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Swimming Stretches and Flexibility Exercises

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

by Brad Walker | First Published October 31, 2010 | Updated November 13, 2018

Swimming is a demanding sport that requires high levels of cardiovascular endurance, strength and flexibility. Regular swimming stretches help to prepare the body for the various actions that will be performed when you swim.

Muscles used in Swimming

Swimming Stretches and Flexibility ExercisesSwimming is an activity that works just about every muscle in the body, with particular emphasis on the core muscles, as well as the muscles of the arms, shoulders and upper back.

  • In freestyle, the main muscles used are the large muscles of the thigh, and the chest, back and shoulder muscles.
  • In the butterfly stroke, the abdominals, the lower back and the shoulder muscles are used.
  • In breaststroke, the gluteal muscles, thighs and chest are used.
  • While in backstroke, the leg muscles, chest and triceps are used.

Most Common Swimming Injuries

Swimming 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 Benefits of Swimming Stretches

Having effective swimming stretches as part of your swim training is crucial, as it goes a long way in improving your overall performance. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Stretching before swimming will help to increase the flexibility of your body so that you get maximum muscle contraction. It also helps to improve your overall performance.
  • When you stretch properly, the length of the muscle increases, leading to reduced muscle tension and increased range of motion. Due to the increased range, you can increase the distance the limbs move before damage to the tendons and muscles can occurs. This means that you will be able to move your limbs more freely while swimming.
  • Regular swimming stretches can help prevent injuries like:
    º Rotator cuff tendinitis, a condition that causes acute irritation in the shoulder tendons and muscles.
    º Knee tendinitis, a condition that causes irritation in the knee tendons and muscles.
    º Musculotendinous overuse injuries, generally of the shoulder and elbow.
  • Finally, even the most basic swimming stretches can just make you feel better. Glossing over it in your regular swimming training, however, could cost you dearly.

Despite the numerous benefits, it is important to bear in mind that stretching can have detrimental effects when done incorrectly. Improperly done stretches can over time cause permanent damage to ligaments and joint. When performing the stretching exercises below, be sure to warm up first and if any of the exercises cause pain or severe discomfort, discontinue immediately. Review my article on the rules for safe stretching for more information.

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.

Watch the Swimming Stretches below

Click on the play button below to watch the 10 minute swimming stretching exercises video.

The Big Book of Stretch RoutinesWhile the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you include a wider variety of stretches and stretching routines.

Get over 150 of the best stretch routines to do away with injuries; increase your flexibility; improve your sporting performance; and become loose, limber and pain free.

There's a routine for every muscles group in your body, plus daily stretching routines to help prevent over 35 different injuries. Get your daily stretching routines here.

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad Walker 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 (author page) 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 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.

10 Free Stretching Routines...

Shoulders, Chest, Back, Hips, Buttocks, Quads, Hamstrings, Groin & more.

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