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Land based swimming exercises. Part 1, Shoulder mobility.

If you have not read my introduction to this four part series on land based training for open water swimming, then please check it out here, otherwise you will be lost
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In the previous instruction I mentioned that swimming is all about expressing ones potential and for most people that is more to do with making you more streamlined and minimising drag in the water, which has much to do with technique of course, but equally, mobility and core stability. Most people don’t need to get fitter or stronger, we just need to move better if you want to swim with ease. So, in today’s article, a first in a series of four land based training ideas and Programmes we are going to focus on possibly the most important aspect, shoulder mobility.

So, where do you start? First, while both flexibility and mobility play a part in the effective movement of the shoulders, consider there is a distinct difference between shoulder flexibility and shoulder mobility.

Shoulder flexibility refers to the ability of the soft tissue muscles to stretch or temporarily elongate.  Shoulder mobility, on the contrary, is the ability for the shoulders to move through a range of motion with control before being restricted. This includes having the requisite strength, coordination, and body awareness along with flexibility.

A simple way to observe and understand the difference would be to stand up and with straight arms and do some shoulder rolls and swing your arms in big circles. This is passive flexibility; you have full range of the shoulder when neither tension is present, or stability is required. However, mobility is like doing the butterfly stroke in swimming, when the shoulder is under tension and stability is required how much range do you now have? The difference between your passive range and active range is what we need to the address, the bigger the discrepancy the bigger the problem.

Now that we understand what mobility is, we also need to understand what causes poor shoulder mobility?  Poor shoulder mobility can come from a multitude of sources as the shoulder is extremely complex. Our shoulder joint is like a golf ball sitting on a tee and to prevent it from falling off we have muscles holding it in place from all angles, our chest (pec) arm (bicep) neck (traps) back (Lats) are all major muscle groups which keep this ball and socket in place with many more smaller muscles connected also.  As a result, if one muscle group gets really strong from overuse while others get weak from lack of use you can have this tug of war effect happening at the shoulder joint, effectively caused from tightness and or weakness in key muscle groups.

Here is a simple test to see if you have good or bad mobility –

By simply improving in this single test will have a profound effect on your performance in the water.  

Now that you know what mobility is, what causes poor mobility and where your mobility is at, we can now look at how to address this and improve it and as a result your swimming abilities.  

Remember two key points, if noting else, please remember this

  1. If a muscle is tight, its tight because its weak and is being pulled by the opposing muscle. Alternatively, if a muscle is tight it can we overworked. In both cases its negligent to stretch it as its only aggravating it as its already in a lengthened, stretched position.
  2. Strengthen the tight muscle and opposing muscle and regain structural integrity and all will return to normal.

So here are my top exercises to improve shoulder mobility;

Swimmers hover

This is a personal favourite of mine. The key in this exercise is to maintain as much tension as possible throughout the full movement and aim to get your arms as high as possible at all times working your end range. If done correctly, regardless of ability, this should be extremely tough.

Weighted dislocates

Remember what mobility is? Controlled range of motion under tension!! So, let’s do exactly that. Start with maybe a 3-4kg bar and progress with 1-2 kgs each week and aim to get your arms as close to shoulder width as possible.

Banded T-Pull

Again, under tension, pull from your scapulae, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you bring your arms into a T position and from here overhead.


An incredible movement for many reasons, but this will help with rotation and stability of the shoulder.

A full range, perfect push up

An often-butchered exercise. I’m not interested in the number of push ups, I am interested in the tension and range of motion, leading to a stronger chest with less tightness.

P.S. I have worked with tens of thousands of clients from Olympians to your average Sally and I have rarely if ever seen a properly executed push up. You’re not beyond this exercise, make it better!!

The bicep opener

Using a light weight, no more than 5kg for men and 2-3kg for ladies. In a hollow position keeping the pec engaged lower your arms no lower than your inhale and push from the pecs to raise the weights back to the start position

Z Press

Seated on the floor with legs straight and an upright torso, keep the shoulders aligned over the hips and simple press a weight over your head. This is a movement about position and not weight. Think perfect posture not load.

So shoulder 45 minute shoulder mobility session can look as follows;

  • Swimmers hover – 5 reps which should last 1 minute
  • Weighted Dislocates x 5-8 controlled reps

X 3 rds

  • Banded T-Pull x 10 controlled reps
  • KB Windmill x 5 each side

X 3 rds

  • Bicep Opener x 5/5/5/5

X 3 rds

  • Perfect Push ups x As many as you can do with perfect, controlled technique

X 3 rds

  • Z – Press x 8

X 3 rds

I hope you found this useful, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact me, Brendan, at info@guerillafitnessWest

In part two of our series I will be looking at our thoracic mobility.

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