There are two broad areas relevant to preventing shoulder pain in swimmers. The first area involves a daily preventative/maintenance program. The second area involves what do before a work out at the pool.
In the first category, to prevent rotator cuff problems, you need to work on preventive exercises on a daily basis. This involves stretching and strengthening of the rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder blade muscles.
Stretching may be the key, but probably NOT the stretching you learned as a kid! How to stretch and how not to stretch. Stretching should be done after a general warm up, for example, sit ups, jumping jacks, body squats or wall push ups. Once you are warmed up, began stretching. Hold each stretch for 5-10 seconds. Do each stretching exercise twice. You will get more stretching the second time through the exercises. In general, for stretching exercises to be effective, you need to do them at least daily, and before any sports activity.
What are things you should NOT do while stretching? Do not bounce. Do not do stretching without warming up. Do not cause pain when stretching. Do not let someone else stretch you.
What areas do you stretch or not stretch? The area around the shoulder blade may be the most important area to stretch. The back of the shoulder joint is also an area that can cause pain if it is tight. Generally, swimmers do not need to stretch the front of the shoulder. If anything, it is generally too loose in swimmers. One of the most important stretches involves “hanging” from a bar or door.
Strengthening should involve the rotator cuff muscles as well as the peri-scapular muscles. These two muscle groups are probably of equal importance. The strengthening should be done once a day. Strive to do them daily, knowing you will miss occasional days, resulting in doing them an average of 4-5 times per week. For the rotator cuff, start with 1-2 lbs. and work up to 5 – 10 lbs. doing 10 – 20 repetitions. For the scapular rotators, some variation of push-ups (wall, knee, or regular) is good, and some form of Pull Up/Pull Down is good. Also, lying on your stomach and doing “T” extensions is very good.
The second area of concern involves what to do at the pool before a practice or swim. In general, you should first do a general warm up exercise such as jumping jacks, wall push-ups, rotating your arms in big circles or mild isometric exercises. Then do some easy stretching of the posterior shoulder capsule and the shoulder blade. Then swim a 100 – 200 easy stretched out free. Stop and stretch again. Then do an additional 200-500 warm up with easy free swimming and/or free drills.
In general, if you are having pain while swimming, stop for a minute and stretch again, then resume swimming. The old adage of “No Pain, No Gain” does not apply to swimming, if you want to be able to continue swimming for the long run!