top of page

Swimming: a life-long lesson: the shoulder part 1

Consider that, on average, you perform between 650–680 freestyle strokes per kilometre. That’s 2720–2800 strokes for a 4K swim and 6800–7000 strokes for a 10K swim. (Those are recorded stroke counts from the Lock to Lock swim series, 2019.) Add in pool training or open-water swimming, and you see how over the weeks, the months and the years, you complete thousands and thousands of swimming strokes. What is happening to your shoulders when you do this?

This pair of articles suggests a strategy to avoid injuries to your shoulder (repetitive stain or overuse syndromes are a risk; these can include structural changes to bones, muscles or ligaments), and to improve your shoulder function for a more efficient swimming performance.


The shoulder complex is an anatomical wonder; it has the greatest range of motion of all the 360 joints in the human body. This anatomy can be considered both structurally and functionally.

Structure: Bones, ligaments and tendons

Within the shoulder complex are the glenohumeral joint and the sternoclavicular joint. The first of these consists of a spherical head (the head of the humerus), which fits into the glenoid fossa, (the cavity of the scapula, or shoulder blade). The glenoid fossa is a shallow cavity that articulates with the ball-head of the humerus. The only articular surface or joint that the arm and shoulder complex has with the main skeleton is at the sternoclavicular joint. The whole arm and shoulder are ‘floating around’ apart from this tiny joint at the end of the collarbone, near the sternum. The shoulder complex relies completely on ligaments and tendons for attachments and the glenoid labrum offers a supportive structure that, as it wraps around the head of the humerus, increases the joint stability.

Function: Idiokinetic movements

This starts from investigations into the world of imagery and bio feedback; an idiokinetic facilitation approach. It is not guidance for training routines to improve speed, strength and stamina.

Ideokinesis is an approach for improving posture, fluency of movement, alignment and structural integrity. It begins with imagery of bones, joints and body parts as they move in a specific direction. Human movement potentials go way beyond just muscles, bones, and joints; they strike at the very centre of our awareness and understanding of how we move through time and space. That includes, how we believe we move: have you ever looked in disbelief at your movements in a video of yourself swimming – or even walking? Perhaps an observer has reported some abnormality with your stroke or swimming technique that you were completely unaware of. This was the starting point to my own investigations into my swimming stroke.

Through this investigation, my goals moved away from building stronger muscles, doing more core stabilities exercises, and chasing up and down the pool. I shifted my focus to the connections from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. I learned the sequences of rotation in accordance with the movements of my arm. Whilst refining these details, I found a new understanding of the shoulder function.

The hermeneutic circle (or spiral concept) shows how an improved understanding of function changes the outcome. Instead of training to swim faster or better by getting stronger or fitter, or by doing more core stability training, I discovered more about how the whole and its parts are reciprocally related. With this in mind, my approach in and out of the water concentrated on refining the way the 206 bones correspond to each other and how the muscles should be the servants of locomotion, not the masters.

Having very strong muscles without fine motor control or co-ordination is almost pointless. You will understand this if you have experienced, even swimming at your hardest, being overtaken by seemingly effortless swimmers, gracefully passing through the water in majestic wonder. By using force, you meet resistance; master swimmers know this. In Part 2, I’ll explain the concept at greater depth and consider how we can learn from those graceful master swimmers.

Post by Darrin Roles


bottom of page