A Physio’s Guide to Swimming with Shoulder Pain

Sep 29, 2021 1:20am

Whether it is in the local aquatic centre, on the beaches of Tahiti or in the cold Winter water of Sydney beaches, swimming is great! However, there are a few things sometimes associated with swimming that are not so great – one of those being shoulder pain. Whether you have a history of shoulder pain, or simply want to avoid any complications in your return to swimming, we hope the below programs can provide you a bit of a guide through these potential obstacles. 


What are the benefits of swimming?

  • Aerobic: There are many benefits associated with any form of aerobic exercise such as weight control, improved mood, improved sleep and a decrease in blood pressure.
  • Lower limb load: For those experiencing pain in lower limb joints, or just trying to give the legs a day off between sessions, swimming provides a creative way to maintain cardiovascular fitness with very minimal weight on the lower limb. 
  • Full body workout: Swimming recruits muscles in the upper and lower limb, as well as the trunk, and thus provides a very thorough full body workout.  
  • Breath control: There is much evidence to suggest that controlled breathing patterns (such as those required when swimming) can improve lung capacity. This optimized lung function can in turn increase oxygen flow to the heart, brain and muscles.  


How do we work around or reduce our risk of shoulder pain? 

  • Generally swimming is hugely beneficial for the shoulder joint because it allows muscles to be exercised in a wide range of positions, which increases the overall stability and robustness of the joint. Despite this, it is possible for swimming to cause shoulder pain, and as such there are some important things to keep in mind.
    • First and foremost, it is important to note that some level of discomfort is both normal and common - especially if you have some sensitivity following previous injuries. As long as this discomfort is tolerable it is fine to continue swimming.
    • To reduce your likelihood of avoidable shoulder pain, often known as ‘swimmers shoulder’, it is important to gradually progress your swimming load. So, to begin with:
      • Swim shorter distances
      • Take longer rests between laps
      • Take longer rests between sessions 
      • Try to have a mix of all strokes

        (We will provide you with examples of how to gradually progress your swimming load in the programs below!) 
    • If despite gradually progressing your swimming, you are still experiencing shoulder pain, there are a few modifications worthwhile trying 
      • Breastroke: Does not require any overhead movement which some people may find aggravating in the early stages. Hence it may be best to begin with breastroke to build up shoulder strength and range, before moving on to other strokes.
      • Widening your stroke: Some people find that a wider stroke (i.e. one in which your arm does not cross the midline, can relieve shoulder symptoms (check the below videos for an example of this). 
      • Body rotation: Particularly during freestyle it may improve your shoulder position to ensure that your body rotates with the stroke – i.e. as your left arm is pulling through the water, allow the left side of the body to rotate downwards with it. 

 To see exactly what we are talking about,
have a watch of our technique tips video by

How to keep your swimming interesting?

  • Once you are confident in the water and swimming regularly, there are several ways you can keep things interesting.
    • Set challenges: Setting yourself swimming goals is a great way to keep things interesting. Such goals could include reaching a set distance, making a set time, or even achieving a more challenging stroke.
    • Variation: Have variation in your sessions. Sessions that involve short and fast efforts with a longer rest will improve your speed in the water. These are just as important as sessions at a steady and sustainable pace, which will work to improve your endurance. 
    • Try something different: If you are someone who primarily swims in the pool, if feasible, incorporating ocean swimming may provide a very motivating change in scenery. It also provides you the opportunity to set a number of new swimming goals to achieve out in the ocean. 
    • Include other people: Exercising with other people is often more enjoyable, provides a source of motivation, and may provide you with a host of new ideas or variations. 


How to get started? 

  • Depending on your level of swimming experience, and how long it has been since you last swam, we have a few programs listed below that may guide your return to the pool. 


So remember…

  • Swimming is a great form of cardiovascular exercise and can help keep our shoulders robust and resilient. 
  • Focusing on a gradual return to swimming is important to allow our body to adapt and therefore reduce our chances of shoulder pain, but of course experiencing some shoulder discomfort can be normal. 
  • Lastly, make sure you check out our simple return to swimming programs below and check out our video on technique tips to work around shoulder pain by CLICKING HERE

Swimming Programs

NOTE: Keep in mind that these programs are general in nature and should be adapted where necessary. So if you want to change the total distance or session frequency to match your needs then do so.  

  1. For those just getting started in the water 

  2. For those with a history of occasional swimming

  3. For those with a history of regular swimming