The 3 Best Stretches for Swimming
Improve your swimming and minimize injuries with 3 of the best swimming stretches.
by Brad Walker | First Published October 31, 2010 | Updated April 25, 2019
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 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 exhaustion or unconsciousness, especially in open bodies of water;
- Spinal injuries from diving or jumping into shallow water;
- Hypothermia, due to cold water, which can lead to rapid exhaustion and eventual unconsciousness;
- Dangerous aquatic life including stingrays, jellyfish, stinging corals, sea urchins, sharks, eels, etc.; and
- Infections and skin irritations.
Overuse injuries are more common in swimming, and may include:
- Neck and lower back pain;
- Bicep tendinitis;
- Shoulder injuries, including rotator cuff tendinitis, shoulder impingement syndrome and tears in the cartilage around the shoulder socket;
- Knee injuries, especially medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain as a result of the breaststroke kick; and
- Ankle and Achilles tendinitis from kicking.
Injury Prevention Strategies
Proper conditioning and safety measures are essential for injury prevention of swimmers. Include the following strategies before, during and after swimming.
- Always take time to warm up and stretch before swimming, as cold muscles are more prone to injury.
- Allow for an adequate cool-down period and perform gentle stretches after swimming.
- Incorporate proper cardiovascular conditioning, which will help prevent fatigue and other overuse injuries.
- Attention to swimming biomechanics and proper swimming technique.
- Regular strength and agility training, which will help avoid a breakdown of good technique.
- Improving flexibility in the muscles and joints (especially around the shoulder) will reduce the stress on these areas during training and competition.
- Properly pace swimming activity avoiding situations of exhaustion, overheating or excessive cold.
- Avoid swimming alone or in unsupervised areas.
- 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.
- Use of alcohol should be strictly avoided before swimming, as judgment, orientation and thermal regulation are all impaired with alcohol consumption.
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, specifically leading to reduced muscle tension and increased range of motion. This means that you will be able to move your limbs more freely while swimming.
Regular swimming stretches can help prevent injuries. And finally, even the most basic swimming stretches can just make you feel better.
The 3 Best 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 of the best stretches for swimming; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions with each stretch, and if you currently have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain please take extra care when performing the stretches below, or consult with your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the following stretches.
Instructions: Slowly move into the stretch position until you feel a tension of about 7 out of 10. If you feel pain or discomfort you’ve pushed the stretch too far; back out of the stretch immediately. Hold the stretch position for 20 to 30 seconds while relaxing and breathing deeply. Come out of the stretch carefully and perform the stretch on the opposite side if necessary. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
Reaching-up Shoulder (External Rotators) Stretch: Place one hand behind your back and then reach up between your shoulder blades.
Arm-up Shoulder (Internal Rotators) 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.
Single Heel-drop Upper 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 video
Click on the play button below if you prefer to follow along to a 10 minute video of the best stretches for swimming.
These swimming stretches are best done after your swim training, as part of your cool down. They can also be done as a stand-alone stretching session to improve your swimming flexibility, but make sure you’re fully warmed up before starting the stretches.
Want more Swimming Stretches?
While the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you add the right stretches to your training program. With the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility (Handbook, DVD & CD-ROM) you'll...
You'll get 135 clear photographs and 44 video demonstrations of unique stretches for every major muscle groups in your body. Plus, the DVD includes 3 customized sets of stretches (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core. And the Handbook will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly and safely. Plus, you'll also learn the 7 critical rules for safe stretching; the benefits of flexibility; and how to stretch properly.
If you want to improve your flexibility so you can to train harder, race faster, recover quicker and move better, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility for yourself.
Research and References
- Walker, B. (2011). The Anatomy of Stretching, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-1583943717)
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, April 26). Swimming, In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
- Johnson, J. Sim, F. Scott, S. (1987). Musculoskeletal injuries in competitive swimmers. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 289-304.
- Tovin, B. (2006). Prevention and treatment of swimmer’s shoulder. North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: NAJSPT, 1(4), 166.
- Johnson, J. Gauvin, J. Fredericson, M. (2003). Swimming biomechanics and injury prevention: new stroke techniques and medical considerations. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(1), 41-46.
- Tessaro, M. Granzotto, G. Poser, A. Plebani, G. Rossi, A. (2017). SHOULDER PAIN IN COMPETITIVE TEENAGE SWIMMERS AND IT’S PREVENTION: A RETROSPECTIVE EPIDEMIOLOGICAL CROSS SECTIONAL STUDY OF PREVALENCE. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 12(5), 798.
- Chapala, J. Magee, D. Bouliane, M. Sheps, D. Beaupre, L. (2018). Effectiveness of a Posterior Shoulder Stretching Program on University-Level Overhead Athletes: Randomized Controlled Trial. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 28(2), 146-152.
- Kluemper, M. Uhl, T. Hazelrigg, H. (2006). Effect of stretching and strengthening shoulder muscles on forward shoulder posture in competitive swimmers. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 15(1), 58-70.
- Lynch, S. Thigpen, C. Mihalik, J. Prentice, W. Padua, D. (2010). The effects of an exercise intervention on forward head and rounded shoulder postures in elite swimmers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(5), 376-381.
- Kokkonen, J. Nelson, A. Eldredge, C. Winchester, J. (2007) Chronic Static Stretching Improves Exercise Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(10), 1825-1831.
- Shellock, F, Prentice, W. (1985) Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports Medicine, 2(4):267-78.
- Fradkin, A. Zazryn, T. Smoliga, J. (2010) Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(1):140-8.
About 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.