and sometimes people will develop shoulder pain from other parts of the stroke not discussed in this series.  The goal of this post is to pin point a few key areas to focus on that I have seen cause shoulder pain in many swimmers in the recovery and entry portion of the stroke.  There are other points in the stroke to consider that may cause shoulder pain and injuries that I will be covering in future blog posts.  Some people are lucky and may make these errors and will never get a shoulder problem.  Other people are unlucky and may do everything perfect but the repetition of the stroke alone is enough to cause this type of pain.  Whichever category you fall under, it is always best to practice proper technique to help prevent these injuries and to increase stroke efficiency.  The best thing that you can do to make sure that you have safe, efficient technique is to get a video analysis of your stroke.  This way you have a coach look at you and tell you what looks good and what needs work and best of all you get to see it in action!  This is a service that I offer and you can get more information on this by contacting me by commenting on this post or by checking out my website  Most local coaches should offer this service as well and it will really help improve your stroke!

I hope that you found this series helpful in providing you with guidelines to a safe and efficient recovery and entry for the freestyle stroke!  Make sure you practice all the drills seen in this series as much as you can to really make the technique second nature.  You will be swimming faster and pain-free before you know it!  Be sure to check back for our post on dry-land exercises that will help prevent injuries in swimming and make you a faster swimmer.

Stay safe out there!