How to Prevent Shoulder Injuries from Swimming

September 11, 2014

When you think of swimming, injuries may be the furthest thing from your mind. After all, swimming is a low-contact sport, especially compared to other sports like soccer or football. Plus, some people actually swim because of injuries from other activities as a means to stay in shape. Regardless, injuries can still happen while you swim, with shoulder injuries being the most prevalent, especially among competitive athletes who under vigorous training.  

What causes these injuries?

The primary culprit is overuse. Swimming takes its toll on your shoulders, especially if you do so for hours each day. In addition, improper technique can also lead to damage. Fortunately, we're here to help! The following guide contains lots of great advice on how to prevent shoulder injuries from happening and keep you in the water longer!

Before Practice


Hot Tip: See a Doctor
Before altering your workout regimen, consult a doctor. Not everyone should be doing the same workout: An exercise that can help one swimmer can seriously injure another. Find out what your specific needs are.

Before you get in the pool, prepare your shoulders for training. Warm them up with a few stretch cord exercises or some dryland. It’s important to increase your core temperature, heart rate, and circulation before hopping into the pool. This will help with the range of motion in your joints. This way, there will be less strain on your shoulders once you start swimming.


Start by warming up your shoulders with some simple band exercises. Bands are great because you can do several repeats of an exercise without overusing your shoulders. You can slowly build the strength in your shoulders without added strain. For specific band exercises, check out our guide on Band Exercises for Swimming.


There are some good dryland exercises that warm up your shoulders. Performing some dips on a bench will help utilize your shoulders without overexerting them. Keep in mind that you should stop doing this exercise if your shoulders begin to hurt.

Another helpful exercise is bench pushups. Since your upper body is elevated during this exercise, there’s less strain on your shoulders. This is a great way to slowly build muscle without overdoing it.

During Practice

When you’re in practice, think about how your shoulders are feeling. Stay in tune with your body and what it’s telling you. Other than your doctor or coach, you’re the best judge of your shoulder health.

Stop If It Hurts

If your shoulders start to hurt in practice, take a break. Pushing through it can seriously damage your shoulders. From tendonitis to rotator cuff issues, the problems can be irreversible. You don’t want to halt your swimming career just because you didn’t take a break when you were hurting. Sit out for a repeat. Stretch on the wall. Then try again. If the pain persists, talk to a doctor.

Swim Easy Backstroke

Stretch out your shoulders with some easy backstroke. If you’re swimming a lot of freestyle in practice, there’s a good chance you’re overusing your shoulder muscles. Think about it: You’re doing the same motion over and over again. You’re not giving your muscles a break! Backstroke uses different muscles, and will give those that you use in freestyle a rest.

Avoid Paddles

Paddles add a tremendous amount of strain on your shoulders. If your shoulders begin to hurt, take the paddles off. You can still perform pulling sets with just a pull buoy. If you’re trying to avoid injury — but don’t want to say goodbye to paddles — consider using a smaller pair. The bigger the paddle, the more resistance you’ll have in the water. Resistance adds strain to your shoulders.

Lay Off Butterfly

Butterfly can be incredibly wearing on your shoulders as well. If your shoulders begin hurting while swimming butterfly, switch to a new stroke for a while. If you’d still like to swim butterfly, do one-arm butterfly. This drill is much easier on your shoulders. Let your hurt shoulder rest at your side. With one-arm butterfly, you can use more of your body on the roll. Rely on the roll to get you through the water instead of your arms.

Work on Your Technique

One of the main causes of shoulder injury is improper technique. If your shoulders are hurting, you should perform a lot of drills. Seek out a coach to work with you on your technique. Pinpoint the biggest flaws in your stroke. Common freestyle technique slip-ups that lead to shoulder injury include:

  1. Hand placement on the entry: Your hand should not cross over on the entry part of your stroke. This puts your arm at an awkward angle, straining your shoulder. Instead, reach straight in front of you from your shoulder.
  2. Rotating your body too little: Rotating too little puts your arm at a suboptimal angle. This overexerts your shoulders. Make sure your body rolls from side to side as you swim.
  3. Dropping your elbow on the pull: Dropping your elbow on the pull overloads your shoulder. It also makes you slip water. Instead, angle your fingertips down toward the bottom of the pool to ensure a high elbow catch. This maximizes the pull by utilizing your back muscles, decreasing shoulder overuse. For more information on correct freestyle technique, check out our guide on Common Freestyle Mistakes.

After Practice

Once you get out of the pool, don’t ignore your shoulders. Post-workout is one of the most important times to take care of yourself. Your muscles are exhausted and they’re trying to repair themselves. There are things you can do to help your body mend.


Stretch out your shoulder muscles as soon as you get out of the pool. Stretching will ease the tension around your shoulders and help your muscles recover quicker. For ideas on stretches, check out our guide, Stretches for Swimming.

See a Physical Therapist

If your shoulders hurt frequently or intensely, see a physical therapist. Shoulder health is important to your swimming, as well as other areas of your life. You use your shoulders on a daily basis. Do what you can to take care of them.

A physical therapist can teach you how to nurse your injuries correctly. He can explain the right stretches for you as well as some helpful exercises.

Ice & Heat

Before applying ice or heat, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about your specific shoulder needs. Sometimes, applying a heat pack is necessary. It helps your muscles relax. Sometimes ice can be helpful as well. Ice helps reduce swelling. If you use the wrong one, though, you can exacerbate the problem.

Listen to Your Body

Injuries occur in any sport. For the most part, swimming is a low-impact physical activity. Even so, injuries can still occur. Pay attention to your body. If your shoulders are hurting, make sure you take care of yourself. Talk to your coach and your doctor. Consider seeing a physical therapist. This way, you’ll be on the mend and competing at your peak ability!

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