Shoulder Strengthening Exercises for Triathletes

Shoulder Strengthening Exercises for Triathletes

Between the swim and bike, triathletes ask a lot of their shoulders, which can often lead to injury. Here’s why strengthening your shoulders will help prevent injury and improve performance — sample exercises included.

The shoulder is the only joint in the body that’s solely stabilized by muscles and is therefore your body’s most mobile joint; but freedom of movement often comes at the expense of stability. The shoulder is extremely fragile to pain and injury and needs particular attention when it comes to extreme overuse, as is the case for swimmers and triathletes. 

Causes for Shoulder Injury

A 2012 review of competitive swimmer injuries found that the main cause of these injuries is muscle fatigue of the rotator cuff, upper back, and pectoral muscles. Due to repetitive movement and destabilization of the humeral head (i.e., the ball at the top of your upper arm bone that fits into your shoulder socket), microtrauma at the shoulder ensues.

In addition to swimming-related injuries, triathletes must also consider how cycling may affect their bodies. The triathlon specific position on the bike — narrow arms, internally rotated shoulders, head back, and chin low — puts strain on your cervical spine and shoulder girdle, which can cause severe pain. 

It all comes down to stabilizing the humerus within the glenoid cavity (i.e., your upper arm bone within your shoulder socket) during all movements, simultaneously enabling your rotator cuff muscles to work so that they glide smoothly and freely. That can only be achieved by learning the perfect technique for your individual shoulder constitution and, most importantly, by strengthening the muscles in that area. 

Shoulder Strengthening

Below is a sample strengthening program that aims to stabilize and strengthen the shoulder muscles and surrounding tissue in order to prevent injury and increase performance. The program can be performed as one block or split, depending on the rest of your training program. 

ExerciseEquipmentSetsRepsWeightWRR
Half Kneeling Rope PulldownRope31250% 1RM1:1
Cuban PressResistance Band312Resistance Band Force1:1
Military PressBarbell4660% of 50% 1RM Bench 1:3
Barbell RowBarbell66-4-26-4-270-72.5-75% 1RM1:5
Barbell Bench PressBarbell66-4-26-4-270-72.5-75% 1RM1:5
JM Dumbbell PressDumbbell31265% 1RM1:3
1RM: one repetition maximum (i.e., the heaviest weight you can lift for one repetition)
WRR: work-to-rest ratio

It’s important to note that this plan is only suitable for experienced, healthy adult athletes. Sets, reps, weight, and the work-to-rest ratio should ideally be set by your coach according to your fitness and race calendar. But no matter how you modify these exercises, the important thing is to focus on proper technique and to maintain a neutral spine. With a neutral spine (i.e., maintaining a natural curve), you’re perfectly balanced and able to pull and push weight without causing unhealthy stress on tissue like vertebrae. Further, your shoulder joint muscles can move freely.

Shoulder Mobility

Mobility, flexibility, and strength are the three pillars of any healthy athlete. No muscle can ever work to its full range if the corresponding joints aren’t mobile. Below are examples of mobility exercises that target your shoulders, shoulder blades, and thoracic spine for improved range of motion. You can also use run or swim warm-ups for a decent mobility session if time is scarce. Remember to perform all exercises with your full range of motion.

ExerciseEquipmentSetsRepsWRR
Quadruped Thoracic RotationNone2101:0
Scorpion StretchNone2101:0
Alternating Deep Squat Thoracic Rotation None2101:0
Thoracic Spine Mobility with Foam RollerFoam Roller2101:0
Shoulder Elevation & Depression (up and down)* None2101:0
Shoulder Protraction and Retraction (forward and backward)*None2101:0
External Rotation (Video Exercise 1)Resistance Band2101:1
Internal Rotation Resistance Band2101:1
Horizontal Adduction (Video Exercise 2)Resistance Band310”1:1
Cheerleader (Video Exercise 3)Resistance Band310”1:1
1RM: one repetition maximum (i.e., the heaviest weight you can lift for one repetition)
WRR: work-to-rest ratio

*Perform with your arms fully stretched out in front, palms facing toward each other

Conclusions

Pain is a good indicator that your movement patterns should be reviewed by a strength and conditioning coach or physiotherapist in the pool and in the gym. Seemingly small hindrances, like a wetsuit that doesn’t fit right, can make a big difference when it comes to movement errors. It can be a tremendous help to send your coach videos of your workouts to identify weak spots. 

Remember that every single repetition, no matter if you’re performing a forward bend barbell row or a crawl stroke, should be as close to your perfect movement as possible. By incorporating these strength training exercises into your training plan — especially in the off-season — you can spare yourself pain and injury while boosting your performance.

References

Elitefts. (2020, November 4). The Official JM Press Tutorial. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOCW9cE-GJg 

Jordan Syatt. (2016, May 31). Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Lat Pull Down Technique Video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWvqEaT6Ohc 

Joshrenkens. (2010, May 12). Thoracic Spine Mobilizations with Foam Roller. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxQkVD0UQNg 

Livestrong.com. (2009, July 1). How to Do a Barbell Bench Press. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUjh50tLlBo 

Livestrong.com. (2009, July 1). How to Do Military Press. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waeCyaAQRn8 

Men’s Health. (2016, October 13). The Cuban Press. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQJoK0a3h44 

Nike. (2020, March 27). The Bent-Over Barbell Row at Home with Betina Gozo. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKFeB7ST830 

OrthoIndy Northwest. (2015, May 28). Shoulder Internal Rotation With Resistance. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2jLyCw4Ulg 

Realjockdotcom. (2008, April 24). Scorpion Stretch. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSLDV4N5Gl4 

Squat University. (2020, June 25). Quick Shoulder Warm Up (3 Minutes). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztQRlsR44M8 

The Active Life. (2016, November 30). Performance Care – Alternating Squat Thoracic Rotation – Movement Demo. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4IdAUSHJUU 

Vive Health. (2020, January 3). Quadruped Thoracic Rotation for Spine Mobility. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzCghjjWt5k 

Wanivenhaus, F. et al. (2012, May). Epidemiology of Injuries and Prevention Strategies in Competitive Swimmers. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3435931/ 

Katharina Steppan

Katharina Steppan is USAT Certified Coach, Swim Coach and a TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified Coach, as well as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). She is the founder of USC Austria and works as an American Football Strength & Conditioning Coach. Coaching is her absolute passion. Katharina provides a holistic approach to all her training plans for runners, swimmers, and triathletes. Taking her athlete’s entire life, training history, goals, and dreams into account and structuring a proper athletic training to boost performance and prevent injuries are the success factors for her athletes. Follow Coach Katharina on Instagram.