Five Things to Know about the Swimmer's Body (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Megan Fischer-Colbrie on Sep 8, 2014 12:04:00 PM

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Competitive swimming is compatible with a wide variety of body types. There are, however, certain aspects of a swimmer’s body that are common to most athletes in the sport. How different muscle groups over or under-develop in response to swimming can have a dramatic impact on how well the athlete moves on land. This is part one of a two part series on the swimmer’s body.  In this piece we will define the five most common idiosyncrasies aquatic athletes face. In part two we will discuss the ways aquatic athletes can mitigate the negative effects of these issues through strength training and dryland work. 


Swimmer Biomechanics


Posture (rounded shoulders and curved back)

You can pick a swimmer out of a crowd by the rounded posture of their broad shoulders and back. The muscles in the shoulder and upper back are hypertrophied from repetitive motion. They include the trapezius, deltoid, latissimus dorsi, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and major, subscapularis, and many more. This additional muscle mass contributes to excessive curvature in the spine. Compounded by tight muscles in the front of the shoulder and chest that further pull the shoulders forward, and core weakness that exposes the lower back to more strain, poor posture can cause a number of problems. Apart from looking terrible, a slumped posture, also known as kyphosis, places strain on discs in the spine. If this posture becomes chronic, structural changes can occur—leading to reduced range of motion and even difficulty breathing. Moreover, the hyper-curvature of the spine and tightness in the shoulders can cause pain in both regions as well as referred pain in seemingly unrelated areas. In the water, the issue of posture may be less noticeable due to the horizontal position of the swimmer and non-weight bearing activity. On land, poor posture can not only cause chronic pain but also put the athlete at risk of acute spinal disc injuries in the weight room during loaded exercises.


Hyperextension (Elbows, Knees)

Many swimmers naturally exhibit hyperextension in their joints. Hyperextension means the joint rotates beyond the normal angle, allowing the limb to extend past a straight line. This is a characteristic present in elbows and knees. The elbows allow the arm to bend past straight, and the knees bow further backward. This enables swimmers to get a bigger catch with each stroke (particularly backstroke due to the angle of the catch) and to kick a greater volume of water with each kick (the feet can continue to move past the knee upon extension). So this is great news for swimmers...or is it?


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Quadriceps Dominance

Swimmers are extremely quadriceps dominant in lower body movements. Kicking, pushing off the wall, and diving all reinforce this. Muscle groups operate in a system called co-contraction. When one muscle concentrically contracts (shortens in length) its opposing muscle eccentrically contracts (lengthens while contracted). For example, on the “up kick” of a dolphin kick, the quadriceps concentrically contract to bring the leg into extension while the hamstring, the opposing muscle, eccentrically contracts as the leg swings forward. Co-contraction is a good thing, and it stabilizes movements in the pool and on land. 

What happens, then, when the quadriceps become so dominant that only they turn “on” during an exercise? Swimmers develop a muscle memory that signals their quadriceps to activate first and foremost. This may not be apparent in swimming, but it can be harmful in the weight room. When the brain adapts to signaling one muscle group preferentially, the surrounding muscle groups can lose the ability to activate when they are supposed to.


Shock Absorbance

In the pool, swimmers never have to deal with absorbing shock. You dive and land in water, swim suspended by water, and must accelerate into the wall just to push off it fast enough. On land, gravity can wreak havoc on a swimmer’s joints. With so much time in the pool, swimmers can have slightly lower bone density than land-based athletes. The main issue, however, is that swimmers generally do not properly absorb the shock sent up the legs when landing from a jump. Since running is really a series of single-legged jumps in quick succession, we will consider running also a jumping movement. During a landing, you exert a force on the ground and the ground exerts an equal and opposite force on you. This force, known as the ground reaction force, travels from the feet and up through the lower limbs. An athlete who spends most of his time on land will be able to distribute that force evenly throughout his body such that no particular joint or muscle bears the brunt of the energy absorbed. This is simply a result of developing musculature for land activity. Swimmers, however, may divert the force randomly or in an unbalanced way. The full force can be sent to the hip joint, the knees, ankles, or perhaps one side of the body more than the other. When you land from running, each leg feels the force equivalent to seven times your own bodyweight! This is why shock absorbance is so critical. Sending that much force unevenly throughout the body can cause acute and chronic injuries such as fractures and tears in soft tissue. Moreover, running and other high-impact dryland activities do not confer direct benefits to swimming performance.

Loose Ankles

This swimmer attribute is less pronounced but still worth discussing. Every day, swimmers kick their feet back and forth, perhaps thousands of times in one practice. This repetitive motion makes the tendons and ligaments in the foot and ankle extremely flexible, giving swimmers a great range of motion in kicking. On land, loose ankles can be your enemy. Uneven surfaces and landing from jumps can result in sprained ankles if you are not careful.


Click here to check out Part 2 of our series on the Swimmer's Body.


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Be sure to read up on how to use progressions for your swim specific strength and conditioning.

Topics: Nutrition, S+C