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The Shoulder: What every swimmer/coach should know – Scapular Rotation

October 22, 2011

Scapular downward rotation and depression syndromes

What is scapular rotation? It’s what gives the shoulder the ability to flex and laterally abduct all the way overhead.  This motion doesn’t occur just at one joint. It’s a combination of the sterno clavicular joint ( sternum and collar bone), gleno humeral (arm and shoulder blade) and the scapulo thoracic joints ( shoulderblade and ribs). Together these joints allow the arm to be raised 180 degrees overhead into a vertical position. This is accomplished through 60 degrees of upward rotation at the scapula  and 120 degrees at the humerus. 


Lack of scapular upward rotation can decrease the space inside of the gleno humeral joint as the arm attempts to elevate overhead. Just imagine in the video above what would happen if the scapula didn’t rotate up or stopped prematurely as the arm continued to raise. The shoulder would likely impinge on the bony features above it.  The muscles that attach to and influence the shoulder blade must all work synchronously to facilitate the upward rotation. Some muscles will need to contract while other must relax, a situation that is dependent upon muscle stiffness and length. 

Resisted Pulling


Scapular Downward Rotation Syndrome occurs when certain muscles are stiffer, longer ,or more active; limiting the ease of Upward Rotation. Another syndrome to consider is Scapular Depression, where the shoulder blade sits too low.  In swimming the muscles contributing to downward rotation as well as depression, receive more neuromuscular recruitment demands than their upwardly rotating and elevating counterparts. This increase in neural drive can create relative stiffness in the muscles. 



With each swim cycle, the pull is resisted by water while the recovery and entry is relatively less resisted. During each pull the scapula downwardly rotates and depresses. These highly active pulling muscles include: the latissimus dorsi, pectorals, teres major, and the rhomboids.  Just think: with of all the power towers, buckets, paddles, vasa trainers, and pull ups; a swimmer is favoring some muscles more than others.   The antagonistic and often times weaker muscles responsible for over head upward rotation and elevation include: the upper trapezius, serratus anterior, and the lower trapezius. Because the latissimus dorsi (lats) can be so concentrically dominant in a swimmer, this often leaves the upper trapezius with  relative increased length and weakness. 

Upper trap helps accomplish upward rotation


Scapular elevation is another important movement to appreciate. It occurs during all of the swimming strokes.  With breastroke and butterfly it’s easy to see the shoulders elevating. Notice the forward head position.  The levator scapulae muscle that we discussed earlier is certainly active.   Because the lavator scapulae can elevate and and also downward rotate the shoulder blade, it can work with and against an athlete. If the levator scapulae becomes too stiff, it can impair upward rotation when raising the arm overhead.  Jong-Hyuck Weon et al concluded that forward head posture limited serratus anterior muscle activity with shoulder flexion.  What does the serratus anterior aid in? Yup, upward rotation. 


Athletes presenting with either apical breathing, forward head posture, or stiff lavater scapulae muscles may find that the traditional shrug only make matters worse. The traditional shrug heavily recruits the levator scapulae muscle which can feed the imbalance that impairs upward scapular rotation. 


Because upward rotation and elevation are an essential part of every swimming stroke, it’s important to keep the length tension relationships of the aforementioned muscles in balance. Shrugging ( scapular elevation) is an integral part of freestyle and backstroke. The almighty high elbow catch is accomplished via scapular elevation. It is important for a swimmer to be able to control scapular positioning over a wide range of motions, elevation included. 


One can use a resisted overhead shrugging pattern to accomplish balance between the downward and upward rotators.   When an athlete performs the overhead shrug, we create scapular elevation after achieving  uppward rotation.  The  levator scapulae is less active in the overhead position which allows the upper trapezious to be effectively strengthend as an upward rotator. The scapular elevation in return can offset the latitimus dominance that every swimmer presents with. 

The overhead shrug 


For more information regarding either scapular downward rotation or depression sydromes, refer to the book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, by Shirley Sahrmann.  A big Thank You goes out to Physical Therapist, Eric Schoenberg- of Momentum PT, for his help in developing this topic.

From → Shoulder

  1. Cam permalink

    Great article, I”ll try out the exercise at the bottom this week. Thanks for putting this out there.

  2. Great stuff, Tad! Going to try the overhead shrugs with our swimmers…thank you!

  3. Tad-

    Thanks for this great article. This blog is well thought out and clearly written. It gives some very useful information on a very difficult topic: the delicate balance of mobility and stability in the swimmer’s shoulder. Great job!

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