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Going Dry Part III- Acquire and Strengthen Required Ranges of Motion

As discussed in the introductory article, acquiring and strengthening the range of motions required for successful swimming is a primary goal of dryland training. Establishing adequate range of motion serves two purposes.

  • Ensure that ROM does not prevent swimmers from executing skills effectively.

  • Ensure that ROM does not prevent swimmers from executing skills safely.

When performed correctly, dryland can create the physical conditions that allow for swimmers to optimally express their skills. Importantly, possessing the required range of motions is not sufficient; swimmers must be able to actively control these ranges of motion with some degree of strength. Some swimmers may already possess the necessary mobility in any or all joints. For these individuals, they need to focus on actively controlling their current range of motion as opposed to attempting to further increase range of motion.

In this article, we’ll explore the joint ranges of motion that should ideally be addressed, as well as some of the strategies that can be employed to improve mobility and increase strength.

Joint Range of Motion

To create a comprehensive program, we need to identify the ideal ranges of motion for major joints of the body. While general goals are presented, each swimmer has a unique physical structure and will display different ranges of motion. These suggestions are generalizations. Be very careful creating absolute standards that leave little room for individualization. Each swimmer has different physical limitations and they must be respected.

For those having difficulty conceptualizing the various movements, please refer to the linked website. Once you have a sense of the required movements, the next step is to design exercise that swimmers into the required positions.

Shoulders

More than any other joints in the body, limitations in shoulder range of motion will compromise performance potential and increase the risk of injury when high training loads are used.

One of the most important tasks of a dryland program is creating or maintaining a full range of motion in shoulder flexion. Due to the repetitive nature of swimming training, the latissimus dorsi, pectoral, and triceps muscles can become shortened. This process needs to be prevented through consistent work or reversed if the swimmer has lost range of motion.

If swimmers lack full flexion, they can find a way to get their arms overhead and these solutions will likely be suboptimal for performance and health. Swimmers can achieve an overhead position by arching the lower back, which detrimentally affects body posture, as we saw in the previous article. Swimmer can also compensate through excessive movement through the shoulder blades which can negatively impact shoulder health. Lastly, swimmers may simply fail to get the arms overhead and this will limit their ability to effectively recover the arms and/or apply force into the water.

To achieve full range of motion in the sagittal plane, swimmers should also be able to actively extend the arms behind the body without excessive movement of the scapula. Ideally, swimmers should be able to actively lift the arm behind the body to parallel without losing posture. While many swimmers will initially fall well short of this standard, this range of motion creates the freedom for inertial recoveries over the water.

A rounded posture characterized by tightness in the pectorals and biceps will limit shoulder extension. These are delicate structures and it is easy for swimmers to lose scapula position while attempting to move into extension. This error places stress on the wrong parts of the shoulder. Be very careful when implementing work to improve shoulder extension, especially in large groups.

The ability to internally and externally rotate the shoulder is also important. However, any attempts to impact these range of motions should be VERY carefully considered as the involved structures are very delicate. If you improve shoulder extension and flexion and include some controlled arm circles, swimmers should possess sufficient rotational range of motion with very little risk of negatively impacted shoulder health.

Ankles

Secondary only to the shoulders, ankle range of motion can limit performance in the pool. Enhanced ankle mobility will direct impact kicking ability and this will directly enhance swimming performance.

Ankle range of motion through plantar flexion (pointing the toes) should be performed by everyone. All swimmers should be able to fully plantar flex ankles and point the toes. For the swimmer sitting on the ground with the legs straight, the swimmer should be able to be put the toes and as much of the foot on the ground as possible without turning the ankle in.

Senior swimmers specializing in breaststroke also need to work on dorsiflexion of the ankle which consists of pulling the toes up to the shin. Stretches for the calves target this ability. The greater the range of motion, the better the breaststroker will be able to catch water while kicking. Developing swimmers who have not yet specialized in a given stroke should also work on mobilizing the ankle into dorsiflexion.

In contrast to other joints, the stretching the ankle consists of stretching tendons and ligaments, not muscle. As such, the adaptive process is MUCH slower. This must be respected. If you rush the process, you will run into ankle problems. Be patient and do a small amount of work, but do it consistently. 2-3 minutes several times per week is sufficient.

Hips

Human beings should be able to achieve a full squat, as well as be relatively comfortable in this position. This signifies sufficient range of motion through the major joints of the body, particularly the hips.

Swimmers should be able to fully flex the hip as this ability can be important for tucking tightly during turns and achieving an effective starting position. Swimmers should be able to achieve hip flexion with the legs bent and straight. In the latter case, the ability to touch the toes signifies full range of hip flexion. In the former case, they should be able to tuck into a tight ball. If swimmers can achieve a full squat, they should be able to tuck into a tight ball.

As humans, swimmers should be able to perform a full squat and touch their toes without load. However, more is not better as it is a matter of sufficiency, not maximization.

Possessing full range of hip extension has three main benefits. In the first case, it allows for full use of the hip extensors during the explosive jumping actions of starting and turning. Restrictions in hip extension can limit power output. Secondly, lack of hip extension can be caused by tight hip flexors. As the hip flexors also attach the spine, they can create the problematic arch in the back that we have discussed earlier. Lastly, full ROM is important for an effective kicking action. If range of motion is limited, the knee will bend prematurely during the foot recovery to achieve the appropriate position, limiting the ability of the swimmer to kick effectively from the hip.

For breaststrokers, the ability to internal rotate the hips will affect the effectiveness of the catching action during breaststroke kicking. When stretching into internal rotation, swimmers must take care to ensure that the stress is moving through the muscles of the hip as opposed to the knee joint. This work is largely unnecessary for mature swimmers who don’t compete in breaststroke events. Age groupers should retain this range of motion to keep their competitive options open. Mobilizing the groin is also of value to ensure that these structures stay loose and supple.

Spine

Swimmers, being human, should be able to fully flex the spine. The ability to do so is demonstrated by being able to touch the toes. Some swimmers may already be able to do so, and these individuals should not aim to increase range of motion, but stabilize. Others should work towards increasing this ability over time.

Swimmers should also be able to extend the spine, particularly the thoracic spine. They should also be able to extend the lumbar spine, although this rarely needs to be addressed.

More than any other joint, swimmers will demonstrate a wide variance of spinal positions and ranges of motion. Be cautious when intervening and aim for slow changes over time. While adaptation is possible, rushing the process will only lead to problems.

Knees

Double jointed knees are advantageous in improving dolphin kick and flutter kick. HOWEVER, this mobility is largely a function of joint structure and attempts to increase mobility will be futile. Similarly, the ability to internally rotate the knee can allow for breaststroke kickers to use a larger range of motion. As with double-jointed knees, stretching the knees for breaststroke is unlikely to be effective and has the potential to create injury. In my opinion, little to no intervention should be used for the knees beyond some basic knee circles unless you REALLY know what you are doing and the risks you are taking. For what it’s worth, I stay away from the knees.

Enhancing Mobility

First, a disclaimer. When working to increase range of motion, you are stressing joints in novel ways. While stress is a good thing, excessive stress can cause problems. Appreciate that these same structures are already experiencing relatively high loads to due to swimming training.

Go slow. Think long-term. Be patient. While muscles can adapt very quickly, connective tissue can take much longer. The process should be viewed in terms of months and years, not days and weeks.

Options

Several options exist for enhancing and strengthening range of motion throughout the body. We’ll explore each option, when to use it, and the relatively merits of the tool. After we’ll take a look at some specific examples of how to apply each tool to a specific range of motion issue.

The goals of this process are to passively achieve the necessary range of motion, then be able to actively achieve the required range of motion, and finally achieve the required range of motion against load.

The first step is to acquire mobility. However, without active movement the changes aren’t going to stick or stabilize. Finally, the mobility changes must be solidified through loading.

Postural Stability

The strategies listed below will be only effective if the swimmer has achieved some level of postural stability. If the hips and rib cage are unstable, the body will find stability for the limbs somewhere. This will likely result in co-contractions about the limb joints, which create stability for movement. However, the cost of that stability is a lack of mobility. As such, if mobility is to be enhanced, there must be stability through the hips, rib cage, and torso.

Soft Tissue Interventions

Massage, foam rolling, and other related interventions can create a short-term enhancement in the range of motion of targeted tissues and joints. However, for these effects to ‘stick’, passive and active movement is required for the body to ‘learn’ how to use these new range of motions.

The effectiveness of this strategy can range from very high to very low dependent on who is facilitating the intervention. A skilled therapist can create large change. A 10-year old rolling on a foam roller will be much less effective. However, it is a tool that can be used. As mentioned above, movement is critical.

Passive Stretching

Similar to soft tissue interventions, passive stretching can be effective for allowing the tissues to relax and lengthen in the short term. As with soft tissue interventions, this can create a window where movement can be introduced more effectively. For individuals who are very tight, this can be a good starting point to reduce the ‘tone’ of the muscles and the body.

Loaded Stretching Movements

This category is a progression of passive stretching. As opposed to passively stretching at end range, we are actively stretching into end range under load. We are moving WITH gravity into end range of motion. Gravity is pulling the swimmer into position. The gravitational forces can be increased by holding a load of some type.

This teaches individuals to control the full range of motion and can enhance the safety perceived by the joint, allowing for increased range of motion over time. As importantly, the load creates adaptations in the tissues, enhancing their resilience at end range. This can help to make the more robust to exposure to potentially high load at end range.

Active Movement

Here, we are actively moving into end range of motion, moving AGAINST gravity. Mobility is characterized by the ability to active move into position. These movements should be progressively loaded to strengthen the muscles responsible for moving the limb into position. The stronger these muscles are, the more likely a swimmer will be able to achieve and utilize the desired range of motion while swimming.

Getting It Done

While we’ve discussed a lot of ideas and concepts, it all comes down to actually creating change. A comprehensive strategy using as many of the tools described above as possible works best. How does change actually happen?

The Checklist

Creating change is what’s all about. Here is a simple checklist of questions that can help coaches identify what they want to do and develop a plan to make it

  1. Identify the movement(s) do you want to target. What does the end goal look like? What do you want to be able to DO?

  2. What passive stretches can you use to achieve the desired position?

  3. What loaded movements can you use to load the desired position?

  4. What movements require the swimmer to active move into position against load?

An Example

Let’s take a practical example and assume we are working to improve shoulder flexion range of motion, which is the ability to get the arms overhead. To establish a goal, let’s consider full range of motion to be a full overhead position while standing against a wall with the entire back flat and the ribs down.

The first step is to create passive stretches. Any stretch that keeps the arm overhead will effectively enhance range of motion. Keeping the arm straight will preferentially stretch the latissimus whereas bending the arm will preferentially stretch the triceps. Both should be performed. When performing these exercises, it’s critical that the abs stay engaged and the rib cage stays down. This creates the stability that allows for mobility, ensuring mobility is coming from the right place.

Having passively stretched into position, swimmers can learn to actively control the range of motion. To effectively target the lats, perform pullovers on a bench or on the ground using a dumbbell or medicine ball. To target the triceps, they can perform any type of overhead triceps extension. In both cases, as the resistance is lowered, the swimmer is being pulled into a deeper range of motion. They must work to control that range of motion. Again, for both exercises the torso must be stabilized with the ribs down.

Finally, swimmers can perform a loaded front raise into full overhead position, with the load being determined by their ability to maintain torso stability and achieve full range of motion in the shoulder. Load can be increased over time and different exercise variations can be performed to enhance coordination and ensure total conditioning.

These exercises can be grouped into a short circuit that takes 2 minutes and is repeated twice. Performing this circuit 2-3 times per week will facilitate change over time. Importantly, the shoulders are also being conditioned by the added loads. For swimmers who already possess full range of motion, they can skip the passive stretching and focusing on creating strength through the full range of motion.

A Problem

We discussed the importance of achieving adequate range of motion in 4 primary joint systems. Within each system, there are multiple movements that need to be addressed. There is A LOT of work to do and it can be overwhelming to consider what to do.

Training is an investment and to invest wisely we need to maximize the return our investment. Sometimes we can’t do it all, so we need to do what matters most. Here are several quick ideas to help coaches create a strategy that works with their constraints.

  • Torso stability will help to unlock mobility; start here.

  • The shoulders and the ankles provide the greatest impact and performance. The large ranges of motion are required. Dedicated mobility work should prioritize these areas.

  • Range of motion in the hips and spine have less impact on performance. At the same time, less extreme ranges of motion are necessary in these joints for optimal performance. Performing exercises in warm-up that take the hips and spine through full range of motion can make a big impact on mobility while effectively preparing for training. In addition, most ‘training exercises’ can be altered to move the hips and spine through a large range of motion.

  • If there is an obvious performance limitation, it needs to be specifically addressed regardless of where that limitation presents itself. An awareness of what you’re looking for can help you identify problems.

  • It doesn’t have to take much time. A small investment done consistently compounds over time.

Conclusion

Great swimmers are characterized by abnormal ranges of motions, and healthy swimmers are characterized by control of these ranges of motion. Opportunities for effective swimming technique are dictated by the positions swimmers can achieve. As coaches, we can influence these opportunities by addressing mobility issues over time. To do so, we must have a clear vision of what is possible and couple that vision with a strategy to effectively create change.

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