Functional Flexibility – Part III: Exercises to Improve Your Swim Flexibility

In the last article that I wrote on the importance of functional flexibility, I looked at flexibility demands in the freestyle stroke. I suggested that, in order to be able to “swim like a swimmer” there are certain flexibility pre-requisites that must be attained. Levels of flexibility that most adult who do not fall into the category of life-long swimmers, do not typically have.

Specifically, these include:

  • Shoulder abduction of greater than or equal to 160 degrees
  • Shoulder internal rotation of greater than or equal to 50 degrees
  • Ideally both of the above at the same time (!)

In this piece I want to follow up on the last with a few practical exercises that you can use to improve shoulder mobility and improve your swim stroke.

First a little background anatomy: The shoulder complex is complex and its actions are dependent on more than just the ball and socket integration of the upper arm and the glenoid process of the scapula. The scapula itself is quite mobile and therefore equally responsible for good shoulder flexibility. The components of the shoulder complex are shown below.

When the scapulae is “fixed” — either through chronically shortened surrounding musculature or bony obstruction — the potential range of motion of the shoulder joint is severely compromised. The scapula is built to move forward, backwards, rotate and tilt to alter the angle of the socket portion of the ball and socket joint and significantly alter shoulder range of motion. When it is unable to do this, shoulder range of motion will be compromised. The importance of being able to pull the scapulae together is exemplified in the elite streamline position to the left. If we compare this to a typical age group triathlete who typically will be barely able to cover the ears in a streamline, the difference is apparent.

Several postural muscles act on the scapula and can become friend or foe in maintaining functional mobility of the shoulder complex. They include trapezius, levator scapulae, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior and rhomoideus major and minor. Tightness or chronic shortening in any of these muscles will affect scapula and consequent shoulder mobility.

Additionally, the thoracic spine plays an important role in terms of providing sufficient space for the scapula to properly function. When a “hunchback” posture is assumed, the scapula naturally part and the ability to draw the scapula together is compromised. Try it: round your upper back and feel what it does to the shoulder blades. Now raise your arms up as high as you can while maintaining this rounded posture. As you’ll see this has the effect of closing off the top of the glenoid process and limiting range of motion in shoulder abduction and flexion — key positions for the start of the swim stroke.

Now, with your exaggerated hunchback posture and your arm raised, try and internally rotate the arm into a normal catch posture — a little painful, eh? What you’re feeling from this shrugged position is the rotators of the shoulder being impinged or pinched by the acromio-clavicular arch. In other words when your back is rounded and your arm is raised, there is insufficient room between the clavicle and the scapula for the rotator muscles of the shoulder to do their job.

Unfortunately, this hunchback position of a rounded thoracic spine and forward shoulders is precisely the position we place ourselves in for eight or more hours per day sitting at a desk or driving in the car. Unsurprisingly, spending long periods of time in this position leads to chronic shortening of those postural muscles and significantly changes the mobility of the scapula when we compare it to those 10 year old swimmers that we’re trying to mimic with all their healthy, young soft tissue and days of swimming, throwing balls, climbing trees, etc.

In order to compete we have to undo some of the bad that we have done. We need to calm down some of those chronically shortened muscles and tone up some of those chronically weakened ones. The following five key exercises are designed to do precisely that. [Click any image for larger view.]

  1. Thoracic extension on the foam roll (crunch or bridge option)
    • Place foam roll under the thoracic spine with hands (not interlaced) in crunch position
    • Perform a “mini crunch”: pivoting around the thoracic spine, taking time to hang out in the extended position OR
    • Perform a bridge: raising and then lowering the hips to feel a stretch through the thoracic spine
    • Move a little further down the back (one vertebra at a time) and repeat


  2. Myofascial release of the pectoralis minor
    • Place a tennis ball or trigger point ball just below the clavicle on the lateral aspect of the chest
    • Press into the ball searching for points of particular tenderness. When found, apply pressure and relax until tenderness abates. Move ball to a slightly different position and repeat
    • To assist the stretch, use your other hand to apply a slight pull on the chest muscle down and in towards the third, fourth or fifth rib

  3. Scapula retraction
    • Lying prone or on a swiss ball, with the arms straight out, push the chest out and pull the scapulae back and down pinching them together. Don’t shrug the shoulders.


  4. Scapula depression
    • Using a lat pulldown machine, sit proud with the chest up/out and perform a reverse shrug — pulling the scapula down and the shoulders away from the ears, hold and squeeze for a couple of seconds and repeat.

  5. Reverse woodchop
    • In the reverse action of a woodchop, raise the medicine ball above (ideally behind the head) push the chest out and squeeze the scapula together. This can also be done with a light band to add slight resistance.


Whether aspiring to look more like the swimmer/fish above or simply looking to counteract some of the dysfunctional postures we find ourselves in for many hours each day, the exercises above are a useful addition to your basic strength and flexibility routine.

Train smart

Categories: Swim

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Alan Couzens

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