By Mike Mejia, M.S, C.S.C.S
Question: My parents have really been on me about my posture lately. They say it can lead to injuries- is that true?
-Katie, age 15. Dallas, Texas.
Answer: Once again, mom and dad are right! Besides looking rather unattractive, poor posture can play a major role in the development of shoulder injuries. Because it relies so heavily on the pecs, lats and other muscles that internally rotate the upper arms, swimming already carries with it a strong potential for postural imbalances. Throw in hours of sitting slumped forward in class, or in front of a computer screen and you're only making matters worse. Before you know it, the combination of the heavy yardage and lack of attention to proper posture will cause certain muscles to become chronically tight; while others weaken and become overstretched. The end result: altered mechanics at the shoulder joint and eventually...pain.
Luckily, there are several things you can do to help ensure this doesn't happen to you. The first step is to try and determine exactly how bad your posture is. To do this, grab a couple of pencils (or pens) at their ends with the points sticking up. Next, lower you arms at your sides and stand in your normal, relaxed posture. Once there, look down at the pencils and notice where they're pointed. If they're pointed straight ahead with your arms at your sides, you're golden. If however, they're pointed slightly towards each other, across the front of your body, you've got some work to do. Some of you might even find that the pencils point almost completely towards each other, indicating a major imbalance. It's also not uncommon to notice one side being more internally rotated than the other- usually indicating a dominant side.
Whatever the case, there are several exercises and stretches that you can include in your dryland training to help correct the imbalance. As helpful as these drills can be, though, given the fact that the amount of time you spend swimming and not paying attention to proper posture will likely far outweigh the amount of time you spend doing them, there is another line of defense you'll need to employ first. It's called a postural set and it's something you can do anytime, anywhere, several times per day.
To execute a postural set from either a seated, or standing position, begin by lifting your ribcage up away from your waist, bracing your abdominals and settling your shoulders down and back. You'll also want to gently tuck your chin in towards the back of your head. Keep in mind, this should all be done in a nice, easy manner- it can't be forced. Pinching your shoulders together and sticking your chest out to the point where your lower back arches excessively is not what we're after. Once you're in the position, simply hold it for at least 30-60 seconds. Initially you may find this somewhat difficult and the muscles in your upper back may begin to fatigue. Keep at it though, before long they'll become easier and easier to do. Try and do these at least once an hour, or as many times throughout the day as you can remember.
In addition to the postural sets, the next thing that will have the biggest impact is regular stretching. Targeting muscles like the pectorals, lats, and trapezius can help restore balance to the shoulder joint by working to return these muscles to their resting lengths. Further, because they're less exhaustive than dryland strengthening exercises, static stretches like the ones listed here can also (and should also) be done on a daily basis. Be sure to hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds at a time and always do multiple stretches for any side of the body that is tighter than the other.
Key stretches to focus on:
- Doorway pectoral stretch
- Broomstick internal rotation stretch
- Lat stretch
- Lateral Neck stretch
- Trapezius/ Levator Scapula stretch
The final weapon in your arsenal for combatting poor posture is strength training. By focusing on the muscles that have become weakened and overstretched- most notably the scapular stabilizers of the upper, middle back (i.e. rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius & rear deltoids), you'll not only be helping correct postural imbalances, but you'll also lessen your likelihood of sustaining a shoulder injury.
To best accomplish this, focus your dryland strengthening efforts on exercises that help to retract, or pull back and depress, or pull down the scapulae (shoulder blades). These include things like rows, reverse flys and external rotations (all of which can be done with either free weight, rubber band, or cable resistance). In addition, you'll also want to be sure to include some direct strengthening for a muscle known as the serratus anterior, who's function is integral to shoulder stability. Here, exercises like scaptions in a push-up position, or done either lying with dumbbells, or standing with cables and bands will work well. The accompanying video will show you how to execute some of these drills.
Finally, it's important to note that when you're working on trying to correct a postural imbalance so that you can avoid shoulder injuries, you'll want to give the exercises described above top priority. Often times I find that swimmers tend to focus their dryland efforts on exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, bench presses and lat pulldowns. Unfortunately, these muscles are all powerful internal rotators of the upper arms. Giving exercises like these priority, especially in combination with all that yardage you do in the pool, is practically begging for postural imbalance to develop. So, depending on how bad a postural problem you have going on, I recommend that you either de-emphasize, or in some cases, completely omit these exercise for several weeks until you can get a handle on the problem. Here's a quick rule of thumb you can follow:
If you have a mild postural imbalance (as determined by the pencil test), try a 2:1 ratio of exercises that focus on scapular retraction/ depression and external roation versus those that are more internal rotation dominant (i.e. chest presses, flys, and lat pulldowns). So, that would mean doing a combination of 8 total sets of exercises like rows, reverse flys and such and only 4 total sets of internal rotation dominant exercises. Here's how a sample routine that prioritizes upper back work might look:
- 3 sets of a rowing exercise (i.e. cable rows, or one arm dumbbell rows)
- 3 sets of reverse flys (with bands, or dumbbells) and 2 sets of external rotations
- 2 sets of push-ups
- 2 sets of pull-ups
If you have a moderate imbalance, try making it a 3: 1 ratio. Say, maybe 12 sets of scapular retraction/ depression dominant work, versus only 4 sets for the pecs and lats.
Finally, if the imbalance is severe enough, and/ or you're experiencing any kind of shoulder pain, stay away from the chest and lat work for several weeks and focus solely on strengthening the upper back.
You now have a three-pronged plan of attack for addressing postural imbalances. Whether you're currently trying to combat an existing imbalance, or just want to make sure one never develops, the exercises and stretches featured here will help get you on the right track. If you have any questions, be sure to contact me at Mike@basesportsconditioning.com