Swimming Stretches and Flexibility Exercises

Swimming stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with swimming injuries for good.

by Brad Walker | First Published April 16, 2007 | Updated August 11, 2017

Swimming Stretches and Flexibility ExercisesWritten references to human swimming date back to 2000 B.C. The first book on swimming was written in 1538 by Nicolas Wynman, a German professor of languages. Competitive swimming began in Europe around 1800.

The first Summer Olympic games held in Athens in 1896 included the swimming event. Backstroke was included as an Olympic event around the turn of the century. By 1952, breaststroke and butterfly were both independent events at the Olympic games. Currently, there are 17 events each for male and female swimmers in a 50 meter pool. The four competitive strokes are the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Relay competitions are held over 200, 400 and 800 meters.

Swimming is a very popular competitive sport as well as a pastime across the world. Indoor swimming pools, lakes, rivers, open sea and even the frigid waters of the arctic are all popular with swimmers from different age groups.

Anatomy Involved

Competitive swimming is primarily an aerobic exercise, involving long exercise time. Muscles must be constantly supplied with oxygen, with the exception of sprints where the muscles are worked anaerobically. Swimming, particularly in events where the stroke styles are varied between backstroke, front crawl (freestyle) and breast stroke, make use of all major muscle groups:

  • Abdominals
  • Biceps and triceps
  • Gluteals
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps

The basic muscles used for each stroke are:
Freestyle; deltoids and legs muscles
Breastroke; thighs, biceps, and gluteal muscles
Butterfly; abdominals, deltoids and leg muscles
Backstroke; Triceps and leg muscles

A single stroke, for example, the butterfly, requires the coordination of various muscles and muscle groups, including:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Posterior deltoids
  • Rhomboid muscles
  • Middle and lower trapezius
  • External and internal obliques
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Longissimus
  • Spinalis
  • Iliocostalis

Hand force applied to the water is actually generated by the rotation of the hips, rather than the muscles of the arm. Torque generated by the larger, stronger hip muscles, allows the swimmer’s powerful arm strokes to strike the water with a rapid turn of the hips. For this reason, elite swimmers focusing on increasing the acceleration of their hips are able to double their peak hand force output.

Most Common Swimming Injuries

Swimming Stretching ExercisesSwimming is a healthy activity for all ages and has a comparatively low risk for injury compared with many other sports. Some health risks nevertheless should be taken note of, particularly those with serious or life-threatening consequences:

  • Drowning can result from the inhalation of water, particularly if natural bodies of water swamp or otherwise overwhelm the swimmer
  • Exhaustion or unconsciousness may result, especially in open bodies of water
  • Swimmers may become incapacitated through shallow water blackout, due to heart attack, carotid sinus syncope (transient loss of consciousness) or stroke
  • Secondary drowning can occur should salt water be inhaled, creating a foam in the lungs that restricts breathing, (a condition known as Salt Water Aspiration Syndrome, or SWAS)
  • Thermal shock can result from jumping into icy water, which may cause the heart to stop
  • An abnormal growth (or exotosis) in the ear can result, due to frequent splashing of water into the ear canal. (Commonly known as Swimmers’ ear)
  • Exposure to chemicals, especially chlorine can cause skin irritations while the swallowing of chlorine can adversely affect the lungs
  • Chlorine in pools can also damage the hair over time, turning blonde hair greenish and stripping brown hair of its color
  • Various infections can result from swimming as water provides an excellent environment for a variety bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses
  • Skin infections from both swimming and shower rooms are common, particularly, athlete’s foot
  • Parasites including cryptosporidium can produce diarrhea illness should they be swallowed
  • Ear infections of the otitis media (or otitis externa) are not uncommon
  • Serious health issues may arise from improperly chlorinated pools. These include illnesses such as chronic bronchitis and asthma

Overuse injuries may result, including back pain, vertebral fractures or shoulder pain, (particularly from excessive butterfly strokes over time). Breaststroke swimmers may develop knee or hip pain, while freestyle and backstroke swimmers risk shoulder pain, (known as swimmer’s shoulder – a form of tendonitis).

Finally, dangers in natural waters place swimmers at risk for a range of accidents and injuries, which include:

  • Hypothermia, due to cold water, which can lead to rapid exhaustion and eventual unconsciousness
  • Dangerous aquatic life including Stingrays and jellyfish, stinging corals, sea urchins, zebra mussels, sharks, eels, etc.

Injury Prevention Strategies

  • Always take time to warm up and stretch, as cold muscles are more prone to injury.
  • Avoid swimming alone or in unsupervised areas.
  • Properly pace swimming activity avoiding situations of exhaustion, overheating or excessive cold
  • Never dive into shallow water, as serious risk exists for disabling neck and back injuries
  • Extreme care should be taken in open water. Be certain the water is free of undercurrents, riptides and other hazards
  • Avoid swimming in lakes or rivers following a storm, when severe currents may be present
  • Use of alcohol should be strictly avoided before swimming, as judgment, orientation and thermal regulation are all impaired with alcohol consumption
  • Dry the body thoroughly after swimming and remove excess water from the ear canal to avoid infection
  • Attention to proper swimming technique as well as strength and agility training can help avoid common overuse injuries
  • Swimmers should be at least minimally knowledgeable about first aid and be prepared to administer it in the case of minor injuries including facial cuts, bruises, minor tendinitis, strains, or sprains

The Top 3 Swimming Stretches

Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for swimming; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions below each stretch.

Swimming shoulder stretch

Reaching-up Shoulder Stretch: Place one hand behind your back and then reach up between your shoulder blades.

Swimming rotator stretch

Arm-up Rotator Stretch: Stand with your arm out and your forearm pointing upwards at 90 degrees. Place a broom stick in your hand and behind your elbow. With your other hand pull the bottom of the broom stick forward.

Swimming upper calf stretch

Single Heel-drop Calf Stretch: Stand on a raised object or step. Put the ball of one foot on the edge of the step and keep your leg straight. Let your heel drop towards the ground.

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Get back to the activities you love. Whether it’s enjoying your favorite sport, or walking the dog, or playing with the grand kids. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step. Or being able to work in the garden without “paying-for-it” the next day.

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Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.